By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek….
If you haven’t had the opportunity to check out the New Orleans Mint in person, I recommend you stop by the next time you’re in The Big Easy. I was just passing through Louisiana on a business trip and had only a few hours to spend in the Crescent City, but I made sure I visited two places while I was there.
The first was Café DuMonde. The second was, of course, the historic New Orleans Mint at 400 Esplanade Avenue.
Located in the French Quarter, the Old U.S. Mint building in New Orleans is a free attraction with a fascinating story.
The New Orleans Mint was born during a time of rapid geographical expansion of the early Union. The nation’s population was growing quickly, too, and people were moving further and further from the East Coast.
By 1830, the size of the nation had increased to 24 states and nearly 13 million people–up from 17 states and a population of 7,239,881 only 20 years earlier. According to some estimates, there was just one quarter, dime, or half-dime per person in 1830, and small silver coins were in high demand at a time when the half-dollar represented a significant portion of one’s daily wages. Foreign coins were widely used to help alleviate the coin shortage.
The Philadelphia Mint couldn’t keep up with the demand for coinage. Further hampering the coin shortage was an executive order by President Andrew Jackson in the mid-1830s that required all land transactions to be completed in cash. This led to the creation of three new branch mints in 1835: one in New Orleans, Louisiana; another in Charlotte, North Carolina; and a third in Dahlonega, Georgia. The New Orleans Mint officially became a branch mint on March 3, 1835, but the first coins would not be made there until 1838.
While the Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints, located in gold mining regions, would produce gold coinage, the New Orleans Mint would take the responsibility of providing the Old Southwest with millions of silver coins. The New Orleans Mint, which also produced gold coinage, rivaled the coin output of the main Mint in Philadelphia. Before long, Cajun coinage was flooding the South. In fact, by the end of 1840, the New Orleans Mint had made 2,065,000 Seated Liberty half dimes, 2,872,634 Seated Liberty dimes, and 425,200 Seated Liberty quarters.
Large-denomination coins also saw big numbers. 116,020 Capped Bust half dollars and 855,100 Seated Liberty half dollars were made at the New Orleans Mint by 1840, along with 17,781 Classic Head $2.50 quarter eagles, 33,580 Liberty head $5 half eagles, and 40,120 Liberty Head $10 eagles.
Civil War Interrupts Coin Production
While a high water table and shifting soil created structural problems for the Mint facility, reinforcements to the building in the 1840s and ‘50s made the redbrick edifice stronger than ever. By that time, the New Orleans Mint had expanded its production run to include Seated Liberty silver dollars, Liberty Head and Indian Princess Head gold one dollar coins, $3 Indian Princess Head gold coins, and Liberty Head $20 double eagles. The New Orleans Mint chugged along like a paddle steamboat until the start of the Civil War in 1861.
Louisiana seceded from the Union on January 26, 1861. Within weeks, Louisiana had accepted the Confederate States Constitution and was under the control of the fledgling Confederate government by March. However, Mint staff that had been employed by the Federal government were retained. The Confederates produced a total of 962,633 of the 2,532,633 O-Mint half dollars bearing the 1861 date. Numismatists have determined that 1861-O half dollars with a bisected date die crack and halves with a “speared olive bud,” attributed as WB-103 and WB-104, respectively, were coined by the Confederacy.
Confederate officials commissioned a new reverse design by New Orleans engraver A. H. M. Patterson. His reverse design, to be paired with Christian Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty obverse design from the 1830s, was to bear the inscription “Confederate States of America” and a central design element containing a wreath of cotton and wheat that encircles a confederate shield; a pole adorned with a Phrygian cap tops the shield. An unknown number of these coins were made but only four are known to survive, including a specimen owned by Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis. New York City coin dealer J. W. Scott obtained an original Confederate half dollar in the late 1870s and created 500 restrikes of the Confederate reverse upon 1861 Seated Liberty half dollars, Gobrecht’s eagle design having been planed off.
As April 1861 wore on, Confederate officials at the New Orleans Mint ran low on bullion supplies, which brought minting operations at the facility to an end. The Mint’s staff, meanwhile, remained on duty until May 31, 1861. Over the course of the following year, the Mint building was converted to housing quarters for Confederate troops until Union naval forces, led by Admiral David Farragut, recaptured the city of New Orleans in the spring of 1862.
Farragut raised the United States flag atop the New Orleans Mint building in April 1862, much to the chagrin of locals who detested the Union takeover of the city. Famously, professional steamboat gambler William Bruce Mumford climbed to the roof of the building, removed the flag, and tore the stars and stripes to shreds. Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler demanded that Mumford be executed for his defiant actions. Mumford was hanged from a horizontally mounted flagpole on the Mint building on June 7, 1862.
In 1876, the New Orleans Mint building reopened as an assay office. While mint equipment had been destroyed during the war, government officials recognized the building’s importance as a place of manufacturing coins. In 1877, efforts were underway to restore the facility as a fully operational mint. New mint equipment was ordered and the building underwent extensive refurbishment. In 1879, the New Orleans Mint was operating once again, producing mainly silver coins – most notably, the Morgan silver dollar.
Second Hurrah for the New Orleans Mint
It’s difficult to say whether or not the New Orleans Mint would have been afforded a second chance at life if not for the Bland-Allison Act. The Bland-Allison Act of 1878 mandated that the U.S. government purchase between $2 million and $4 million of silver each month from western U.S. mines and convert the bullion into silver dollars. Millions of these silver dollars were minted in New Orleans, which during some years produced more Morgans than either Philadelphia or the San Francisco Mint.
In addition to silver dollars, the New Orleans Mint also made millions of dimes, quarters, half dollars, $5 half eagles, and $10 eagles during the facility’s second period of operation as a mint. 2,325 Liberty Head $20 double eagles were made there in 1879. In 1907, the New Orleans Mint was used to strike more than five million 20-centavo silver coins for Mexico in conjunction with a U.S. government program that authorized the production of coins for foreign governments.
The New Orleans Mint had played a strategic role in bolstering the nation’s coin supply and helping the U.S. government meet the requirements of the Bland-Allison Act. Perhaps, however, the New Orleans Mint was better at producing quantity than quality. O-Mint coins have a notorious reputation for being weakly struck and having poor luster. Therefore, well-struck, lustrous New Orleans coins are in high demand among diehard numismatists.
During the Old Mint’s second run, women played a significant role in the facility’s daily operations. While male employees represented a majority of the Mint’s workforce, there were 44 women on staff. Many of these women were sent from the Philadelphia Mint to train employees in New Orleans the meticulous process of adjusting money. 39 of the women were adjusters, and five were counters and packers. Several eventually were promoted to operating the coin presses.
The New Orleans Mint in the 20th and 21st Centuries
By 1906, silver dollar production had been on hiatus for two years and the United States Mint had facilities in Denver, San Francisco, and New Orleans, along with the main mint in Philadelphia. With the western half of the nation supplied its coinage by the Denver and San Francisco Mints and the recently enlarged Philadelphia Mint, which moved to its third location in 1901, amply serving the eastern half of the United States, the New Orleans Mint became less vital.
Treasury officials stopped funding the New Orleans branch’s operations in 1909. The facility was officially decommissioned in 1911 and all machinery was sent to Philadelphia. The building was soon converted into an assay office, a function the facility had served from 1876 through 1879. The assay office closed in 1932, and the Mint building served as a Federal prison until 1943. The building was subsequently used by the Coast Guard as a storage facility, during which time the building fell into severe disrepair. Perhaps its one saving grace during the Cold War era was the fact that many saw the Old Mint facility as the most suitable nuclear fallout shelter in New Orleans.
As the 1960s rolled on, New Orleans promised it would save the Old Mint building if it could be renovated and serve a purpose within 15 years. By the late 1970s, restoration efforts were underway. In 1981, the Old Mint reopened as a museum of the facility’s coining operations, complete with several examples of historic coin machinery and many of the coins that the Mint had produced during its glory years.
Today, the New Orleans Mint building serves as one of five branches of the Louisiana State Museum. As such, the facility has hosted an array of non-coin exhibits, such as the history of New Orleans Mardi Gras, Newcomb Pottery, and jazz. An expansive map and document archive room is located on the third floor.