The New Orleans Mint: Part 2 - PCGS

By Victor Bozarth for PCGS ……

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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By 1850, the New Orleans Mint was producing a nearly full product line. The new gold dollars introduced in 1849, as well as the new $20 gold double eagle introduced in 1850, had been added to the mint production roster. The products produced at the New Orleans Mint would (at one point) include all the silver and gold denominations, though the three cent silver and $3 gold coins were produced for just one year each–1851 and 1854, respectively.

The goal of providing coinage to the region was improved, although the lack of copper coins necessitated the use of trade and merchant tokens through and after the Civil War. Remember, no cents (or even two cents, produced beginning in 1864) were made at any other mint besides Philadelphia until 1908. That there are hundreds of varieties of Civil War trade tokens should therefore come as no surprise.

And despite the improvements in available coinage, foreign coinage continued circulating in large quantities. In many cases, the severe need for small circulating coinage often led to its complete disappearance. Especially when the conversion between foreign coins and newer U.S. products favored the speculator, U.S. coins disappeared quickly. This was certainly the case for the new Liberty Seated half dime and dime issues – circulation was exceptionally heavy. Few high-grade examples exist today for this reason.

The half dime and dime issues were competing with and traded similarly to the Mexican medios and one real pieces, which converted to 0.0625 and 0.125 dollars. Commonly called half bits and bits, the two coins were equivalent to 1/16 and 1/8 of a dollar. A bit or one real piece was equivalent to an eighth of a dollar.

Unfortunately, many merchants and speculators used their U.S. half dime and dime coins first and hoarded the medios and bits. The result was that very few high-grade examples of early New Orleans half dimes and dimes exist today.

As an aside, in early 2010 – before my professional affiliation with PCGS – I was able to buy an AU 1843-O dime from a knowledgeable northeastern dealer. Bid on the coin in AU at the time was roughly $750 to $1,000. The Brilliant Uncirculated bid was $1,500 to $1,750. I paid $3,000. I graded the coin a solid AU and indeed PCGS graded the coin AU53. Why did I pay so much? At the time, there were only two PCGS-graded Mint State examples, with nothing better than AU50 besides. I was pretty confident that the coin might very well be the third-finest-known PCGS example.

Because I knew the coin was a potential Registry Set play coin, I consigned it to Heritage Auctions. It brought $14,950. Was it undervalued? Most certainly! Frankly, this is an extreme example of just how scarce/rare New Orleans coinage can be. Today, PCGS has graded only four total AU coins and just two total Mint State coins for the date. Both PCGS AU50 coins have sold since 2010 for $10,350 (2011) and $10,693 (2015). For the 1843-O issue, only six total PCGS examples in AU50 or better clearly illustrate the scarcity of early New Orleans coinage!

Although there had been noteworthy and innovative inventions and applications of mechanization prior to 1850, the second half of the 19th century would truly usher in the peak of the Industrial Revolution. Improvements in almost all industries and technologies were being realized. At the New Orleans Mint, the first steam-operated coin press was installed in 1845. Both efficiency and product quality were improved.

I’ve always found it fascinating when researching these numismatic legends just how well educated and multi-faceted many of these individuals truly were. I’ve spoken about Joseph Kennedy, John Leonard Riddell, and Philos B. Tyler. Riddell, despite some issues he confronted, also pursued careers in both science and politics. Tyler was the head of the coining department, but his contributions to the advancement of the technology of coining must be acknowledged.

Tyler, working as head of the coining department, had nothing to do, per se, when in 1844 the Mint was closed “during a dispute over ownership of the square of land the mint occupied,” as Greg Lambousy writes in his March 2003 article “The Mint at New Orleans”, which was published in The Numismatist. You might remember that one of Tyler’s contributions to manufacturing improvements included the counting table, originally invented by Tyler’s brother Rufus but patented later by Philos. As head of the coining department, Tyler traveled to Philadelphia in 1844 “to oversee casting of a new steam press at the shop of Merrick and Agnew,” as Lambousy continues.

Tyler’s involvement with the New Orleans Mint lasted until 1848, when he took the superintendent position for American Machine Works in Springfield, Massachusetts. Tyler, because of his expertise in the practical applications of steam power to coining operations, would later be involved with the New Orleans Mint when their equipment needed to be upgraded.

The New Orleans Mint: Part 2

Dr. M.F. Bonzano, who succeeded Riddell as melter and refiner and would in 1861 become a spy for the Union, “contracted with American Machine Works for a 10-horsepower steam engine in May 1853.” This new steam engine, manufactured by the company whose superintendent was the former coining department head, “was installed on the main floor of the mint in March of 1855,” as reported by Lambousy.

Let’s discuss Dr. Bonzano. He was also a multi-faceted individual who was a medical doctor in addition to his expertise as head of the coining department. Indeed, Dr. Bonzano is the only pre-Civil War mint employee who survived the war with his job. He was a spy!

In January of 1861, three months prior to the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the “Louisiana Secession Committee was held in the state capital in Baton Rouge on January 26, 1861 … On January 31 ‘the state took possession of the New Orleans Mint,’” wrote Lambousy.

Two days earlier an ordinance was adopted that allowed federal employees “to continue in their posts as employees of the state of LA.” once they pledged their allegiance to the Confederate States of America. Dr. Bonzano was perfectly placed to report on all things that occurred at the new Confederate States of America Mint.

Despite a well-placed spy, the demise of the New Orleans Mint operated by the new Confederate States of America was quick. When the state of Louisiana took possession in January 1861, an inventory conducted at the time concluded that the Mint had roughly $500,000 in silver and gold bullion for coining. The employees had all been retained and the equipment was intact. The Confederate States of America took possession of the New Orleans Mint from the Louisiana Secession Committee on April 1, 1861, retaining all the officers and equipment. The bullion deposits (totaling about $500,000) they had confiscated lasted just four weeks! By late April, mint operations had ceased, although the staff was retained until the end of May.

The control of the city of New Orleans by the Confederate States of America was nearly as short-lived as that of the Confederate States of America New Orleans Mint. For all practical purposes, the control of the New Orleans Mint by the Confederacy was nothing more than a boondoggle. Yes, there were some related Confederate issues that I’ll discuss in part three of this article, but for decades even the existence of these pieces wasn’t known. But for just a few Confederate half dollars, no actual CSA coins for commerce were ever minted at the New Orleans Mint. Frankly, the Union didn’t even need a spy there.

Within a year, marines under the United States Commander David Farragut had seized control of the city of New Orleans and raised a U.S. flag above the Mint. The spy, Dr. Lonzano, after the capture of the city, was “ordered to take possession of all mint property for the federal government,” as Lambousy recounts.

What happened between 1862 and 1876? Like all of the original Confederate States of America, Louisiana (and New Orleans itself) were run by provisional governments. None of these “carpetbaggers” were particularly friendly toward anything that might have had anything to do with the Confederacy. The resentments were real, and the history of the New Orleans Mint is somewhat of a black hole. Certainly, the New Orleans Mint would have been a political “hot potato”, with sentiments paralleling regional prejudices. Remember Andrew Jackson? This was payback time!

And yet, the story of the New Orleans Mint wasn’t over.

In October 1876, the U.S. Assay Office in the Mint building was reopened with Dr. Bonzano, the Union spy, acting as both assayer-in-charge and superintendent. Several months later in 1877, Bonzano was contacted by special Mint agent James R. Snowden to prepare a “report on the repairs and machinery needed to bring the New Orleans branch mint back into full, operational order.” Numerous repairs were needed.

The most succinct and comprehensive explanation for the logistics in reopening the New Orleans Mint are best conveyed by the following content in the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint to the Secretary of the Treasury Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1878:

At the last session of Congress provision was made for reopening the mint at New Orleans for coinage purposes. Some little delay was occasioned in preparations for this object from the fact that the square of ground upon which the mint is located belonged to the city of New Orleans, and had been deeded to the government, at the time of the erection of the building, for only so long as it should be used by the government for minting purposes.

The act of Congress making appropriations for the mint at New Orleans provided that NO expenditure of money should be made for that mint until the city should release all title and claim and all conditions for forfeiture to the lands or premises upon which the mint is located, and negotiations looking to that effect were entered into with the city authorities, which resulted in the square of ground being deeded in fee-simple to the government.

During the late war much of the machinery, apparatus, etc, had been injured and otherwise rendered ineffective from disuse and other causes incident to war, and extensive repairs besides additional machinery were required.

As soon as title to the property had been secured to the government, and the officers of the mint had been appointed, the necessary repairs were commenced, but they have been impeded to a considerable extent by the prevalence of yellow fever in New Orleans, which not only delayed repairs but prevented skilled mint operatives from going to that city until the epidemic should subside. As many mint operations require special skill and knowledge on the part of the operatives, a few of the appointees to that mint were assigned to duty at the mint at Philadelphia in order to familiarize themselves with the work with which they will be called upon to perform, and will be transferred to New Orleans as soon as it is safe for them to go there.

The various operative rooms in the mint have been placed in good condition, the melting and annealing furnaces restored, the engine and machinery repaired, and such additional machinery as is required to render this mint effective for coinage has been procured, and it is believed that by the end of the current calendar year everything pertaining to the mint will be in a condition to commence coinage. The New Orleans mint will add to the coining capacity of the mints about $1M silver dollars a month, but this capacity would be somewhat reduced if called upon to execute any considerable amount of gold or fractional silver coinage.

The controversy of the land ownership and forfeiture by the city, requirements to refit and reopen the mint despite “the prevalence of yellow fever” in the city, and quarantine of workers from New Orleans and training in Philadelphia, are certainly some of the big items in this report. What I found most interesting was the assertion “before the mint reopened” that capacity for dollars, of one million coins a month, would be adversely affected by the production of other coins.

Although the New Orleans Mint reopened in 1879, it would continue to be “controversial” for the next 32 years before it was officially closed. Coinage operations would continue through 1909 when production was halted, but it was still two more years before a decision was made to dismantle the machinery and return it to the Philadelphia Mint. The story of the Mint building wasn’t finished.

The confiscation and operation of the New Orleans Mint by the Confederate States of America, while interesting and certainly historic, was a non-starter. Within just six weeks the new Mint staff had exhausted their supply of bullion with no thought of securing more when needed. There was no plan. Actual Confederate coins produced are few, with many produced clandestinely or privately well after the war. While interesting and certainly related to the New Orleans Mint, they are outliers at best.

The New Orleans Mint was reopened in 1879. For the most part shuttered and disused, the building languished for 17 years. Ultimately, only the need for Morgan dollars was required.

In parts one and two, I discussed the New Orleans Mint from 1838 to 1861. This 24-year time span was just 75% as long as the second life of the New Orleans Mint from 1879 to 1909. Read more about the second life of the New Orleans Mint in part three.

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Works Cited

Bowers, Q. David. The History of U.S. Coinage – As Illustrated by the Garrett Collection. Bowers and Ruddy Galleries, Inc. (1979)

Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. Doubleday. (1988)

Lambousy, Greg. “The Mint at New Orleans”, The Numismatist. March 2003. PP. 36-43.

Winter, Doug. New Orleans Mint Gold Coins: 1839-1909. A Numismatic History and Analysis. Bowers and Merena Galleries. (1992)

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