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How Erratic Coin Distribution Affected Mint Workers

The New Orleans Mint, C. 1900. Image: United States Department of the Treasury / colorized by CoinWeek.
The New Orleans Mint, C. 1900. Image: United States Department of the Treasury / colorized by CoinWeek.

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

Coming into the 20th century, mint facilities in the United States were putting coins into circulation on a mixed system of indirect and direct distribution. Before the reforms of 1873, anyone–individuals, banks, corporations, speculators–could bring gold and silver to the mints and request that it be coined into specific denominations. Our mints were little more than specialty manufacturers producing products (coins) for each customer, with little regard for the national economy. Exceptions developed beginning in 1857 when base metal alloy coins (copper-nickel cents) were introduced. These “minor” coins were produced only for government account and then issued at face value to the public in exchange for gold or silver.

The Coinage Act of 1873 placed all coinage struck on government account, and put gold and silver coins on the same distribution basis as minor coins–cents, three-cents, and nickels. These were profound changes to our coinage system but did not address a fundamental problem plaguing the Mint and Treasury since 1793: how to get coins into commerce efficiently, when and where needed.

The system in place was demand-driven. That is, if the Assistant Treasurer in the Sub-treasury in Boston told the Treasurer of the U.S. that Boston needed more quarters, then this was the Assistant Treasurer’s response to local banks telling the Assistant Treasurer in Boston that bank customers (merchants) seemed to be requesting a larger quantity of quarters in their coin and currency orders. Just like the previous run-on sentence, it took time to sort through the situation.

Once the U.S. Treasurer became aware of higher demand for quarters in Boston, his office had to determine if quarters could be shipped to Boston from the Treasury in Washington, or from one of the mints. However, since Treasury policy was to avoid keeping a large inventory of coins on hand, local demand often required the Mint Bureau to strike more coins – in this example, quarters. The result of this indirect demand and supply response was that United States Mint production of gold and silver coins was both sporadic, and sometimes far out of relation to demand by the time the coins were made.

We’ll look at this more extensively in a future column, but for today, I want to focus on how all this affected workers at the mints.

The Effect on Mint Workers

Most employees were ordinary literate men and women with a sixth-to-ninth-grade education – sufficient for most jobs at that time. They lived in rented apartments[1] or with family, took a street car (or trolley) to the mint and paid about seven cents for one-way fare. Most earned $2.00 to $3.00 per day, six days a week, women being paid about a dollar a day less than men and also relegated to the lowest paying work (adjusting blanks, sewing bags or aprons, and so forth). For these wage earners, almost 81% of their income was consumed by rent, fuel, lighting, clothing and food[2]. The seemingly small cost of transportation to and from work amount to about 7% of income, further reducing any surplus to just 12%. A short illness could be catastrophic due to lost work. Other expenses further reduced discretionary income to the point that many mint employees worked payday-to-payday.

Figure 1. Children playing in the Lower French Quarter in front of a working class house at 67 St. Philip Street (between Royal and Bourbon St.) New Orleans, November 1890. Photo by William Henry Jackson. Courtesy Library of Congress/ colorized by CoinWeek
Figure 1. Children playing in the Lower French Quarter in front of a working-class house at 67 St. Philip Street (between Royal and Bourbon St.) New Orleans, November 1890. Photo by William Henry Jackson. Courtesy Library of Congress/ colorized by CoinWeek

I’ve emphasized the above because these were employees most affected by inconsistencies in coinage production. They were the first to be laid off in a “reduction in force,” and were likewise those with the most limited prospects for finding another job quickly. They had very limited reserves of cash, few options for merchant credit, and no hope of bank loans.

With practical circumstances impacting so many mint workers, the Mint Bureau consistently tried to avoid or delay furloughs. The director and superintendent recognized that skills acquired while working at a mint were highly specialized and critical to efficient coinage manufacture. It was also understood that the skills that made people valuable to mint operations were largely useless in other trades and industries. It also took time to train mint employees, and the director wanted to recover that time in productivity.

Each mint had an annual budget for wages and operations, plus a contingency fund for certain purposes. Funds came with restrictions for use depending on their source and conditions imposed by law. Neither the director nor superintendents had a lot of discretionary money available. This limited their options when the Treasurer of the U.S. said demand was low and the secretary ordered a reduction in manufacturing and spending on wages. The usual response was for the director to order a “reduction in force” (RIF), which meant laying off a few to over one hundred employees[3].

Rather than losing employees trained in specialist but low-paying work, Mint superintendents and sometimes the director got creative. The first steps taken were to explain how all the employees were necessary, as in this letter from the Philadelphia Mint Cashier Mark H. Cobb to Superintendent Daniel M. Fox:

With reference to your inquiry as to the feasibility of reducing the working force of the Mint, I beg to say that a reduction of force at this season of the year appears to me injudicious, for the following reasons:

1st. The revival of the spring trade ordinarily dates from about the middle of March. With that revival, the demand for minor coins and dimes must inevitably increase. We have but moderate stock of such coins on hand, not sufficient to cover the demands liable to be made upon this Mint in any week during a brisk business season.

2nd. We have for the several days, been responding to the calls of the Treasurer of the United States in behalf of the banks in the Clearing House of both New York and Philadelphia. These demands are on our gold in stock, and the stock is now less than one and one quarter millions. However it may become vitally necessary to coin gold enough to meet the possible emergency, and this would require the full force of adjusters to be available at any moment.

3rd. The coinage of minor coins and dimes requires a considerable extra force in the press room in order to make the output of such coins effective. Six feeders at press turning out cents, working eight hours can at most produce only about three thousand (3000) dollars. As to dimes one feeder will turn out $12 per minute against $80 per minute of standard dollars – making it necessary to employ a larger number of feeders where the coinage includes small coin.

Under all the circumstances, known, and probable, as ascertained by comparing the phenomenon of business year by year for a term of years. I am decidedly of the opinion that any reduction of force in this mint should be made with care if made at all, and that no risk of crippling the institution by arbitrary reduction should be taken[4].

When this approach did not work, other options were available. A common means of temporarily reducing the mint budget was to reclassify some employees into lower paying jobs without actually changing their work. This was OK for a couple of months, but soon produced complaints to the Secretary of the Treasury about being underpaid. Another approach was a rotating furlough. In this plan, a third of low-wage employees were furloughed each month and then returned to work the next two months. It had the advantage of reducing expenses while keeping everyone on the payroll and retaining those with special skills, such as adjusting gold blanks.

One unusual method of maintaining the volume of work and thereby retaining mint workers was by transfer of bullion from one facility to another. Here, one plant, such as the New York Assay Office, might send a quantity of bullion to an underutilized mint, such as New Orleans, for coinage[5]. There was no impact on the assay office and the receiving mint was able to use its employees and avoid layoffs.

Here’s an example involving the New York Assay Office and Overton Cade, Superintendent of the New Orleans Mint in 1893:

I have requested that a transfer be made from the Bullion Fund of the U. S. Assay Office at New York to that of your Mint, of the sum of $1,540,433.45 payable in 82,838.297 [sic] ounces of standard gold bullion, for coinage into eagles and half eagles, as early as practicable. I will thank you to inform me if you have a sufficient number of dies on hand.

[Second letter of same date]

In order to keep your force employed a transfer will be made from the New York Assay Office to you of $1,540,000 in gold bullion which bullion will probably be shipped from New York to-morrow.

From this bullion and that on hand you will proceed to coin eagles and half eagles in equal proportions in addition to such subsidiary silver coinage as you may be able to execute.

It is desirable that you should coin the balance of, uncurrent silver coin transferred to you, during this month as the demand upon the Treasury for the same is great and constantly increasing.

As your mint has had comparatively little experience in coining gold, I have to request that you will instruct the operating officers to exercise every care to see that the gold coins comply with the law in every particular as to weight and fineness.

I will thank you to inform me what size crucible the Melter and Refiner at your institution has heretofore used in making gold ingots. In this connection I would say that I do not think the large crucibles needed in making silver ingots should be used in making gold ingots. The crucibles used at the Philadelphia and San Francisco mints for making gold ingots is the size known as “#70” as experience has shown that is the most suitable size.

The #70 crucible will hold 5,000 ounces, which should yield $50,000 in finished coins.

R. E. Preston, Acting Director[6].

Preston’s opening statement, “In order to keep your force employed,” is very uncommon and direct. He clearly views New Orleans as an important mint and that retaining its workers is worth the inconvenience of transferring $1.5 million in gold bullion. The acting director also noted that the New Orleans Mint “had comparatively little experience in coining gold,” and the officers would need to be particularly careful to avoid problems[7].

The last resort was an RIF, where individuals were fired. As noted before, a RIF fell hardest on the lowest-paid mint workers. No advance notice was required, although a few days was common. There was no severance pay; unused leave was lost, letters of recommendation were rare, and no job-hunting assistance. Later, as coin orders increased and the mints began hiring, some RIF’d workers might return after reapplying, but most drifted to other jobs, and their coin-making skills were lost.

* * *

Notes

[1] Average rent was 15% to 16% of income in 1892 for typical mint workers earning between $600 and $900 per year. House of Representatives, 52nd Congress, First Session, Executive Document 232, Part 2. Report of the Commission of Labor. Part III Cost of Living. “Summary of Percentages of Expenditure for Different Purposes in Normal Families, by Objects of Expenditures.” 864-865.

[2] Lower-income families spend as much as 50% of their income on food. Higher-income people, approaching the middle class, spent less than 28% on food.

[3] A “RIF” was firing people – they lost their jobs; a “furlough” was temporary, usually for a few weeks.

[4] NARA RG104, Entry 1, Box 150. Letter dated March 8, 1888, to Fox from Cobb.

[5] Transfers of bullion between mint facilities were common but seldom to retain employees.

[6] RG104 E-235 Vol 69, 135. Letters dated September 1, 1893, to Overton Cade from Robert Preston.

[7] The first three gold bullion deliveries were of the wrong fineness and were remelted. More in a future column.

* * *

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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