Joseph Breintnall: Leaves Turned to Green

How Ben Franklin and an amateur botanist used art to fight off forgery.

Poetry, art, and innovation abounded in early 18th century Philadelphia, earning the city the nickname "the Athens of America."

Kenneth Finkel: Philadelphia was this emerging center of creativity, a place where literature, and poetry, and history, and talent are cared about.

At the forefront of this was founding father Benjamin Franklin, though not yet the world-renowned author, inventor, and diplomat he would become. Michael Barsanti, director of the Library Company, which was started by Franklin in 1731, compares him to a proto-Steve Jobs.

Michael Barsanti: What Franklin excelled at was in identifying useful ideas—not always coming up with them out of his own genius, but rather was able to take ideas that were lying around and be able to package them, present them in ways that then both had a strong, marketable component, but also helped to benefit society at large.

Finkel: He would look at something that someone else had done and say, "I can do better than that. I can connect that more directly. I could make more of that."

Franklin was influenced by his friend and business partner, Joseph Breintnall, a typesetter and amateur naturalist, whose obsession was discovering new plant species.

Barsanti: Both Franklin and Breintnall participated in that kind of founding moment of people sharing their discovery, sharing their science.

And in order to share his botanical discoveries with his friend Peter Collinson at the Royal Academy in London, Breintnall began making prints of the leaves he had collected. Today, they are visually striking windows into the past.

Barsanti: And the prints, when you look at them, the detail of them, and the visual quality of them is arresting. And then, when you begin to think about these living leaves from 1730, 1740, that these were leaves that Breintnall picked off a tree or found on the ground at some point in 1740—so, you know, hundreds of years ago—and yet their life is captured in this bit of ink.

Finkel: When you look at them, you get closer to not only them, but the moments in which they were inked and put under weight. It feels so real.

Barsanti: It's like an early form of photograph. It's a moment captured in time. And the life of those leaves, as it's preserved there, really resonates.

Breintnall and Franklin soon introduced Collinson to the Philadelphia botanist and horticulturalist, John Bartram. The foursome quickly developed a business shipping unique American seeds and saplings to British connoisseurs, and, in turn, receiving books about botany from London.

Barsanti: You have the dreamer component of Breintnall. You have the ingenuity of Franklin. You have the knowledge and connections of Collinson. And, over here, you also have Bartram, who has his own passion for distributing and making known to the world the unique plant legacy, or the neat sort of ecological world, that he sees in Philadelphia.

In 1729, Ben Franklin won a contract to print Pennsylvania's first paper money. He adorned the currency with Breintnall's leaf prints, but not just for their aesthetic.

Barsanti: Franklin takes his friend's idea and uses it, literally monetizes it, says, "You know what you can do with that? You can make that into an anti-counterfeiting tool, that we can use in printing Pennsylvania's currency." And you look at the currency that that produces, it also is beautiful.

Finkel: Breintnall was certainly making some money. Franklin made more money printing money than he did printing books. He recognized that there were contracts to be had with different colonies, and he got them.

Barsanti: It wasn't just that Franklin came up with this idea for making good paper money—it's that Franklin was a very strong advocate for the whole idea of paper money, which was, in and itself, an innovation in the colonies that was somewhat speculative, but also helped to fuel tremendous economic growth.

These are some of the earliest examples of a nation's currency becoming representative of the culture in which it was created. The irony in all of this is that the most counterfeited bank note of all time is the one that bears Benjamin Franklin's likeness.