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Marking Pennsylvania History

Nature as Currency

Birds, beasts and blossoms fascinated the region's earliest settlers. Amazed letters home to England and Europe told of the strange and wonderful variety of whatever was growing. Even a novice could farm this rich soil, it seemed, and waves of naive immigrants were inspired to come and put the New World environment to the test.

Some farmed when they arrived; others worked in city shops. One of the latter, ink-maker Joseph Breintnall ambled the woods collecting and identifying leaves when he wasn't concocting inks. Benjamin Franklin described Breintnall as "very ingenious in many nicknackeries" and the two were colleagues in Franklin's workingman's think tank, the Junto.

Franklin preferred Breintnall's inks for his bread and butter legal form business. And little did he know it at the time he was first shown Breintnall's leaf prints of the 1730s and 1740s, Franklin would be able to make use of the technique. When he needed to counterfeit-proof paper currency, Franklin adapted Breintnall's technique for a uniquely American kind of printed money. Both Breintnall's collection of leaf prints and examples of Franklin's leaf-print currency can be found at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

More than 280 years later, the woods of Eastern Pennsylvania are nearly depleted. In order to appreciate the lush and once-dominant landscape, we must travel to protected sites such as the Honey Hollow in Bucks County. But just as those who wrote home in the 17th century about the wonders of the land, the effort is well worth the trip.

- Kenneth FInkel, Executive Director of WHYY's Arts & Culture Service

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