James M. Willcox Jr.'s Fight Against Congress for Freedom of Print

When currency counterfeiting plagued the U.S. government, the Concord papermaker stepped in. When Congress got nosy, he bowed out.

CA Rainbow note made with paper from the Willcox mill. ongress isn’t good with secrets. That’s what James M. Willcox Jr., owner of a Concord paper mill, concluded in 1879 when a government committee asked to see his books.

Willcox’s mill, founded by his great-grandfather in 1729, had made paper for U.S. currency since the Revolution. Willcox himself had invented a special paper to foil counterfeiters in 1865. But sloppy government security had soon compromised his product.

So Willcox turned away the committee and lost the contract, which was awarded to a politically connected competitor in Massachusetts. “What happened to the bidding on this contract is one of the more sordid chapters in the history of the Treasury Department,” according to historian Robert McCabe, author of A Nation of Counterfeiters.

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Born at the miller’s house in Glen Mills, Willcox was part of one of the region’s earliest Roman Catholic families. The patriarch, Thomas Willcox of Devonshire, England, had converted to his wife’s religion when he married Elizabeth Cole in 1727.

Later, the couple’s home in Concord was the first place in Pennsylvania at which the Catholic Mass was publicly said—by priests who came north from Maryland. Mass was forbidden in England and all of its other colonies. The tolerance experienced in Concord provided assurance to the tiny Catholic community that William Penn’s guarantee of religious liberty was to be taken seriously.

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Thomas Willcox had learned papermaking before coming to America. In 1729, he founded a paper mill, which he named Ivy Mills, after a sprig of English ivy brought from England. The initial product was pressboard (stiff cardboard), which was exported back to England for use by weavers. The plant was modernized around 1760, with the construction on Chester Creek of an engine house with a waterwheel and a “Hollander”—a machine that beat rags into pulp.

Thereafter, the mill mostly manufactured printing paper—some of which was used for Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. “Franklin became a close friend of Willcox and much interested in his undertaking,” wrote Lyman H. Weeks in Papermaking in the United States.

Beginning in 1775, the mill shifted almost entirely to providing paper for the Continental Congress. During the Revolution, when Congress began issuing paper money, it was printed on Willcox paper. Congress issued more than $241 million during the war. Unfortunately, the money depreciated badly—partly because Congress and the states had conflicting monetary policies, and partly because the British flooded the country with counterfeit bills.

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“The artists they employed performed so well,” Franklin later said, “that immense quantities of these counterfeits were circulated among the inhabitants of all the states before the fraud was detected. This operated significantly in depreciating the whole mass.”

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Things got so bad that Americans of that generation used the phrase “not worth a Continental” to describe something utterly worthless. After the war, the country went back to hard money (coins). But paper would appear again during the War of 1812, and permanently during the Civil War. Counterfeiting, too, would return.

Meanwhile, Ivy Mills was passed from founder Thomas Willcox to his son, Mark, in 1779, to his grandson, James, in 1827 and to James Jr. in 1854. Known for making the purest white linen banknote paper, Ivy Mills opened a warehouse in  Philadelphia in the early 19th Century, selling paper in a variety of sizes and weights. It also remained in good standing with the U.S. government, which again contracted with the Willcoxes for currency paper when Washington needed to finance the War of 1812.

James Willcox Jr. attended the private Bolmar Academy in West Chester, then studied at Georgetown College in Washington, D.C. He considered medicine, but instead spent three years abroad, mostly in Rome, studying higher mathematics, philosophy and European languages. In 1847, he received his doctorate directly from Pope Pius IX.

Back home at the mill, “Dr.” Willcox used his scientific knowledge to—as an 1890 biographical sketch phrased it—“completely change the character of the business, which he raised out of the time-honored grooves in which it had been
running and placed on a scientific basis.”

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Willcox developed new varieties of paper and was the first to use machinery to produce bank-note paper. Before the Civil War, this was used mainly by state-chartered banks. With minimum regulation, as many as 1,600 local state-
chartered, private banks issued their own paper money. The notes—of which there were more than 30,000 in myriad colors and designs—were easily counterfeited. By one estimate, more than a third of all currency in circulation was fake. Bank failures caused additional confusion and circulation problems.

Beginning in 1861, when the Union government’s Civil War expenses far outstripped its revenue, Washington issued nearly $450 million worth of “greenbacks”—so called because they were printed with a patented green ink designed to foil efforts to copy them by photography. It didn’t work.

One official response, in 1865, was the creation of the U.S. Secret Service to pursue and stop forgers. Another, in 1869, was a complete redesign of the currency.The government’s new “Rainbow” notes featured a repetitive green underprint on the four smallest bills; red Treasury Department seals; and either blue or bright-red serial numbers. Perhaps most distinctive was a blue anti-counterfeiting “stain” on all denominations. The stained paper was invented by Willcox.

Introduced in 1869, the Rainbow notes were effective for a while. In August 1871, H.C. Whitley, chief of the U.S. Secret Service, bragged in a letter to the New York Times that “there have been no counterfeits whatever of United States notes, which are printed on the new fiber paper.”

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Whitley was lying. The Secret Service was already on the trail of one Thomas Ballard, a former Treasury engraver who was arrested that October in possession of a fake $1,000-bill engraving plate, 150 pounds of Willcox paper and a vat of paper pulp. Somehow, Ballard had figured out how the paper was made. According to investigators, Ballard, his four brothers, an aunt and others had been running a counterfeiting ring for 10 years.

With counterfeit Rainbows in circulation, Congress demanded an explanation. At an 1873 hearing, a Bureau of Engraving & Printing official testified to the virtues of localized fiber paper, and its use was continued and expanded.

But other papermakers were jealous of Willcox’s exclusive franchise, and they may have whispered into influential ears that they could provide paper for less. A Senate fact-finding committee visited Glen Mills in 1873. The group found nothing amiss. It did, however, complain a bit about Willcox’s prices.

Summoned in 1874 to testify on the ongoing counterfeiting problem, Willcox told a House committee that he’d never claimed his paper was foolproof, only “that it furnished one of the best methods of protection in combination with other safeguards of engraving, etc.”

Asked to explain how the paper was made, Willcox declined. He also showed the committee letters received by an Ivy Mills foreman from the president of a competing paper company, trying to bribe the man to reveal how the paper was made. A subsequent House resolution compelled release of the information. “A short time after that, the fiber was imitated and an attempt to counterfeit the paper was made,” Willcox later said.

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Ivy Mills continued supplying the government with paper on and off for the next several years. In 1879, officials contacted Willcox about ordering more. The condition: He must open his books to government auditors to determine what a “just and equitable price” would be.

Willcox refused. The contract was put out for bid. It went to the Crane Paper Co., owned by Winthrop M. Crane, a Massachusetts Republican who served as both that state’s governor and, later, a U.S. senator. Crane is still the primary supplier of paper for U.S. currency.

Perhaps Willcox no longer considered federal business worth the hassle. He had a new client. In 1878, Ivy Mills signed an agreement with the German government to produce its currency paper.

Also that year, Willcox paper was exhibited at the Paris Exposition, where it received the highest award. He might’ve reasonably expected more business from other European countries—countries beyond the reach of Congress.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.
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