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Little known medals make a challenging set

There is little doubt among collectors as to the exact definition of a United States coin struck for circulation. It is a piece of metal that is made in a government mint and which can be legally used in commerce. The metal that makes up the coin is defined by law and could be one of several alloys, including silver, gold, copper and nickel.

There is one class of pieces which do not fall neatly into a such a category, however. In the 19th century there were several instances where official coin planchets and Mint equipment were used to strike commemorative medals. The collector who has good type set of American coins might well consider adding these pieces as something out of the ordinary. They will not be easy to acquire, but part of the pleasure in numismatics is locating something that is difficult to find.

The first of these special coin-medals, if that term is appropriate, dates to 1836. For several months, under the direction of Mint official Franklin Peale, a steam coining press had been under construction by a local Philadelphia firm, Merrick, Agnew, & Tyler. Since 1792 the only presses available at the Mint were the old screw presses, which required strongly muscled men to drive the rotating arm on top; that in turn spun the shaft which drove downwards to strike the coin.

The new steam coining press was similar to those Peale had seen on an inspection trip to Europe in 1833 and 1834. He had been allowed to make scale drawings of many machines used in the Paris Mint, including the steam coining press. This latter type of press had been in general European use since being invented in 1812 although the actual press seen by Peale had been in use for only a relatively short time.
To those who have studied early coinage technology, it is well known that English private coiner Matthew Boulton invented steam-powered coinage in the 1780s. What is not so well known, however, is that Boulton’s press was a steam-driven screw press, not at all like the modern presses.

About 1812 Diedrich Uhlhorn created an entirely new kind of press, in many ways similar to those in use today. It had a flywheel that controlled the movement of the upper die and ejection mechanism and the Uhlhorn press installed at the Duesseldorf Mint created a sensation in coinage circles.

In the early 1830s a Frenchman named Thonnelier made changes to the Uhlhorn design and it was the Thonnelier version that Peale saw in 1833 at Paris. Peale, however, after a careful examination envisioned a number of improvements that could be made; these were duly carried out when he returned from abroad and plans were made to manufacture a steam coinage press in this country. Peale’s alterations were made available to Thonnelier, who used them to good advantage.

Dr. Robert Patterson was especially interested in the new press as one of his long-term goals, after becoming Mint director in July 1835, was the complete mechanization of the coining processes. He intended, and in due course was successful, to put our Mint on a par with the best Europe had to offer, especially the Paris Mint, then at the forefront of coinage technology.

By late in 1835 the press was nearly ready and Patterson thought that Feb. 22, 1836, would be the perfect day for the press to be put into service. It was George Washington’s birthday and the first President’s well-known interest in the coinage could thus be honored in a significant way.

In order to mark the event in a permanent way, Patterson asked Engraver Christian Gobrecht to prepare a special pair of commemorative medal dies for the occasion. Gobrecht did as he was asked and executed cent-sized dies in a relatively short time. The obverse carries the motif of a Liberty cap in a glory while the reverse has an inscription UNITED STATES MINT FIRST STEAM COINAGE FEB. 22. 1836. Despite the short time he had available to do the work Gobrecht produced a good artistic effort.

Famed Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote that, “The best laid schemes of mice an’ men often aft a-gley” and that was exactly what happened in mid- February 1836 when the new coining press developed problems, perhaps in the feeding or ejection mechanisms. This forced a delay.

A small number of medals honoring the aborted Feb. 22 ceremony were struck, however, partly to test the dies but also as a souvenir of a failed date. These were made on cent planchets because the first steam coinage had been scheduled for the large cent coinage. Today these Feb. 22 medals are rare and are seldom seen at public auction. A search of the Heritage auction archives, for example, turned up not a single piece; only two pieces have been seen in the last few years of Stack’s auctions.

Patterson soon was able to set a new date of March 23. As this day seems to have been chosen not all that far in advance, a reverse die from Feb. 22 was overdated by punching MAR. 23. over FEB. 22. (The overdate requires, usually, a good magnifying glass to see the changes.)

The ceremony was duly held on March 23 and invited visitors, as well as Mint workmen and officers, were treated to a specimen of the Steam Coinage medal with the revised date. These were struck, as might have been expected, on the new press.

Patterson ordered that a fair number of MAR 23 medals be struck and there is little doubt that these were kept on hand at the Mint for presentation to later visitors and collectors who asked for a specimen. It is also likely that the dies were used to strike additional specimens as late as the 1850s when the supply on hand ran low.

The MAR 23 medals do exist in other metals besides copper but it is only the latter that can truly be called a coin-medal and thus a collectible of interest to those specializing in U.S. coins.

Sometime in the 1850s the dated die became rusted or otherwise unfit to use. In 1862 a new pair of dies was made by assistant engraver Anthony Paquet to strike specimens for collectors, but here we have an ordinary commemorative medal with no claim to having been made in 1836 on a large cent planchet.

It is worth noting that in 1858 David Gilbert made further improvements to the basic Peale/Thonnelier designs. In this case it meant redesigning the arch of the press to prevent shaking. Unfortunately no medal was made to commemorate this significant improvement in coining technique.

The next event for a coin-medal came in June 1864 at the Great Central Fair held in Philadelphia. During the Civil War societies were formed to improve hospital conditions for wounded soldiers. The gatherings to raise money for this purpose were generally known as Sanitary Fairs, an allusion to the poor conditions that wounded soldiers often met on the battlefield.

For the Philadelphia connection we look to April 1864 when Charles Stille asked the Treasury Department for permission to strike cent-sized medals to be sold at the fair. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase not only gave the necessary permission but issued orders to Mint Director James Pollock to furnish a steam coining press and cent planchets. The press was duly transported to the fair site a few days before opening.
The press and planchets were not the only help given by the Mint, Chief Engraver James B. Longacre also preparing a pair of dies. The obverse carried a bust of George Washington facing to the right while the reverse had the simple inscription GREAT CENTRAL FAIR PHILADELPHIA JUNE 1864.

So that the medals, or medalettes as they might better be called, would not be confused with regular cents, Pollock ordered that instead of a plain edge that they be reeded. The number struck is unknown but probably ran into the several tens of thousands of pieces. The price of the bronze medalette was 10 cents although a limited number in silver were available at 50 cents each.

These 1864 pieces are, of course, not coins by any stretch of the imagination but they were struck with official dies and on a Mint press using regular bronze cent planchets. They would certainly be a welcome and interesting addition to a collection of Indian Head cents.

One of the highlights of the fair was the visit of President Lincoln on June 16. The crowds were so enthusiastic and boisterous that the presidential guard officers persuaded the President not to attend any more sanitary fairs. The simple crush of the people put his life in jeopardy.

The Great Central Fair has an added souvenir that might also go well with obtaining the cent-sized medal. Special stamps honoring the fair were printed and could be sent through a special post office located on the fairgrounds to addresses on the site; letters going outside the fair had to have regular postage stamps as well. These are well known to philatelists but not to numismatists.

The last of the special pieces came in 1875 and this time it would not be a cent planchet that was used but rather that of a silver half dollar. The event commemorated was a controversial one, perhaps making the resulting medals even more interesting. The story goes back to the early 1800s when a researcher living in North Carolina claimed that Mecklenburg County had declared independence from Great Britain in May 1775, more than a year before the Declaration of Independence. The claim stirred up a firestorm among historians and is still the subject of occasional academic debate. (The county seat of Mecklenburg County is Charlotte, well known to modern numismatists as the site of a U.S. Mint before the Civil War.)

In early 1875 Mecklenburg officials approached Mint Director Henry R. Linderman, requesting that dies be prepared at the Philadelphia Mint honoring the 1775 Declaration. Linderman was also asked to allow the medals to be struck at the Mint. The work was permissible under the Coinage Act of 1873, which allowed dies of a “national character” to be executed by the engraving department.

Linderman soon approved the idea and ordered Chief Engraver William Barber to give prompt assistance. Using designs furnished by the Mecklenburg committee, Barber executed a pair of dies in late April 1875. One of the features of the obverse is a hornet’s nest, based on a remark by British Colonel Banastre Tarleton to Lord Cornwallis – the British commander in the South during the American Revolution – that his troops had “gotten into a hornet’s nest” in North Carolina.

As the time was short, Linderman took the extraordinary step of permitting the Mecklenburg medals to be struck on half dollar planchets, using a regular Mint press to do so. Here again we have a coin-medal, a hybrid of both worlds.

The Mecklenburg pieces were also struck in bronze, which on first glance seems far from a coin-medal though there is still a connection. Linderman ordered that the regular ingots for cent coinage be used to make planchets for the medal. They were simply rolled down to the proper thickness and half dollar sized planchets punched out.

The mintages were relatively large for the time, perhaps because of the medal’s controversial nature. More than 2,000 silver medals were struck, accompanied by more than 1,000 bronze pieces. Even though more than 3,000 pieces were struck in all, it still is not easy to locate one of the Mecklenburg medals, especially one in silver.

So far as is known the Mecklenburg medals proved to be the end of the coin-medals for the 19th century and none is known to the writer as having been made since that time. There are only three (or four, depending on how one counts the Feb. 22, 1836, medal) pieces to collect although it will not be an easy task. The Great Central Fair cent-sized piece will probably be the easiest, the Feb. 22 medal the most difficult.
Part of the lure of numismatics is the chance of finding little-known byways to collect. The writer hopes that he has provided one such avenue for the numismatist to explore.             

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