The History of Prop Money in Movies

Have you ever wondered about those film scenes where huge amounts of cash get blown up or blown around? Some of those scenes involve hundreds of thousands of bills: prop money for movies that has to look real while not being so real that it violates any federal counterfeit laws. Custom fake bills are important film props. Here’s how all this came about.

The First Prop Money For Movies

The first time that money showed up in a film was 1895. That date might seem hard to believe, but that was when Thomas Edison made his first kinetoscope film. In the bit, some men wager on a cock fight. Real money changed hands for that one.

The next time money showed up in a film was in the 1903 silent film The Great Train Robber and, again, real money was used.

A Screeching Halt

In a plot line worthy of Hollywood, the United States government eventually made laws banning the use of real money in any kind of photography—including film. The reason for this was the rise in counterfeiting: the government didn’t want people using the pictures to make quality counterfeit bills.

The First Prop Money For Movies

After the Mexican Revolution ended in 1920, there was a ton of completely worthless currency left over from the old regime. The movie industry grabbed it up and started using it in all their films; no matter what type of currency the film actually called for.

Eventually they started running out of these real, but worthless Mexican bills. When that happened, Hollywood started making replicas of the old currency they’d been using. These were the first fake money for films. The industry kept using these Mexican currency replicas until the 60s.

Something Better

As the movie industry matured, everyone grew dissatisfied with using replicas of Mexican money that hadn’t been used in decades as a stand-in for American bills. A great number of prop masters went to work trying to make convincing replicas of American bills.

The Law

Prop money for movies has one big problem: it can’t be too perfect. Money makers for movies have gotten in trouble before—and lost a lot of money—by running afoul of counterfeiting laws.

According to federal law, any reproduction of American currency must be either 150% larger or less than 75% real currency. It can also only be printed on one side, and it can only be printed using one color.

Using Real Money

Today, it’s actually possible to use real money in film once again. Of course this isn’t usually what movie makers want: it’s too big a risk to have real money floating around the set; particularly if you’re using a lot of it. So there are some pretty interesting tricks they can use to get the most “bang for their buck,” so to speak.

One way to use real money effectively is to make stacks of blank paper and then top them with a real bill. Sometimes movie makers will also use real bills when they have to do extreme close up shots where it would be easy to spot a fake. In that case, money is usually loaned from a bank and guarded the whole time it’s being filmed. You might also see real money; only from a different era in American history.

There’s always going to be a need for quality custom fake money in the movie industry; and also a need to protect America’s money from counterfeiters. Thankfully, prop makers are on the job.

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