The History of Prop Money

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The History of Prop Money

By now you all know that destroying national currency is illegal and can get you into serious trouble. You probably also know that to keep yourself out of trouble when trying to create an excellent money scene (like the one where Joker is burning piles of cash in “The Dark Night”), prop money is the go-to prop.

However, that is not the reason motion picture money came to be. Prop money history dates back to the civil war when counterfeiting was a big problem and laws to fight fake money hurt the movie industry. It seemed no matter which way you turned, and someone was going to be disappointed.

Thankfully throughout the last century, rules have loosened up on how producers can film money and how manufacturers can make it. The story is pretty impressive too.

Prop Money and the Civil War
Research has estimated that one-third of the US currency was counterfeit during the Civil War era. As you can imagine, that became a massive problem for the economy, and thus, the Secret Service was born in 1865.

As the war dragged on, the Secret Services’ sole duty was to crack down on the fake money surge. By the time the war had ended, rules were set to make filming real money illegal. These rules forced filmmakers to look for anything else that would pass as cash on the big screen.

Quick Fix
A quick solution to the newly enforced film laws was for filmmakers to use old Mexican currency no longer in use after the Mexican Revolution. Unfortunately, that didn’t last very long, and the money faded quickly, putting the film industry in a tough spot yet again.

Production companies started to make-do by replicating the Mexican currency, giving them something to create their scenes that involved any cash. It was something, but it wasn’t good movie money by any means.

The end of the 1900s
Thankfully, around 1960, after almost 50 years of filming movies with cash, that didn’t fit the part. The Secret Services started loosening the reigns a little with prop money creation.

By this time, counterfeit cash was much more under control, and prop makers got the green light to start making real looking prop money again. Although the industry was allowed to start creating and using fake money, they still had to abide by the government’s stipulations and standards. This is now known as the Counterfit Detection Act of 1992.

Counterfeit Detection Act of 1992
In the Counterfeit Detection Act, the rules are clearly laid out for all fake money makers in production to follow in order to replicate US currency legally. These rules are set to make sure that the past never repeated itself.

It seems to have worked too. Although the exact amount of counterfeit currency that enters the economy fluctuates from year to year, the average amount is only a fraction of what it had been during its peak.

Rules Regarding Prop Money
The rules regarding the creation of prop money that looks real are relatively simple and more than manageable. If a bill is designed to look almost identical to real currency, it can only be printed on one side. Motion picture money must be a little smaller or larger than the real deal and all bills created must have matching serial numbers. They also must state somewhere “not for legal tender” or something similar.

These rules will help stop movie money from getting into the wrong hands and help anyone handling the cash to easily identify that it’s not real.

After the production of any product is completed, by law, the prop companies must destroy everything used when they were creating and designing their bill. Again, this is to keep it from falling into the wrong hand and used with malicious intent.

Technological Impact
As technology improved, so did the production of props. Prop companies first created their cash to look legit in a black and white television show or movie. As colored television sets became more affordable to the average American family, the more detailed the fake bills became.

Although it wasn’t the best at first, movie money was starting to make a big impact in the movie-making industry and inspired companies to become more creative. Changing things on the bill to make it noticeable up close, but no one could tell the difference at a distance.

Then came better coloring, a more realistic feel as the actors handled it, and up-close fake currency that wouldn’t make the viewer second guess its authenticity.

Technological Hindrance
There has been an increase in counterfeit cash making its way past a business and to the banks. This is thanks to the improvement of technology, how easy it is to access, and the increased lengths criminals are willing to go.

Things to Remember
You may think the fake prop money industry doesn’t affect you or impact your life in any way. However, it helps the movie industry create phenomenal entertainment for us, increasing access to better talent and bigger props by saving on all their money scenes.

It can also start to impact our wallets if counterfeiting were ever to become as big of a deal as it once was. This illegal use of prop money can, and have, destroyed innocent businesses and has cost production sets thousands of dollars.

The prop money has grown tremendously through the years, making films easier and cheaper to produce, and much more authentic and enjoyable for the audience to watch.

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