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Venezuela first to circulate U.S. coins

That the United States mints have struck coins for many countries is well known to collectors. What is not so well known, however, is that such coinage preceded the 1874 law authorizing our mints to strike foreign coins. To understand this seeming paradox we need to travel back in time to 1835 and the Philadelphia Mint.

In early 1835, through its New York consul, the Government of Venezuela asked Mint Director Samuel Moore if 100,000 U.S. copper cents could be obtained for shipment to that country. Moore made the proper inquiries at the Treasury Department and was assured that this was not a problem as long as the coins were paid for in the proper manner. What the purchaser did with the copper coins afterwards was no affair of the U.S. government.

Venezuela had gained its independence from Spain not that many years before 1835 and perhaps the authorities in that country felt that U.S. copper coins were easier to acquire than having new designs created and the coinage struck in England or France at a greater expense. The arrangement to obtain the American copper coins was personally approved by President José Maria Carreño.

The 100,000 copper cents were duly sent to the consul at New York, who then arranged for the coins to be placed on the first ship headed for Venezuela. The coins went over well with the Venezuelan public as they were heavy and provided full value in the marketplace.

These first coins had been sent out under the authority of Samuel Moore, the Mint Director until the end of June 1835. In mid-August 1835 another request was received but this time the Director was Dr. R.M. Patterson, in office for only a few weeks and somewhat concerned about the size of the order, which was for 1 million each of the cent and half cent.

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Because the order was rather large, Patterson sought guidance from the Treasury, much as had been done by his predecessor a few months earlier. The answer, from Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury, was dated Aug. 28 and gave conditional approval to the request. The sole stipulation was that the order not interfere with the regular demands of the American public for copper coins.

It is believed that the order for cents was filled, or nearly so, but the 1 million half cents were another matter altogether. Judging by the known mintages for this denomination in 1834 and 1835, it seems likely that no more than 200,000 half cents were sent to Venezuela. Whatever the number actually supplied, there were no further requests. As more than a million coins were apparently shipped in 1835, perhaps this filled the Venezuelan marketplace needs for some years.

The use of these American coins in Venezuela is interesting for the fact that this is the first known instance of our copper coins being used as legal circulating coinage in another country. Today of course several nations use the United States dollar for currency but in 1835 this was not the case. Collectors can therefore acquire an 1835 cent and half cent as the first examples of coinage for a foreign nation.

In the 1850s and 1860s there were occasional inquiries by foreign governments about having their coins struck at a United States mint. Mint officials invariably replied that they did not have the legal authority to strike foreign coins but that there were private mints in this country that could undertake the work. A firm in Waterbury, Conn., for example, struck copper-nickel coins (similar to the U.S. 1-cent piece) for Peru in 1863.

This legal bar to foreign coinage was considered of little importance until Dr. Henry R. Linderman became Mint Director in April 1873. His first annual report, covering the fiscal year 1873, noted that:

Applications for the manufacture of silver and token coins are occasionally received from some of the governments of South America, and declined, for the reason that by law none but United States coin can be issued from our mints. When the new mint at San Francisco shall have been completed, and especially if operations be resumed at New Orleans, our capacity will be sufficient to undertake occasional coinages for other countries. There can be no objection to authorizing such coinage as can be made at times when our mints are not fully employed in meeting the home demands for coin. It would be a friendly act to countries not possessing the facilities for manufacturing their own coin, as well as some advantage to our commerce. The coins should, of course, be of the legal standards of the governments applying for them, and bear their prescribed devices and inscriptions …

Linderman also noted that our minor silver coins were being widely used in Central and South America, and it would not be all that much of as stretch simply to mint coins for these nations. Congress considered the matter in the latter part of 1873 and in late January 1874 passed the enabling legislation. The act did stipulate, however, that the coinage for foreign governments was not to interfere with our domestic needs.

The first country to apply under the new law was Peru, which inquired about striking several million 1- and 2-centavo coins. For whatever reason, the discussions did not bear fruit and the coins were not struck. The next proposal was another matter, however.

In early 1876 the Venezuelan government of President Antonio Guzman Blanco decided to have subsidiary nickel coins struck abroad. With this in mind, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry contacted the American Minister in Caracas. Exactly what transpired at that time is not clear, but it is probable that the original Venezuelan specifications envisaged coins of a different size than those of the United States. No doubt someone pointed out that this would add materially to the cost if new equipment had to be made.

In order to have the coinage struck abroad, Treasury Minister Toledo Bermudez issued a decree in June 1876 that was forwarded to the Minister of Foreign Affairs:

At this date the following resolve has been ordered from this office. In order to facilitate change in mercantile transactions and to furnish Venezuela with the necessity of small money the illustrious President [Antonio Guzman Blanco] has ordered that there be coined in the U.S. of the North the sum of 150,000 Venezolanos represented in nickel money the denominations of 1 and 2 1/2 Cents or hundredth parts of a Venezolano divided thus: 2,000,000 pieces of 2 1/2 Cents and 10,000,000 pieces of 1 Cent. It shall be of the diameter of the same class of the U.S. of the North and shall have on the obverse a border of laurel with the value in the center and on the reverse the shield of arms of Venezuela with the inscription “Estados Unidos de Venezuela 1876.” Permission for the coinage shall be asked by the Ministry of Foreign Relations through the Legation of the U.S. of the North in this capital …

This letter was relayed to the U.S. State Department by the American Minister to Venezuela, Thomas Russell. After their arrival in Washington, the papers were sent to the office of Mint Director Linderman in the Treasury Building, and then on July 12 forwarded to James Pollock, the Superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint.

In his answering letter of July 13 to Linderman, Pollock was less than enthusiastic about the subject. He noted that because the Mint was far behind in its orders for minor coin, the work force would have to be enlarged. Pollock went on to suggest that the coins be struck at the San Francisco mint, which had only recently moved into a new building.

Linderman considered Pollock’s answer but disregarded much of it, deciding that Philadelphia would mint the coins for Venezuela. He did decide, however, that the press of coinage at Philadelphia would require the Venezuelan authorities to have the planchets and master dies made outside the Mint.

Once the decision had been made to use the Philadelphia Mint, it fell to Pollock to make out the necessary cost estimates for the Venezuelan officials. Pollock then asked his resident expert in such matters, Coiner A. Loudon Snowden, to put the costs in writing along with any other comments thought proper. Snowden’s response was dated August 27:

I earlier took occasion to recommend that the sizes of the proposed coins correspond in diameter with our 3- and 5- cent nickel-copper coins. Yesterday, however, Mr. Paquet, the engraver, called with a hub almost completed from which dies are to be made for the smaller coin and informed me that the pieces were to be the size of a 1 cent bronze coin. I have taken the trouble to have some alloy rolled, and planchets cut therefrom, containing the weight of the proposed coin, 30 grains, and have thereby convinced myself that the planchets of the proposed diameter and weight cannot be advantageously worked. There is not enough metal in the piece to bring up the work on the dies. If the diameter of the smaller coin is to be the size of the one cent piece and weigh 30 grains it will be practically impossible to do the work.

In mid-August, the Legation of Venezuela made a formal contract with Benedict and Burnham Manufacturing Co. of Waterbury, Conn., for the preparation of the planchets. It is thought that the blanks cost about 31 cents per pound.

The first delivery of the 1 centavo planchets was in late August when 1,000 pieces were received by Snowden. They were roughly 30 grains in weight and were promptly tested in a coining press. The results were as Snowden had predicted, not all that good. Discussions then ensued with all parties concerned and the weight was increased to 35 grains, thought just barely enough to bring up the design.

For uncertain reasons there was a delay and it was not until mid-October 1876 that everything came together. The hubs prepared by Anthony C. Paquet, the outside engraver, were used by Chief Engraver William Barber to make working dies for the 1 centavo coinage. At the same time, the first regular delivery of 1 centavo planchets arrived and was sent to the coining press. On Oct. 11, Paquet notified Pollock that the hubs for the dos y medio (2-1/2) centavo coins had been finished and would be delivered shortly.

It is not known on what date the 1 centavo coinage began but by Oct. 18, there had been received 360,000 planchets and these went directly to the presses.

In early November word reached the Venezuelan Legation in Washington that the presidential election at home had not gone as expected. President Blanco’s hand picked successor, General Linares Alcantara, had not achieved a clear-cut victory over his two opponents. It was decided by the Venezuelan government that a speed-up in the production and delivery of the new coinage might just help their embattled candidate.

As Snowden had previously given an estimate of 2,000,000 pieces per month, it would have taken until April 1877 to have finished the coinage. This was an unpopular estimate in Venezuela. An appeal was made to Dr. Linderman for aid in the matter. The director took quick action as another coining press was put into operation.

In late November, the first planchets for the larger coin (2-1/2 centavos) arrived and were promptly sent to the press. The Benedict and Burnham Company tried to maintain a daily average of 150,000 of the smaller planchets and 50,000 of the larger. The earlier averages had been less but the political emergency dictated that more were needed on a daily basis.

The 2-1/2 centavo pieces went rather smoothly in the press. The diameter had been made the same as the old 2-cent pieces of the United States and the feeding tubes for this denomination were still on hand. The Venezuelan decree had stated that the coins were to be of the same size as similar values in the U.S. and Linderman had decided that the 2-cent piece was the appropriate model. The larger coin weighed about 70 grains on average.

At the end of 1876, the coiner’s department prepared a statement for Dr. Linderman of the coins struck to date. For the 1 centavo there had been 6,200,000 coined while the larger value saw 480,000 through Dec. 31. These, then, are the coins dated 1876. The Mint did not actually count the pieces but instead calculated the number by weight.

Coinage remained heavy in the early weeks of 1877, the work ending by Feb. 10. The number of pieces dated 1877, using the known coinage totals, is 3.8 million for the 1 centavo and 1.52 million for the 2-1/2 centavos. It is of course possible that the 1876 dies were used for a time in 1877 but, if so, no mention has been found in the Mint records.

Mint records are also silent on the composition of these coins, but it is believed that the alloy is of copper and nickel, with about the same proportion as used for the copper-nickel cents of 1857-1864. These coins had about one-sixth nickel and the remainder copper.

Although it cannot of course be known what effect the coins had when delivered in Venezuela, General Linares Alcantara did win the election by a narrow margin and the usual claims of fraud. He served only a year or so before dying suddenly. The result was a short Civil War followed by a new president, but Antonio Guzman Blanco was soon able to return to power, his third term as president. Another revolution overthrew him and he spent the remainder of his days living in Paris.

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