By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..
In the “old days” we’d call this a “mail bag column”. But now that everything’s electronic mail, is this an “inbox column”?
Anyway, my articles for CoinWeek have generated quite a few comments and questions from collectors about coin production at the United States Mint. Here is a selection I recently received followed by brief answers. For more extensive answers, you’ll find details and citations for original documents in my books and articles. You might begin with From Mine to Mint (2013), which deals with Mint operations, processes, equipment and machinery. If you want a list of my publications, send an email to CoinWeek and I’ll get one to you.
Having said that, let’s get down to it.
What Determines Mintage Size?
Who or what determines the mintage size? Time, bullion on hand, a superintendent’s orders for 3,844,000 coins one year and 1,766,000 the next?
First, the Treasury Department and the Mint operated on the Federal Government’s fiscal year, so that is how all the officers looked at coinage. That meant that a calendar year, as required for dating coins, was an exception to all normal accounting. This is the main reason for inconsistency in coin production from one calendar year to another: the fiscal year was more important.
There were several ways used to determine how many coins were needed. For copper coins made from 1793 through 1857, demand from large cities and regions filtered its way through the largest banks and the United States Treasurer to the U.S. Mint at Philadelphia. The Mint, in turn, ordered planchets from suppliers, mainly Boulton and then Crocker Bros. Early coppers, and the later base metal minor coins, were also very profitable for the Treasury.
Gold and silver coins were made to the demand of depositors rather than for Government account. Production was erratic and depended on banks and deposits from specie brokers and the denominations of coin they requested (the only way the Mint or the Treasury could make certain denominations was by persuading large depositors to request them – such as quarters or dimes). This process was also affected by the delay between the deposit of specie and the Mint’s delivery of coins made from that deposit. Half dollars were popular with large depositors because it took less time to deliver $100,000 in halves than $100,000 in, say, half dimes.
After the Act of 1873 went into effect, the Government bought gold and silver for coinage on its account. Thereafter, coin production was more closely related to commercial demand and was commonly determined by the Treasurer of the U.S., the Mint Director, the Comptroller of Currency, and informal conversations with bankers and Assistant Treasurers in various regions. As before, the fiscal calendar was dominant. Congress also got into the act by ordering certain production quotas, such as for Morgan dollars made from required bullion purchases.
Where’s Your Evidence for Excess Coin Production?
Do you have evidence that more coins were minted than asked for by the superintendent?
Before the law changed in 1873, the Mint delivered as many coins as the owner’s bullion would make. After the change, coin production was always requested in dollar amounts, such as “Make $1,000,000 in double eagles.”
But gold and silver were always handled internally in Troy ounces and grains. That meant calculations had to be made by the Melter and Refiner (M&R) and Coiner to convert bullion into coin while allowing for normal wastage and defective pieces. The Coiner would eventually deliver to the Superintendent the required $1,000,000 in $20 gold double eagles.
Was Melting Common for All Coins?
We certainly know there was considerable melting of classic commemoratives. Was this common for all coins?
Well… not quite. The commemoratives were special coins, with legislation specifying coin production limits and allowing for the melting of unsold pieces. This was not the case for circulating coinage.
Production coinage was subject to multiple tests for weight and purity during manufacture on up to delivery. Even after delivery, test pieces–called “Special Assay Pieces”–were examined by the assayer at Mint headquarters in Washington, D.C. (or by a nearby mint such as Carson City testing coins from San Francisco). This was supposed to be completed before the coins were released by a mint. If a Special Assay coin was too heavy, too light, or out of tolerance for purity, then the whole delivery was tested and occasionally condemned – meaning all of that delivery was melted and recoined.
Sometimes this happened quickly, but other times it took a year or more to recoin – there are some interesting examples of this from the Carson mint.
And What About Half Dollars?
How about regular circulation halves or other denominations? Were they also melted?
In only one clearly documented instance were normal half dollars deliberately melted for recoinage into other denominations. This involved an excess of 1877 half dollars that were sitting in a vault. In 1886, there was a very high demand for dimes but no bullion available, so the Treasurer of the U.S. ordered the 1877 halves recoined.
There were also instances where Congress made changes to our coin weights or precious metal content, and older coins were classified as “obsolete” or “uncurrent” and melted. The metal was used to produce new coins.
Were Planchets and Blanks Standardized?
Was there a standard blank or planchet sheet size? How many planchets can be cut from a standard sheet if they exist?
Except for early coppers, where blanks were cut from rolled sheets of metal, blanks were cut from long strips. The M&R was supplied with iron molds of different widths and thickness. Each size was determined by the dimensions of the coins that would be produced. Gold or silver was poured into these depending on the coin denomination that was to be made. The cooled metal was in the form of an ingot usually about 12-1/2 inches long (an ingot for making standard dollars was 12-1/2 inches long, 1-1/2 inches wide, and 7/16th inch thick. An ingot for quarters was 12-1/2 inches long, 1-1/16th inch wide and 3/16th inch thick).
Here’s a table of ingot sizes for the four primary gold denominations:
Ingots were run through compression rollers multiple times to reduce thickness and produce long thin strips from which blanks were cut. The number of blanks made from each strip depended on denomination and whether blanks were cut singly or in pairs.
How Are Coins Counted?
How are coins counted? Are they counted by weight?
All Mint facilities used manually operated counting boards, patented in the 1840s, until about the 1920s. These were made of wood with metal dividers and could hold up to 250 dollar coins at one time. Other board sizes accommodated various denominations. They were preferred to mechanical counters because they caused little damage to coins, were easy to use and rarely broke down (Mint employes worked hard to produce the best looking coins they could, and Mint Officers actively supported this – at least until the 1920s, when quality deteriorated under Mint Director Robert Grant).
Gold coins were put in bags of $5,000 value but each bag also had a weight tolerance of plus or minus nine grains. Silver and minor coins did not have this bulk tolerance; however, samples were frequently taken and compared to legal tolerance. Twenty-first-century U.S. coins for delivery are not counted; instead, they are estimated by bulk weight.
Let’s pause for now. We can do this again if there’s enough interest. You can send your Q&A comments to me down below.
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