Because numismatics first became a national hobby more than 150 years ago, there has been a sufficient amount of time for myths and legends to grow about the coinage of the United States. Some of these stories are of course quite true but others are not and it is my aim to correct some of the misinformation which occurs from time to time.
These corrections are based almost completely on internal Mint records although reliable newspaper stories have been used where appropriate. In most cases the errors have arisen because of a misunderstanding of the original sources or because it was mistakenly thought that, the existing coins did not somehow agree with the records.
The reader will see occasional comments that Mint records are often flawed and cannot be trusted. This, of course, is usually the claim of someone who has examined a series of coins, does not understand the original sources, and then declares Mint records to be unreliable. The claim is also made by some researchers without understanding what is involved.
It is quite true that some published statements about the Mint cannot be trusted. Mint officials have occasionally written books or articles after their retirements and it is easy, without access to original papers, to make greater or lesser mistakes by relying just on memory. There is always the temptation, of course, to portray events in a way flattering to the writer, whether accurate or not.
It may be stated, with certainty, that the internal working papers of the Philadelphia Mint and its branches are among the most accurate government records in existence. These institutions were subject to rigorous audits by the Treasury, especially with respect to the bullion and coinage records. Everything had to balance to the smallest degree.
In addition, the annual public Assay Commission meeting that was held until it was abolished in the Carter Administration proved a further check on the integrity of the entire process. Moreover, we have a large number, many tens of thousands of pages, of letters sent by Mint officials. Again these are internal working documents of great value and have provided a wealth of material for those writing accurate accounts of the mints and coinage.
The 1815 large cent
Every collector of large cents knows that there are no genuine large cents with the date 1815. (Both 1814 and 1816 coins exist in quantity, however.) This fact has led to an error by which it is claimed that no large cents at all were struck in 1815, which is quite another matter.
From June 1812 until the end of 1814 Great Britain and the United States were at war, the War of 1812, called the Second War of Independence at the time. Because copper planchets for the cent coinage were imported from the Boulton firm in Birmingham, England, it was of course not possible to obtain fresh supplies of planchets during the war.
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As soon as the war ended, Mint Director Robert Patterson lost little time in ordering 5 tons of blanks from Boulton, about 450,000 pieces. There were some difficulties in sending the money as soon as it was needed and the result was that Boulton was prevented from shipping this initial post-war order until the fall of 1815.
The ship arrived at the Philadelphia docks in early December 1815 and Patterson saw to it that the barrels of planchets were brought to the Mint as quickly as possible. Because such shipments were normally stored in the ship’s hold as ballast, however, the cent blanks were among the last cargo to be offloaded from the vessel.
By mid December 1815 the planchets were safely in the Mint and Patterson ordered coinage to begin a few days later. Several thousand pieces had been struck by the end of December but no delivery of coined cents was made until February 1816.
It is not clear at the present time as to which date, 1814 or 1816, was used for the cents coined in December. The Mint did not keep records on such matters, it being of no importance to the officers in those days, and we are left with guesswork on the date.
While cents were struck in 1815, there was one year in which no cents were coined. This was 1823 and cents of that date were probably struck in 1824 though 1825 is sometimes mentioned as a possibility.
There is also a longstanding rumor that the cents struck in 1814 were used to pay Mint workers when the Treasury was unable to provide the specie to do so. This error was made by Walter Breen, who was unaware that Mint workers in that era were never directly paid from coins struck at the Mint, but rather were issued checks to be cashed at the Bank of Pennsylvania.
The cents of 1814 were also the subject of a curious rumor that began in 1832, when a Massachusetts collector offered to pay a small premium for coins of that year. His offer was misunderstood and the rumor soon made the rounds that in 1814 gold had accidentally been mixed with the copper used for planchets. A few of the cents had escaped and were of course very valuable. Those starting this bizarre rumor were clearly unaware that copper planchets were imported from England at this time.
The ‘1900’ Lafayette dollar
The Lafayette dollar has long been a favorite of collectors because of the dual portraits of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. It has the added distinction of being the first United States coin to carry the portrait of either man as well as being the first commemorative dollar coin of this country. It was not struck in 1900, however, despite the date on the coin.
The date of 1900 actually refers to the scheduled completion of a statue in Paris honoring Lafayette. Funds raised from the surcharge on these pieces were used to pay part of the cost of the equestrian statue.
Although we expect the date of striking to appear on a coin, this was not the case with the Lafayette dollar. They were in fact all coined on one day, Dec. 14, 1899, the exact centennial of Washington’s death. Why the correct date of 1899 did not also appear is one of the minor mysteries of this interesting coinage.
Another oddity of the coinage was the fact that there was no master hub for the dies. The lettering, for example, was punched in by hand. All of this may indicate that the Mint was under time constraints and not allowed to do the work with all due care. It is known, for example, that at least one of the officers later complained that he had not been given enough time to do his work properly.
It is also interesting to note that 14,000 coins, of the 50,000 originally made, remained unsold and were allowed to stay in a Treasury vault until the middle of World War II when they were abruptly melted for the silver. As this metal was hardly a vital war materiel, one has to wonder why they were not saved until after the war and then sold to collectors; after all they had gotten through World War I unscathed and in 1918 large numbers of silver coins, especially Morgan dollars, had been melted for the war effort.
Minor silver coins struck after 1878
Beginning in 1878 the coinage of silver dimes, quarters and half dollars suddenly hit rock bottom with only a handful being struck for stocking-stuffers and collectors. (In 1877, for example, the Philadelphia Mint struck 7.3 million dimes but in 1879 only 14,000.) Popular numismatic belief was that the start of Morgan dollar coinage in February 1878 had used up the available capacity of the mints and there was simply not enough time to strike more than a handful of each denomination each year.
Although capacity was rather tight with the advent of the Morgan dollar coinage, the problem was elsewhere and it was the result of the economic upheavals caused by the Civil War. Beginning in 1862 the public had hoarded silver coins, with many of them being exported to Canada and Latin America for use in their marketplaces.
For reasons that are still somewhat obscure, beginning in the fall of 1877 large numbers of these silver coins were shipped back to the United States, promptly clogging Treasury vaults. Silver coinage had been very heavy from 1873 to 1877 and this fresh avalanche of coins overwhelmed the system; the Treasury responded by shutting down the minor silver coinage. (The San Francisco Mint was not affected one way or the other because gold and silver coins had continued to circulate on the West Coast during and after the Civil War.)
The Treasury actually considered stopping the coinage entirely but Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden successfully petitioned the Treasury in the spring of 1879 to allow him to continue striking a reasonable number of such coins to meet special demands for new coins. Snowden believed that the collector of small means, for example, ought to be able to get annual sets of coins. The limited coinages of half dollars in the 1880s, for example, would not exist except for the timely intervention of A. Loudon Snowden.
During the 1880s the Treasury stockpile of old silver coins gradually was paid out to the public. By 1882 Philadelphia was striking dimes but it was not until 1891 that quarters and half dollars were again in short supply in the Eastern part of the country.
Proof coins of 1858
Due to a misunderstanding published by a researcher some years ago, the statement is sometimes seen that the Philadelphia Mint began issuing proof coins to collectors only in 1858. Prior to that, as the story goes, proof coins were difficult to obtain and were often used as presentation pieces to influential people.
In reality the story is quite different. Proof coins were struck by the United States Mint at Philadelphia as early as 1817 and were made available to the public at face value. By the 1840s the more affluent collector could even purchase a cased set from the chief coiner.
Until 1852 the striking of proof coins was a prerogative of the chief coiner but in 1854 this responsibility was transferred to Mint Director James Ross Snowden. At first, because of the low demand for proof coins from the public, the pieces were available at irregular times during the year. The proof dimes, for example, might be ready in February but the half eagles not until the fall.
The uncertainty about the proof coinage led to legitimate complaints by collectors and in 1857 Director Snowden announced that henceforth, starting in 1858, full proof sets would be available as soon as possible after the beginning of the year. The director was also being practical in the matter as sending out individual proof coins at irregular times meant increased work for the clerks.
Prior to 1860 United States proof coins, with one exception, were issued at face value, which actually entailed a loss to the Mint, considering the labor involved. Snowden changed the rules beginning in January 1860 by charging a small premium for such coins. (From 1854 to 1859 silver dollars in proof cost $1.08, the reason being that Snowden calculated the value of single dollars in terms of the half dollar, which was a lighter coin in relative terms. In 1860 and 1861 collectors could purchase full proof sets of gold or silver (the latter containing the cent) or individual pieces as they chose. In 1862, however, the rules were changed once more and full sets had to be purchased, individual pieces no longer being available.