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1815 – The year without new cents

The War of 1812 seriously disrupted the American economy. A short-sighted Congress in 1811 had failed to recharter the Bank of the United States, leaving the Treasury hard-pressed to fund the war effort. The public hoarded all of the gold and silver that could be found, and even the lowly copper coins were rarely seen by 1814.

The war had officially ended in late 1814 by the Treaty of Ghent, but word was slow in reaching the United States, leading to one last battle, that of New Orleans in early 1815. Even though there was now peace, the American economy took time to recover, and it was not until the spring of 1817 that silver coins were again used in the marketplaces.

Coinage was still fairly strong in 1814 at the Philadelphia Mint. There was mintage in all metals – copper, silver, and gold. By October, however, the coinage had run its course and no coins were struck at the Mint in November or December 1814. The Mint was virtually out of gold and silver bullion and there were no cent planchets on hand.

As the year 1815 opened prospects were poor for a quick resumption of coinage. It was not until June 1815 that any gold was brought to the Mint for coinage, but the total for two separate deposits in that month was less than $1400, not enough to begin coinage operations. On the other hand, silver sent from New Orleans arrived in July 1815 and this deposit, worth more than $14,000, was to prove interesting.

In the meantime, Mint Director Robert Patterson wrote Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, England, in early 1815 to obtain a fresh supply of cent planchets asking for five tons or about 467,000 pieces. Boulton had begun to supply such planchets to the Mint in the late 1790s and Patterson, now that peace had been achieved, wished to resume the importation.

Boulton responded to Patterson in May 1815 and noted that he would ship the blanks as soon as possible; he indicated that these planchets would cost less than those shipped previously. When Patterson received Boulton’s letter in the latter part of June, he applied to the Treasury Department for the necessary funds with which to pay for the Boulton shipment.

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Treasury Secretary Alexander J. Dallas was something of an oddity in Washington as he had personal knowledge of Mint affairs. Dallas had, on several occasions prior to 1815, served as a member of the Assay Commission, which passed on the quality of gold and silver coinage during the preceding year.

When Patterson’s request for funds was received Dallas – despite his familiarity with Mint operations – unexpectedly suggested that the Mint make its own planchets from ingot copper easily obtained in New York and other major port cities. Dallas thought that a considerable amount of money could be saved, an important consideration considering the fragile state of finances at Washington.

Patterson promptly answered Dallas by noting that the Mint rollers were in such poor condition, and had been for some years, that rolling copper was out of the question. They had to be reserved for use on gold and silver, and until new and more rollers could be obtained, the Mint had little choice except to import the blanks from England. The answer satisfied Secretary Dallas and no more was heard from Washington about the Philadelphia Mint preparing its own copper cent planchets.

At the same time that Patterson had requested funds for this initial order for 5 tons from Boulton, he had also asked Dallas for enough money for a further 20 tons. Dallas also authorized this expenditure and Patterson wrote Boulton in early July for this additional quantity (1.9 million blanks).

It took time for Boulton to prepare the first 5 tons as he was under pressure from his customers in the United Kingdom for other kinds of work. However, in late September the ship Coromandel left Liverpool for America carrying the 5 tons of copper. It arrived at the Philadelphia docks about Nov. 20, 1815.

Because the Boulton planchet orders were always carried as ballast in the holds of the ship it required nearly three weeks for the planchets to be offloaded and brought into the Mint. By Dec. 11 all had been safely carried inside.
Boulton’s claim that the work would be done at less cost proved accurate as each cent planchet cost about 8 mills (eight-tenths of a cent), a distinct saving from the prior shipment in the spring of 1812, which had been charged at about 9 mills per blank.

Within a matter of days cent coinage had begun, but we do not know the exact number coined during that month. We also do not know for certain the date used for this coinage, but it was almost certainly either 1814 or 1816. The latter is the more likely considering the time of coinage and the fact that no deliveries of coined cents were made until early February 1816.

The 5 tons were all struck by late February 1816, but the additional 20 tons did not arrive until June of that year. After that time, however, the Mint was always well supplied with planchets and there were no longer any extended periods in which copper coins were not on hand for public distribution.

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The problem of dating is of course compounded when one realizes that the cent design was changed beginning in 1816. Little is known of this change, but most numismatists consider the new artwork as a step backward.

It was once believed that Chief Engraver Robert Scot executed the new dies, but present thinking tends more toward John Reich, the assistant engraver. Reich resigned his position in early 1817 due to poor eyesight, perhaps accounting for the crudity of the new cent design.

Although cents dated 1815 were never struck at the Mint, during the mid 19th century some less-than-honest engravers recut other dates, such as 1813, into 1815. These fooled some of the early collectors, especially before it became known that no genuine 1815-dated cents actually existed.

Unlike the copper, the coinage of gold in 1815 was much more straightforward. In addition to the two deposits mentioned above, a few hundred more dollars in gold was deposited in late October. Added to a small amount remaining from 1814, Director Patterson now ordered that the bullion on hand be used to coin half eagles.

On Nov. 15, 1815, Chief Coiner Eckfeldt delivered 635 half eagles to Mint Treasurer James Rush for payment to the depositors. Thomas Parker received 67 of the coins, Charles F. Kalkman another 210 pieces and the Bank of Pennsylvania was sent the rest, 358 pieces. (The Bank had deposited gold in 1814, which had not been fully paid off, but the November 1815 coinage enabled the Mint to finally settle this account.)

As required by law, three half eagles were reserved for the Assay Commission, which met on Feb. 12, 1816. The gold coins were passed by the commission as being of the proper weight and fineness.

Today the 1815 half eagle is an extreme rarity, with only a handful of pieces to be found in the best collections. Even the Mint collection was missing this date for several decades, until one was finally purchased from a coin dealer.

Unlike the gold coinage, the silver mintages are much more interesting for their complexity. The first deposit of silver in 1815, worth $14,371, had been shipped by sea to Philadelphia by the Planter’s Bank of New Orleans. It arrived on July 8. Two further silver deposits were made in 1815, that of Jones, Firth & Co. on Sept. 18 ($28,576) and the Bank of Pennsylvania on Dec. 15 ($222). The more than $40,000 worth of silver now on hand provided the necessary quantity of bullion for coinage.

At first there was considerable confusion regarding the cast, struck, and cut Spanish dollar coins deposited by the Planters Bank of New Orleans. Bank Cashier Bailly Blanchard asked for payment in quarter dollars but, as this denomination had not been struck since 1807, Mint Director Patterson wrote Blanchard suggesting that he accept dimes instead as the Mint had a good supply of these on hand.

Blanchard replied, indicating that small silver change was plentiful in Louisiana but not quarter dollars. In particular the cashier indicated that Spanish half and one real coins, worth 6.25 and 12.5 cents respectively, circulated in the marketplace but the Spanish two reales, equivalent to the United States quarter dollar, was in very short supply.

Patterson now had little choice in the matter and instructed assistant engraver John Reich to prepare the necessary dies for the quarter dollar. These were executed in short order and the silver prepared for coinage. Striking began about Dec. 11, a Monday, and was completed on the 16th. In all 69,232 coins were delivered by the chief coiner to the Mint treasurer.

Nearly 57,500 pieces of the December quarter dollar coinage were shipped to New Orleans and the Planters Bank, the remainder being paid to the Bank of Pennsylvania on Dec. 30 and Jones, Firth & Co. on Jan. 10, 1816. (The payment to the latter entity also included quarter dollars struck in early 1816.)

As there was still a quantity of silver on hand after the Dec. 16 delivery of quarter dollars, the chief coiner began rolling this out. It had been intended to coin both quarter dollars and half dollars by year’s end, but for uncertain reasons the coinage was delayed for some days.

Coinage probably resumed on Jan. 8, a Monday, and on the 10th the coiner brought 20,003 quarter dollars and 47,150 half dollars to the Mint treasurer. This would be the last coinage of silver until the spring of 1817.

This last silver coinage of 1816 is marked by the singular event of the Mint fire, which broke out at about 2 a.m. on Jan. 11. There was considerable damage to a wooden building (the Mill House), as well as minor adjoining structures. The rolling machinery, which was in poor condition anyway, was badly damaged and proved unusable for further coinage work.
It was soon determined that the cause of the fire was a careless neighbor who had put hot wood ashes from a fireplace into a barrel. The barrel had then been placed much too close to the wooden wall of the Mill House, resulting in the fire.

Although the fire damage was extensive to some of the wooden buildings, machinery other than the rolling mills and draw bench were not affected. The fire gave Mint Director Patterson the opportunity of updating the machinery, as well as erecting more fireproof buildings over the succeeding months.

The half dollars of 1815, though actually struck in 1816, have long been a magnet for advanced collections. The obverse die is an overdate, 1815/2, perhaps indicating hurried die work. All of these half dollars were paid out to Jones, Firth and Co., which is interesting in that collectors owning one of these coins thus know the original owner. It is not often that a coin can be traced to just one person or entity to whom it was issued by the Mint.

The 1815 quarter dollars, which were coined in both 1815 and 1816, are not all that rare, with nearly 90,000 struck. (It is possible, though speculative, that an 1815 obverse die was used for a short time in 1818 when coinage of this denomination resumed at Philadelphia.)

Although the 1815 quarter dollar can be considered as somewhat scarce, it is not for this reason that the issue has attracted more than average interest among numismatists. A certain number of quarter dollars of this date (as well as 1825) are known with the letter E or L carefully punched just above the head of Liberty on the obverse.

These countermarked coins first became generally known to collectors in the latter part of the 19th century and since that time there have been a number of theories published as to the meaning of the letters. One fact, however, is certain and that is that the letters were not punched onto the coins at the Mint. The work was definitely done outside the Mint, which effectively rules out most of the bizarre theories that have appeared over the years.

The most likely explanation for the letters was published by the late Walter Breen some years ago. He thought that the letter L stood for Latin and E for English. These were the two principal subjects at private schools of the period and it is not difficult to see quarter dollars being handed out as prizes for excellence in these two areas.

As time passed, however, the recipients of these coins died off and their families would have known less and less about the origin of these specially countermarked pieces. It may also be that a stock of such pieces was discovered in the effects of a school official and family members simply spent the remaining coins. A quarter dollar dated 1815 or 1825 would not have been considered as something special in the 1870s or 1880s when coins circulated for much longer periods than they normally do today.

The year 1815 was something of a watershed in the numismatic history of the United States. Coinage had been strong in the preceding years and was to get even heavier as the 1810s changed into the 1820s and 1830s. The coins struck with that date, however, will always be prized possessions of their owners.

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