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After fire pause, silver mintages grew
By R.W. Julian
February 17, 2017

[Editor’s note: this is the last in a series of four articles covering the silver coinage of 1794–1839. The first three appeared in the Feb. 7, Feb. 14 and Feb. 28 issues of Numismatic News.]

In the early morning hours of Jan. 11, 1816, a fire broke out in a frame structure belonging to the United States Mint. The fire was caused by a neighbor who had placed fireplace embers too close to the Mint structure. The building was of little value but the rolling machinery inside was critical to the production of gold and silver coins.

The fire damage to the rolling mills meant that precious metal coinage was out of the question until the rollers were replaced. There being no manufacturer in the United States qualified for such work, Mint Director Robert Patterson turned to the English firm of Belles & Harrold. A formal order for a new rolling machine, with the necessary spare rollers, was sent on May 27, 1816, to that Birmingham firm.

Although the needed equipment had been ordered the process was not as simple as it seemed. The United States Minister to Great Britain, John Quincy Adams, was asked to get permission from the British government for export of this machinery. It required an Act of Parliament; the legislation was then duly approved by the Regent, King George III being incapacitated due to dementia.

The machinery was shipped via Liverpool in September 1816 and arrived at the Philadelphia docks in November. It required a certain amount of time to set up and test, but the new machinery was all that had been promised by Belles & Harrold.

Obtaining the new rollers was only the first step in the modernization of the rolling process. A new building of brick was constructed in place of the one which had burned and provision was made for a steam engine to drive the new rolling equipment. In early 1817 Oliver Evans began installing the steam engine in the basement of the new building.

By late April 1817 the steam engine had been thoroughly tested and declared ready for use. The first silver bullion was sent to Melter & Refiner Joseph Cloud on May 10, with the first delivery of coined silver – 103,550 half dollars – coming on June 11. From that point coinage was very heavy through the end of 1817.

The more than 100,000 half dollars delivered on June 11 required several days to strike as normally only one screw press was used. About 14,000 coins could be struck on a given day, indicating the silver coinage had actually commenced early in June. By coincidence this came at the same time that President James Monroe visited the Mint.

The War of 1812 had been very divisive, with parts of New England threatening to secede from the United States. To counter the ill feelings that still existed, the President made an extended tour through the Northern states.

One of his stops, on June 7, was at the Philadelphia Mint, where he viewed the coining procedures, including the cents and half dollars that were being struck at that time. It is well known that the first true proofs are generally acknowledged to have been struck in 1817. The new rolling mills certainly gave a finer and more consistent finish to the flattened strips of metal, allowing for a better quality coinage.

One has to wonder if the two events are connected as it would have been considered rude in those days not to have presented the distinguished visitor with mementoes of the visit. What better way than proof coins?

The amount of silver brought to the Mint in 1817 was worth about $850,000, but even this sum was eclipsed in 1818 with over a million dollars in deposits. (No gold was struck in 1817; that coinage resuming in 1818.)

Silver coinage was very heavy from 1817 on as there was a pent-up demand from the public. There were still a large number of Spanish silver coins in daily use but the citizenry was now beginning to prefer the American version of coined money. Quarter dollars were also struck in large quantities from 1818 to 1822 and even dimes were minted in considerable numbers from 1820 to 1823.

In 1820, as the result of an economic downturn the silver coinage dropped from earlier highs, but this trend quickly reversed itself and coinage soon was back with strong numbers.

During the 1820s the silver coinage was usually strong though there were times in which it was lower. On the other hand, there was 1824 in which only half dollars were struck, some 3.5 million worth $1,750,000. As the decade wore on the coinage of silver became quite heavy, the half dollars especially so.

Samuel Moore became Mint director in July 1824, following the resignation of his predecessor, Robert Patterson. Moore was very interested in technological improvements as well as the coinage itself. One of these aims was realized when close collars were used instead of the open collars heretofore seen.

(Close collars meant that the collar was barely larger than the planchet. When struck, the planchet expanded and the edge reeding was imparted at the same time as the designs were given to the obverse and reverse. An open collar centered the coin for striking but allowed the planchet to expand slightly without damaging the edge, as on the half dollar which had edge lettering.)

Close collars were introduced to the dime in 1828 and quarter and half eagles of gold in 1829. It was used for other coins as time permitted.

One of the more interesting coins from this era is the 1827 quarter dollar. An obverse die was prepared with this date but never used for coinage. Instead a handful of proof pieces were struck and distributed to those collectors who asked for a specimen. Early numismatist Joseph Mickley is said to have obtained four of these at face value.

The coinage of half dimes resumed in July 1829, the first such coinage since 1805. The occasion for the resumption of half dime mintage was the laying of the cornerstone for the new Mint building. As early as the summer of 1821 half dime coinage was considered and at one point was fixed for early 1822. The plan was scrapped, however, until 1829. Mintage of half dimes was heavy for the next several years, testifying to their use by the public.

It should be noted that the coinage of American silver monies did not mean that only such coins were seen in the marketplace. As late as 1838 a survey in New York City found that about one-sixth of the silver coins in daily use were products of the Philadelphia Mint, the rest was Spanish or Mexican. There was probably a better showing of U.S. coins in the interior of the country, however.

In January 1831 it was the turn of the quarter dollar to use the close collar. However, that was not the only change. Mint Director Moore had long felt that the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM should not have been on the post-1807 coinage and was proper only when used as part of the Great Seal. Moore had even gone to the trouble of consulting eminent scholars on this point.

Samples of the new quarter dollar were submitted to Treasury Secretary Samuel Ingham for examination and also transmission to President Andrew Jackson for his opinion. In his covering letter of Jan. 29, 1831, Moore discussed the technical improvements but also noted the removal of the motto from the reverse. The major reason for the removal, according to Moore, was the fact that E PLURIBUS UNUM (One Out of Many) was merely a another way of saying United States in the Latin language. Moore felt that once was quite enough.

President Jackson responded to the new quarter dollar by agreeing with Moore and ordering that coinage proceed. Nothing further was said about the motto for some years though the subject did arise again when it was removed from the gold coins in August 1834.

At almost the same time Moore wrote the President to suggest that the coinage of silver dollars be resumed. The reason for this suggestion was that silver had been received from China in payment for American goods. Under normal circumstances silver coins went only one direction in the U.S./China trade. And that was to China, from where they did not return.

On April 18, 1831, President Jackson, as a result of the Moore request, notified the Mint director that the suspension of dollar coinage, in effect since 1804, was formally lifted and the Mint was now free to accept bullion for coinage into silver dollars.

Moore soon came to realize that the reverse silver flow had been an aberration and the normal flow would not change in the near future. In the meantime, however, dies had been prepared, using the old hubs from before 1805. There appears to have been a test run of dollars in 1832 using the dies prepared in 1831; none of the 1832 test coins is known to have survived, however.

The point of a dollar coinage was to persuade banks to use this denomination, rather than half dollars, as backing for paper money issues. The Mint would thereby save time and money coining the same amount of bullion.

These dollar dies were then used, after being dated, in 1834 and 1835 to strike a limited number of proof 1804 silver dollars for inclusion in the special diplomatic sets of coins intended as gifts for Middle and Far Eastern potentates.

It is unknown exactly how many Draped Bust dollar dies were prepared in 1831, but it seems clear that at least three of the obverse dies were given dates other than 1804: 1801, 1802 and 1803. Only a small number of proof dollars is known for each of the 1801-1803 dates and all bring very strong prices at auction. (The 1801-1803 proof dollars are believed to have been coined in the late 1850s.)

At the same time that dollar coinage was under consideration, Director Moore was still interested in putting the United States at the leading edge of coin technology. He selected Franklin Peale, a skilled mechanic, as the person to visit European mints to study their technology.

After obtaining permission from the foreign mints, Peale left for Europe in April 1833. He spent considerable time at the mints of Paris, Soho (Boulton) and London.

Peale was allowed to make drawings of machinery thought to be of value and these plans were brought back to Philadelphia for further study. He also had discussions with leading European specialists, especially British, in the field of assaying and testing of metals. There was in addition a detailed investigation of die-making techniques – including the Contamin reducing lathe, which proved of great value in the years to come.

Just before Peale’s return in June 1835, Director Moore had decided that the new branch mints at New Orleans, Dahlonega  and Charlotte would use screw presses for their coinage. This idea was seconded by Dr. Robert M. Patterson, who replaced Moore at the beginning of July 1835. (Congress had created the three new mints in March 1835 and it was up to the Mint director to put these three institutions into operation.)

When Peale had the opportunity to acquaint Dr. Patterson with all that he had found in Europe, however, some of the planned machinery for the branches was changed, including the screw presses. Patterson then gave Peale the go-ahead to create a steam coining press for the Philadelphia Mint.

At the same time Patterson set about improving the artwork on coins of the United States. The old Reich designs from 1807 were still around, in one form or another, and the new director was determined to get rid of them. The first change involved the silver dollar, for which Thomas Sully and Titian Peale were engaged to create new artwork.

While the revised silver designs were under way, Peale managed to create the new steam press. It was similar to the Uhlhorn press he had seen at Paris but with a number of important improvements devised by Peale. In March 1836 the steam press was first used for regular coinage, that of one cent pieces.

Patterson now planned for a half dollar coinage on the new steam press. Engraver Christian Gobrecht created new dies, though still based on the Reich model, and the start of this new method of coining for the half dollar was scheduled for early November 1836. No silver had been struck in October as one of the steps involved.

Something went wrong, however, and the old type half dollars (with lettered edges) were struck again during November and December 1836. A limited number of the new reeded-edge halves was struck during these two months, perhaps 5,000 pieces though some researchers think a higher number is justified.

With work on the new half dollar under way, Patterson ordered that the Gobrecht dollar be struck, though only with the screw press as the steam press was not ready for a coin of this size. One thousand pieces were struck in December 1836, all with the eagle flying upward when the coin is properly rotated.

Six hundred more Gobrecht dollars were coined on the steam press in 1837, but were later melted when it was found that the quality was not up to Patterson’s standard. A few pieces exist from this coinage (plain-edged proofs made on a screw press) but the dies were aligned in medal orientation, though with the eagle still flying upwards as on the December mintages.

The silver coins of 1837 are on the new silver standard, .900 fine. The weight was adjusted slightly so that the amount of pure silver was not altered, however.

Patterson was so pleased with the new Seated Liberty obverse design found on the dollars that it was placed, by permission of President Martin Van Buren, on the dime and half dime in 1837. In 1838 it found its way to the quarter dollar and 1839 to the half dollar.

There was one final attempt, in 1839, to strike the Gobrecht dollar with its superb reverse eagle but the steam coining presses then at the Mint were still not powerful enough to bring up the design clearly and the entire issue of 300 pieces was melted in April 1840. Restrikes for collectors were made as early as the mid–1840s though most were struck in the late 1850s.

Beginning in 1840 the coinage of silver became much less hectic as changes were no longer made. During the 1840s the Philadelphia Mint and branches served the nation well with a strong circulating currency.

(Images courtesy Heritage and Stack's Bowers)

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