Over the winter break we managed to check a couple of items off our list of places around the DC area we still have yet to visit (yes, we have a list, and a fairly lengthy one, at that). One of them was the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where visitors can take free tours to learn about and see the money-making process firsthand.
It took us awhile to get there for a few reasons: 1) It seemed best for kids old enough to have an understanding of money and how it works, 2) Tours are only offered on weekdays, when kids old enough to understand are usually in school, and 3) We deemed this an “Owen” activity, so we had to wait until I had a day to spend with just him.
The stars aligned over the winter break, as Sasha’s school was back in session earlier, so Owen and I made plans to take the money tour. Since you can’t make a reservation unless you have a large group, we just went to the Bureau’s Visitor Center located at 14th & C Streets SW and hoped for the best. We were lucky and arrived to a very short line outside — at this time of year, tours are offered every 15 minutes from 9-10:45am and 12:30-2pm — and waited about 10 minutes for someone to direct us through a metal detector then into the tour gallery area, where we waited for our tour to begin.
Many displays about the history of money and early money printing equipment are on display in that area, so we checked them out during the 15-minute wait. We saw how the engraving process works, machines that folded money to test its endurance, panels with information about the earliest forms of currency and other facts about money’s history, and a glass enclosed case of one million dollars stacked in ten-dollar notes.
Our tour began with a five-minute video offering an overview of the money printing process. From there, our guide took over, and our group of about 40 people lined up and followed her down an escalator to see the presses at work. There are four phases of the money printing process, and you can view them all through windows on either side of two long hallways. First the printers add background color to the paper, which is comprised of 25% linen and 75% cotton. Then the green and black ink is pressed into the notes and the seals are added. Then it goes through an inspection phase, given serial numbers, and divided up into individual notes. Most of the presses were in operation at the time, so we could see the machinery at work, a highlight for many kids on the tour. It really is pretty fascinating to see, especially when you think about just how much money is right there in a stack — thousands and thousands of dollars.
We learned a few neat facts while on the tour, like they also print official White House invitations; they only print notes, all coins are made at U.S. mints; the one hundred dollar bill is the largest amount in circulation, but that used to be the one hundred thousand dollar note and featured President Woodrow Wilson. I also asked and found out that there are actually five levels of money printing facilities in the DC location (there is one other location in Fort Worth, TX), but the tour just takes you through one level, though you do see the whole process.
Photography is not allowed in the printing press area, so unfortunately I can’t offer a glimpse of that part of the tour. You’ll just to go see for yourself!
The whole tour, video included, takes about 35 minutes. It ends at the gift shop, where you can view a few more displays about money and pick up some souvenirs. Yep, they are keeping the money circulating!
If you go:
- If you take Metro, the Smithsonian station on Blue/Orange is the closest stop.
- There is street parking nearby, but most is only for one hour. That might not be enough time if you have a long wait for a tour.
- I recommend this for about ages 5 and up, though it does depend on the kid. Younger children will probably dig watching the presses at work, but won’t be able to follow along the explanation of the process. Plus, they might get antsy if there are long waits.
- While we barely had a wait, I have heard and read that it can be long — up to two hours. And since tours are first come, first served, you might want to have a back-up plan just in case the wait is too long or the tours are all full.
- The schedule changes during peak season: From March – August, tours operations run every 15 minutes from 9am – 3:45pm, then 5-6pm.
- All tours are FREE.