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How Coin Dies Got Their Numbers

By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..

The earliest United States Mint dies were anonymous lumps of steel. Except for the design faces and size, there was little to distinguish one from another. That began to change when branch mints were opened in New Orleans, Charlotte, and Dahlonega. Sometimes the Coining Department in Philadelphia, where working dies were made, marked the shank (the cylindrical part of a die) to show which mint it was intended for – but sometimes this was omitted.

Engraver James B. Longacre was the first to officially imply that dies be numbered or otherwise marked so that a record could be kept. The basic purpose was to ensure that all dies got to the correct mint, and that the engraver had a list of dies made from his hubs and master dies. At the end of the calendar year, each mint reported the quantity of dies destroyed by denomination. This was supposed to match production and distribution records kept by the Engraving Department.

As late as 1860, Longacre could only hint at some form of stronger die control:

As the only officer directly responsible for the accuracy and operations of this dept. as the Engraver of the Mint, there appears to me a propriety in limiting the use of the dies and presses belonging to the Engraver’s Department to the essential question and control of that officer.

Any authority given to any workman which precludes the knowledge or control of the proper officer, besides removing his responsibility, necessarily opens the door to inequality, etc. – offers a temptation if not a pretext for indirect proceedings whenever there may be sufficient inducement.

To guard against this contingency, which is now demonstrably unsxxx [sic], it should not be allowed to take impressions from the dies within the limits of the Engraving Department without an order from the Engraver specifying the character of the pieces, the number to be struck, etc. The impressions delivered in favor to or to be struck and the impressions deliverable in form to him or such persons only as he may select to receive them.

In addition to this arrangement, security would be promoted by the construction of a Register to be entered in a book for the purpose of all the existing dies – stating where they are kept and under what conditions.

Those dies no longer in use which it may still be deemed expedient to preserve, should be placed under seal with intelligible descriptions attached.

By 1878, coinage dies were being numbered – likely consecutively as they were completed and ready for use, although at present we don’t have explicit documentation. The illustration below shows a page from the San Francisco Mint’s monthly die use report for September 1878. It is clear that nine silver dollar obverse dies (upper left) were paired with five reverse dies to make 1,396,000 coins. However, it is less certain that obverse and reverse were paired in the order shown. That is, was obverse #53 paired with reverse #72 for 13,000 coins, then obverse #55 with reverse #72 for another 361,000 pieces?

Figure 1. Sample die use report from the San Francisco Mint for September 1878. (RG104 E-229 box 7 of 17. October 1, 1878.)
Figure 1. Sample die use report from the San Francisco Mint for September 1878. (RG104 E-229 box 7 of 17. October 1, 1878.)

In September 1880, Mint director Horatio Burchard wrote to Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Snowden with suggestions for tighter control of dies. It’s not obvious why this change was made, but a possible reason is to keep better track of the large quantities of silver dollar dies being sent to all the branch mints each year. Adding numbers to dies by order of production for each facility would have made data recording easier, and simplified reporting.

The Mints at San Francisco and Carson have for some time past been furnishing this office with monthly statements of the dies used and number of pieces struck by each die. I have directed that in future these statement shall be rendered only at the close of the calendar year, and for the purpose of instituting comparisons, you are hereby instructed to furnish a similar statement of the dies in your Mint.

In order that a record may be kept in this office of all coinage dies made, used, and destroyed in every calendar years, your will, in preparing dies for your own use and for the other coinage Mints, cause numbers in consecutive order, to be stamped upon the dies, commencing with No. 1 for the obverse of each denomination made for each Mint and the same for the reverse. Every die will then be identified by its number from the time it is made until it is destroyed.

In sending dies to the Mints you will notify this office of the individual numbers of those forwarded and in reporting the dies used and pieces struck at your Mint, as well as in your report of the destruction of dies at the close of the calendar year, you will give the number of every one so used or destroyed.

The numbering and detailed reporting of dies will commence with the ensuing calendar year.

The director wanted two changes made which he felt would facilitate better die tracking and information for the engraver in relation to die steel and possible systemic problems.

The first was to end monthly reporting by the branch mints of die use and longevity. This would become an annual report submitted after the close of each calendar year along with die return and destruction affidavits.

The second change was to begin numbering dies with “No. 1” at the beginning of each calendar year, for each side of a coin, and for each denomination. In other words, for silver dollars of 1881 for Carson City, the first obverse and first reverse dies would be “No. 1”, the next ones “No. 2”, and so forth. Half dollars would also begin with “No. 1”, then “No. 2”. Each mint’s dies would begin with “No. 1” obverse and “No. 1” reverse every year, and end in December, thus showing the total number of dies used for each denomination at each mint.

Snowden replied the next day with an additional idea.

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of 13th inst., in relation to numbering the dies to be used in this Mint, and [those] forwarded to other Mints, commencing with the next calendar year.

Instructions in conformity therewith will be issued to the Engraver and Coiner of this Mint.

At the conclusion of each fiscal year there are a number of reverse dies which are necessarily carried over and used the following [fiscal] year, I would respectfully suggest, that all these dies be destroyed at the close of the present [fiscal] year, so that we may commence the system your suggested without any old dies, unnumbered to encumber the enumeration.

I would further suggest that as there are frequently odd dies forwarded to different Mints, and used in this Mint, that such odd dies be numbered alphabetically, or by some other designation, to distinguish them from those that have been sent in pairs. I make this suggestion for your consideration.

He wanted all reverse dies issued in the last half of FY 1880 (Jan.-June) destroyed so that there would be a “clean slate” with no leftover dies sitting at the mints. He also noted that during the year dies were not necessarily sent out in obverse-reverse pairs. These extra dies, which he called “odd dies”, might be designated with letters rather than numbers.

The exchange of ideas continued the next day, with Burchard writing:

In reply to your letter of the 14th instant, suggesting that odd dies used at your Mint or forwarded to the other Mints be designated alphabetically to distinguish them from those that have bene sent in pairs, I would say that my letter of the 13th does not contemplate that the dies should be numbered in pairs, but that the obverse of each denomination used at your Mint should commence with #1 and the reverse with #1, and so on in independent series. This will of course obviate any necessity for designating odd dies.

Here, Burchard made it clear that he was not thinking of numbering in obverse-reverse pairs, but as individual dies. This removed the need for any “odd die” special designation.

Engraver Barber, who had received die numbering instructions from Snowden on the 14th, added his thoughts on September 18:

I beg leave to say that in order to comply with instructions contained in your letter of the 14th inst., it will be necessary to adopt one of two systems, the first to have a standard size for the dies of each denomination, this in my opinion would be the only thorough one, so that a die made to standard would be fit for use in any of the Mints, now scarcely any two presses use the same sized die. The system of standard sizes is becoming universal among machinists, and I think would work well in regard to dies. The next and only other way I can find, will be for the Coiner of the Philadelphia Mint to order dies not less than three days in advance, this will be positively necessary as it is impossible to place the numbers on the dies after they are hardened.

His comments point out that dies sizes differed from one mint to another depending on age and the manufacturer of the presses. This was the primary reason dies for San Francisco, and sometimes Carson, were shipped unhardened. The other comment, somewhat indirectly written, was that hardened dies could not be numbered. Thus, numbering had to be done before a die was complete, which required more advance notice than at present. The mints would have to better plan production and work schedules to accommodate the engraving department and shipping. Barber did not mention the consequences of a numbered die breaking on final hardening and how this would be entered into the department’s records.

When new dies for 1881 were sent to the Carson City Mint, they were explicitly described by denomination, quantity, and die number. Each denomination began with No. 1 for obverse and No. 1 for reverse, continuing consecutively through the year, as shown on the sample below.

Figure 2. Statement of 1881-date dies shipped to Carson Mint. (RG104 E-229 box 4 of 17. Dated October 18, 1880.)
Figure 2. Statement of 1881-date dies shipped to Carson Mint. (RG104 E-229 box 4 of 17. Dated October 18, 1880.)

The letter of transmittal included these additional comments to Carson Mint Superintendent Crawford:

You are hereby instructed, that with the commencement of the calendar year 1881, you will keep a record of all dies sent to your Mint, buy the numbers stamped upon the dies at the Mint at Philadelphia.

All reports of dies, either their use, receipt by you, or destruction at the close of the year, will specify the individual numbers. This is for the purpose of enabling this office to keep a record of every die from the time it is made until it is destroyed. You will probably have, at the close of the year 1880, a number of reverse dies in good order or that have not been used at all; all such you will forward to the Mint at Philadelphia, where they will be numbered in consecutive orders and returned to you. I do not desire, that any unnumbered die now in your possession shall be used after the close of the current calendar year. You will also at the appointed time and in the manner prescribed by regulations, destroy every obverse die of all denominations in your Mint, and the coinage of 1881 will commence with such numbered dies only, as are sent your for that purpose.

Burchard also wrote Snowden telling him that the other mints would be instructed to send all dies from 1880, including unused ones, to the Philadelphia Mint at year-end:

I have received your letter of the 18th instant, informing me of the shipment of dies for 1881, to the Mint at Carson, and have advised the Superintendent of the facts relative to the same, noted in your communication.

I concur in your suggestion that, as the numbering and recording of dies will commence with the year 1881, it will be better to have not dies carried over from the current year.

There may be, however, at the close of 1880, a number of reverse dies which have never been used, and as nothing would be gained by destroying them, I have decided to instruct the various Superintendents to send all such back to you. If found to be suitable for use, they can be numbered and recorded and subsequently re-shipped in filling further orders from the respective mints.

This allowed the Engraving Department to check dies and determine which were suitable for re-issue, rather than allowing the less experienced local coiners to make this decision. The expected results were fewer mismatches between obverse and reverse die design variants and better-quality coinage.

A letter went out to San Francisco and the other mints on October 26.

At the close of the current calendar year you will cause every obverse die of all denominations and every reverse die unfit for use, to be destroyed in the manner prescribed by the Regulations; and you will return to the Mint at Philadelphia all reverse dies that have not been used or that are in good condition.

No dies now in your Mint will be used for coinage after the close of the current calendar year, but the coinage of 1881, will commence with an entire new set of dies both obverse and reverse which will be sent to you. These dies will be numbered, before transmission, in consecutive order, commencing with No. 1 for the obverse, and the same for the reverse of each denomination. In all reports made of the use of dies, acknowledgements of receipt, or certificate of destruction, you will refer to the dies by their individual numbers.

This is for the purpose of enabling this office to keep a record of every die, from the time it is manufactured until it is destroyed.

I have also, in the absence of any requisition from you for dies for 1881, requested the Superintendent of the Mint at Philadelphia to transmit you for use in that year, the following – 25 obverse and 25 reverse standard dollar Nos. 1 to 25, respectively, and 15 pairs each of double eagle, eagle, and half eagle, Nos. 1 to 16, respectively.

Figure 3. Excerpt from letter transmitting reverse dies to Philadelphia from San Francisco. The other mints sent similar boxes of dies. (RG104 E-229 box 10 of 17.)
Figure 3. Excerpt from letter transmitting reverse dies to Philadelphia from San Francisco. The other mints sent similar boxes of dies. (RG104 E-229 box 10 of 17.)

In response, the mints sent all reverse dies that were in good condition to the Philadelphia Mint at the end of 1880. The San Francisco transmittal letter is reproduced below.

The year 1881 begins a period of several decades where annual die use reports were made by each mint. Some of these have survived, and it is possible others await discovery in as-yet-untouched archive files.

Figure 4. Excerpt from San Francisco Mint annual die use report, 1881. (RG104 E-229 box 11 of 17 die table.)
Figure 4. Excerpt from San Francisco Mint annual die use report, 1881. (RG104 E-229 box 11 of 17 die table.)

For silver dollar specialists, particularly those interested in Van Allen-Mallis (VAM) varieties, these reports permit improved pairing of obverse and reverse dies for each mint and year.

Roger W. Burdette
Roger W. Burdette
Responsible for much original numismatic research in recent years, Roger Burdette was named the ANA Numismatist of the Year in 2023. Besides CoinWeek, he has written for Coin World and The Numismatist, among others. He is the author of Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921 (2005); Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908 (2006); Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915 (2007); A Guide Book of Peace Dollars (Whitman, 2009); and Fads, Fakes & Foibles (2021). He also co-wrote the NLG award-winning Truth Seeker: The Life of Eric P. Newman (2015) with Len Augsburger and Joel Orosz. Burdette served as a member of the Citizen’s Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) from 2008 to 2012.

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  1. Thanks for this solid contribution to U.S. numismatic knowledge. Samples of original text woven into a clear explanation of what you discovered.


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