Perkins Printing and Engraving Plant
In the early 19th century, the Perkins Printing and Engraving Plant produced paper currency for the state of Massachusetts. Using printing technology invented by Jacob Perkins of Newburyport, the facility produced paper currency that was nearly impossible to counterfeit, a difficult feat in the early 1800s.
Jacob Perkins (1766-1849) was a prolific American inventor, born and raised in Newburyport. Perkins’ inventions are numerous and diverse, including a bilge pump, nail press, steam engine, leather polisher, and steel engraving plates.
Perkins’ steel engraving plates replaced copper ones that had previously been used to print currency. Because of copper’s characteristic pliability, plates made from this material wore out quickly and lacked uniformity, making counterfeiting relatively easy.
Jacob Perkins developed a printing method that used multiple small steel engravings that were interlocked precisely as a single plate. Each bank note printed using this method might require up to 64 dies, each one carrying an elaborate motif that was part of the total design. Because of steel’s durability, this process yielded plates that could print uniform bills in large quantities.
Early in 1808, Jacob Perkins had induced his brother, Abraham, to join him in his engraving and printing business. By mortgaging his home to his brother, Jacob was able to raise the necessary funds to build a three-story brick engraving plant at the end of the garden behind his Fruit Street home.
In 1809, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a Special Act forcing all paper money in the state to be printed by Jacob Perkins’ stereotype steel plates. This was an effort both to prevent counterfeiting as well as to promote more uniformity in the design of bank bills.
The engraving plant was in full operation under the careful supervision of his brother Abraham while Jacob turned his attention to other inventive interests. For the next 23 years, it was here on Fruit Street in Newburyport where Massachusetts currency was engraved and most of it was printed.
Locally referred to as “The Mint”, the Museum of Old Newbury acquired the Perkins Printing and Engraving Plant in 2008. The purchase of this important historic site was made possible by a single gift from The Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank. Restoration costs were partially funded through a grant from the Newburyport Community Preservation Committee.
Restoration work on the Mint is ongoing, and the building is currently open to the public only for special events and programs. When restoration is completed, the building will serve as additional museum space for exhibits and programs.