By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..
The Mint Act of 1792 established the United States Assay Commission to test and verify weight and purity of the country’s coins. Reports went directly to the president and were an integral part of maintaining and promoting the reliability of the new nation’s gold and silver coins. The Commission met once annually and was composed of two senior government officials plus several private experts from academic or business fields. Members were reimbursed for their travel and lodging expenses, but there was no honorarium or other payment.
In 1860, United States Mint Director James Ross Snowden decided to give each Commission member a half-dollar size silver medal. Numismatists Robert W. Julian and Ernest E. Keusch, writing in their book Medals of the United States Assay Commission 1860-1977, state:
Snowden’s attempt, in the latter part of the 1850s, to enlarge the medal department of the Mint. One of his favorite vehicles for the suggestion of change in the mint system was to have the Assay Commission formally adopt resolutions to be sent to higher powers in the Treasury Department. Presenting medals to Assay Commission members was an effective way of bringing a medal department to their attention.
In May 1859, Snowden issued a publicly available and widely praised medal promoting the Washington Medal Cabinet at the Philadelphia Mint and Mt. Vernon, Virginia. An additional purpose might have been to make use of engraver James B. Longacre’s new Liberty portrait, which Snowden had expected to use on subsidiary silver coins beginning in 1860 but which Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb abruptly vetoed in mid-November 1859.
The same obverse portrait was used in 1861, and again with the next issue in 1867, by which time the medal, now in silver, had become regarded as a memento and sign of appreciation for their service.
Coin collectors began asking for copies of the Assay Medal, but Mint Director James Pollock was reluctant to produce extra specimens.
I do not think it advisable to issue too many, as it defeats the intention of the medal, and detracts from its value in the hand of the Commissioners as an honorary memorial of their official visit to the Mint.
Correspondence between Pollock and current Mint Director Henry Linderman in 1874 presents an unusually detailed look at the “inside workings” of these rare and interesting pieces.
The obverse shows the Greek philosopher Archimedes contemplating the displacement of water by an object, resulting in his discovery of “specific gravity”. The reverse presents a catafalque (raised funeral bier) honoring Dr. John Torrey as the central device. Because of the medal’s association with Torrey, several employees of the New York Assay Office wanted copies and asked Superintendent Thomas C. Acton to obtain some.
On February 18, Linderman wrote to Pollock at the Philadelphia Mint asking that additional medals be struck in bronzed copper:
It appears that several persons in the Assay office at New York, who for many years were associated with the late Professor Torrey, would like to obtain copies of the Assay medal.
You are hereby authorized to strike a sufficient number for that purpose in either silver or bronze…
In a separate letter, Linderman remarked that, “there should be some record of the transaction on the files of this office. You will please therefore report the number struck and the disposition made thereof.”
On the 23rd, Pollock sent an accounting of the medals. He stated that 20 had been struck in silver before the Commission’s meeting on February 11, and that 25 more, these in bronze, had been or were going to be made.
Your letter of the 18th inst., in relation to the Annual Assay medal for 1874, and asking me to report to you the number struck and the disposition made thereof, has been received.
Prior to the meeting of the Assay Commissioners February 11th 1874, twenty medals had been struck for that occasion, and were subsequently disposed of as follows.
Since then and the receipt of your letter, ten more have been, and fifteen will be struck, to be distributed as follows:
Thus, thirty have been struck and fifteen more will be, to meet the wants of friends and collectors. The thirty struck will not have any connection with the Medal Department; those to be struck will.
I presume ten will be sufficient for Mr. Acton and his friends.
Some auction catalogs refer to medal purchases by other persons, but these were likely from the Medal Department’s direct sales at the Mint.
Although the Assay Commission was eliminated is a cost-saving measure in 1980, original Assay Medal owners and their descendants treasure these rare mementos. Specimens seldom appear for sale, and John Jay Pittman noted in a 1994 ANA lecture that no one has ever built a complete collection of these elusive pieces of Americana.
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 Julian, Robert W. and Ernest E. Keusch. “Medals of the United States Assay Commission 1860-1977”, TAMS Journal 29: 5(2). Token and Medal Society (1989)
 NARA, RG104 Entry 1 Box 56. Letter dated October 25, 1859 to Cobb from Snowden.
 NARA, RG104 Entry 1 Box 56. Letter dated November 15, 1859 to Snowden from Cobb.
 NARA, RG104 E-6 Box 4 Vol 1. Letter dated February 21, 1874 to Linderman from Pollock.
 Torrey was Assayer at the New York Assay Office for 23 years and widely respected in Mint and academic circles. He had been a member of the Commission on many occasions.
 NARA, RG104 E-235 Vol 2. 361-362. Letter dated February 18, 1874 to Pollock from Linderman. The metal for additional pieces was later restricted to bronzed copper, the mint’s normal “bronze” for medal work.
 NARA, RG104 E-235 Vol 2. 363 Letter dated February 18, 1874 to Pollock from Linderman.
 NARA, RG104 E-6 Box 4 Vol 1. Letter dated February 23, 1874 to Linderman from Pollock.
 John Jay Pittman, “U.S. Assay Commission Medals, 1860-1910”, David Lisot Video Library (1994). Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University. Accessed June 20, 2023. https://archive.org/details/FUN94006USAssayCommissionMedals18601910.