While Richard humorously mentioned at the end of our May meeting that I would be presenting this talk and that “John was just a boy at the time this mint was active”, the truth is more that I was just a boy at the time that I became fascinated with the historical times and interesting products of the first U.S. Mint. I’ve been appreciating this period of 1790-1830 in our nation’s history and working on a type set of coins since my grandmother started me in the hobby at Christmas 1956.
The first U.S. Mint was built in Philadelphia in 1792.A look at this historic facility needs to begin with a brief overview of the young United States in the early 1790’s.It is interesting to note the mix of money in circulation at that distant time.I will also outline the establishment of the First Mint, examine some of its key personnel, and discuss working conditions.
The record of the First Mint is also a record of the advancing industrialization of America. During the three-decade life of the First Mint, average monthly coin production was multiplied many times over,generally via technology improvements and not by additional labor input.A key development was the introduction of “close collar” striking, which was progressively introduced in the second half of the 1820’s.
The end of the First Mint came naturally as coinage demand in the rapidly growing US simply outgrew the capacity of the initial site.The Second Mint, also in Philadelphia ,had provision for steam-powered coinage and was much more efficient than the First Mint.Collectors say that its products lack much of the individual attributes and charm that are so much a part of the products of the First Mint.
The United States in the Early 1790’s
Following our young nation’s decade-long experiment (largely failed) with the Articles of Confederation, a new Constitution was drafted and approved by the several states.The constitution allowed much stronger Federal powers than were present in the states-centric Articles of Confederation.George Washington was inaugurated as the first President in 1789 and the country’s population stood at about four million people by 1790.
The coins circulating in the U.S. in 1792 were described as despicable and unworkable by the country’s leaders.The coins in use were very diverse in origin and included Spanish Colonial silver, pre-Federal copper coins issued by the states, private issues in both silver and copper, and some counterfeit British coppers.Of course, the U.S. had many world trading partners and the coins of these countries freely circulated also.
Eager to establish the credibility of the United States , Thomas Jefferson wrote passionately that “an issue of coin is a prime indicator of the emergence of a sovereign power.”He was anxious to establish facilities for a national mint.
First Coinage Laws and Establishment of the Mint
The 1792 Mint Act provided for a decimal system, with coins in ten denominations from half cent in copper through ten dollars in gold(no paper currency). But before any coins could be struck, land or land and buildings had to be acquired, machinery for the refining of metals, production of planchets, and striking of coins had to be purchased or built, coin designs had to be created, and coin dies had to be prepared.All these things happened remarkably fast in the second half of 1792.
Four plots of ground were acquired in what is now downtown Philadelphia . One existing building (a distillery) was demolished and four new buildings, three brick and one wooden, were erected on the property.This was at a time when there were no environmental impact statements to be filed and approved by multiple governing bodies.It is likely that no formal architectural drawings were created until decades after the buildings were built.
While President Washington mentioned the “small beginning of coinage” in his inaugural address for his second term in early 1793, referring to the half dismes of 1792, those coins were struck using temporary facilities in the basement of John Harper’s saw shop a few blocks from where the new mint was under construction.The first regular-issue coins of the new mint were the chain cents, made in the first two weeks of March, 1793.
Employees of the Mint
The first director of the Mint was David Rittenhouse, the nation’s foremost scientist, credited with inventions in optics and discoveries in astronomy. At the time of his appointment, Rittenhouse was 60 years old and in declining health.He was responsible for hiring the mint’s staff, securing bonds for key employees, and managing the bullion contracts. After a successful but relatively short tenure, Rittenhouse was succeeded by two individuals with even shorter tenures, Henry DeSausurre and Elias Boudinot. Robert Patterson was the fourth mint director and he served in this position for approximately two decades ending in the mid-1820’s.
The more often remembered employees of the Mint were the chief engravers.In the first four decades of U.S. Mint operations, individuals holding this position included John Wright, Robert Scot, John Reich, William Kneass, and Christian Gobrecht.As you may remember, Christian Gobrecht was the subject of my first presentation at the GHCC.
One of the less prestigious but first employees of the Mint was an interesting fellow named Adam Eckfeldt. Hired in 1792 as a “workman”, he was present for the striking of the first half dimes in 1792 and was given the title of“Coiner” in 1793 Eckfeldt constructed a large screw press in 1797 and is thought to have performed some die preparation and perhaps some engraving in his long career with the Mint.More importantly to numismatists, Adam Eckfeldt started what is now our national coin collection that resides in the Smithsonian Institution.
Working for the Mint became an Eckfeldt family tradition.In fact, three generations of Eckfeldts enjoyed long careers with the U.S. Mint.Adam was employed full-time until 1839 and part-time until 1844.His son, Jacob R. Eckfeldt worked for 42 years and his grandson, Jacob B. Eckfeldt, worked for 59 years.
1793 Wreath Cent
Working Conditions at the First U.S. Mint
Mint employees endured tough working conditions. Each normal work day started at 5:00 a.m. and concluded at 7:00 p.m.Employees were allowed one hour for breakfast and two hours for dinner.Saturday was a work day; however, workers were allowed to leave early at 1:30 p.m.The Mint’s employees received no paid vacation, no sick leave, and were subject to strict rules including a possible death sentence for embezzlement of bullion or coins.
Yellow fever epidemics were common in these times and the city of Philadelphia was not immune to this problem.Because of yellow fever outbreaks, the Mint’ s operations would close between two and four months every year.Besides disrupting coin production, Mint employees sometimes died as a result of yellow fever.
Ironically, it was common for the citizens of Philadelphia to leave their homes in the city and take up temporary quarters by the banks of the rivers around Philadelphia during yellow fever “season”.It was not understood that mosquitoes, which of course breed around water bodies, were responsible for the spread of the yellow fever.
Copper First, Then Silver, Finally Gold
Part of the provisions of the Mint Act of 1792 were that officials of the Mint needed to post personal bonds if they were handling silver and gold bullion or coins.Since the initial bond was to be $10,000 at a time when the coiner and the assayer positions paid less than $1000 per year,early mint employees such as Adam Eckfeldt could not make bond.There was a delay while Mint Director David Rittenhouse worked with Congress to get the bonds reduced and with private individuals (now unknown) to post the bonds.
As it was 1794 before the bonds were in place, the coinage of 1793 consisted of copper only, and a complete 1793 type set is just four coins – the half cent and the chain, wreath, and liberty cap cents.
Production Difficulties and Inadequate Funding
The early mint was chronically short of silver and gold bullion, and the terms of “free coinage” in the law guaranteed that an operating loss would be incurred.Congress was not very sympathetic.The deal was that depositors from the public could bring mixed silver coins, plate, or other sources of metal and the mint was obligated to refine it, roll it, cut planchets, strike coins, and still give back to the depositor the full weight of precious metal in his initial deposit in the form of finished coins.The manufacturing costs were to be absorbed by the mint.There was also no special inducement to bring economical-sized lots of metal to the mint.In fact, if a would-be depositor had a large quantity of silver or gold, many times he was able to sell it directly on the export market for melting in Europe and avoid an unnecessary trip to the mint.
Congress was also less than generous in funding decent equipment for the mint.All the early mint directors were protective oftheir “fragile” strip rollers and miserly in getting maximum use out of whatever die steel they could get.In the case of the half and cent coins, copper strip or ready-made planchets were acquired from outside the mint whenever possible so that the mint’s rollers could be reserved for the “more important” gold and silver.Reuse of dies, to the point of failure, was the norm all across the denominations during almost the whole existence of the First Mint. If January 1st came and a last-year die was still serviceable, it was annealed and repunched with the current year.And in many, many cases we know now that older dies (up to three years old!) were kept in service even without repunching the date of a prior year.We can tell this from the coiner’s delivery records,most of which survive in the National Archives.
Key Technological Improvements
Robert Scot, the second chief engraver at the mint, despite his shortcomings as an artist and his “very slow” work style, did contribute to productivity by championing the use of device punches for die making which showed, for example, the whole head of liberty.By having the major design element of a die on a single punch, only the stars, lettering, and date needed to be added manually to each working die.Additionally, the central design is thus standardized and appears identically on all the various working dies made from that punch.Over the years, a larger and larger part of the whole die design was carried on these punches. But “whole-design” hubbing awaited the construction of the Second Mint.
A fire at the First Mint in January 1816 led to the remodeling of the rolling mill and the coinage building. Steam-powered machinery was applied to strip rolling and, in a limited way, to planchet cutting in the rebuilt facilities.The actual steam-powered striking of coins was never a part of the First Mint’s operations.
Steam-powered strip rolling on more powerful rollers led to tighter tolerances in the planchet strip thickness.This meant that there was greater uniformity in the planchets produced from these strips and not nearly as much hand-adjustment of individual planchets was necessary to achieve the specified legal weights of the coins as was required in the pre-1816 days.So, adjustment marks are less often seen on coins from the post-1816 era as are seen on the earlier silver and gold issues.
Striking coins in a close collar permitted very precise and uniform diameters on the finished coins.Striking quality improved noticeably compared to the earlier open collar strikes.The mint realized a productivity improvement because the edge device (reeding) was applied at the moment of striking and not in a separate operation.
The Closing of The First Mint
By 1830,the First Mint was simply too small and its equipment was worn out.Congress was then spending for more funds on Federal facilities of various uses, and the Second Mint, also in Philadelphia was built to accommodate (for the first time) a full comp
lement of steam-powered coining equipment.This new mint possessed a much larger production capacity reflecting the nation’s rapidly burgeoning coinage demands.
The First Mint land and buildings were sold to private owners.Successive private uses included a library and a church – all within the original mint’s walls.Mr. Frank H. Stewart purchased the entire property in 1909 with plans to erect his F. H. Stewart Electric Company facility in new buildings on the site and the First Mint buildings were demolished in 1911.
Today, there is only a small plaque on the site to note origins of the institution s
o important to our hobby now.