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Why Coin Mintages Are Often Even Numbers

United States Silver Dollars. Image: Adobe Stock.
United States Silver Dollars. Image: Adobe Stock.

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

Recently, a hobby message board member asked an interesting question:

Does anyone know why quarter and half dollar mintages from 1879 through 1890 are divisible by 200? Did they strike halves in ‘blocks’ of 200 coins a block. I noticed that this also seems to be true for coins going back to 1874. My guess is that 200 planchets can be cut from a strip of 90% silver. Philly quarters for those years are divisible by 400, i.e., seem to be struck in groups of 400 coins ($100) at a time[1].

Other members soon chimed in with their thoughts on the subject, including:

Interesting question and I like your idea of planchets per strip. Although I don’t know this answer myself I did just go down a rabbit hole journey of sorts looking at various auction listing descriptions, anything regarding old Mint bags/boxes/keg barrels, and Newman Numismatic Portal documents, and wonder if the Mint ran these in 200 increments as a monster box equivalent for half dollars and dimes for ease of shipping/distribution? It’s amazing just how little documentation is known regarding your question as well as shipping barrels/crates/canvas bags from the 19th century as well as surviving examples of such items.

I wonder if it has to do something with the concept of minimum ordering in bulk, much like how certain wholesalers operate today.

Thinking some more, a $100 bag of halves would be 200 coins.

I await the knowledgeable mystic greybeards of the forum to provide insight. Here is a meager offering to channel their wisdom[2].

This is a situation-specific version of something collectors have often wondered about: “Why are so many coin mintages reported in even hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands?”

Coiners preferred to deliver in even dollar amounts — especially for small mintages. This made calculations easier and reduced errors and discrepancies. If there were an odd amount of good coin after weighing, the coiner would hold some so he could deliver an even amount, then deliver the leftovers next time. It had nothing to do with the number of blanks cut from a strip or any of the other conjectures in the original post.

The simple answer is that the United States Mint accounted for coins in dollars, not pieces. Thus, both quarters and halves in the question were delivered in dollar sums divisible by “100”. Easier accounting. Treasury required dollar valuations because it was consistent with all other financial accounts. It should also be understood that all of the Mint Treasurer’s and Cashier’s daily reports were in dollars. Even what are now famous rarities, such as the 1894-S dime, were officially reported as “$2.40 in dimes,” not “24 pieces, dimes.”

A follow-up question was asked the next day:

This still leaves some questions as to why mintages of halves are divisible by 200 and quarters by 400 in those years. In many other years, the coins appear to be minted in $1000 batches (final mintage for halves in ‘even’ thousands) rather than reaching a final round number for the year. They seemed to do these count intervals or batches throughout the mintage process[3].

Piece counts we see in reference books were derived from the dollar value. These were useful to the Mint Bureau because they emphasized the large amount of work necessary to make just a few thousand dollars in low denomination coins. This is actually an important reason so many Bust halves were struck – reporting production in dollars impressed Congress[4]. The same piece count in half-dimes looked meek and paltry to men holding the purse strings.

Here is an excerpt from an April 16, 1839 letter by New Orleans Coiner Rufus Tyler to Superintendent David Bradford where he uses piece count to emphasize improvement of productivity under his administration:

“It will be found on reference to the Treasurer’s books, that I delivered to him in the month of January 70,000 pieces [$7,000 dimes], in February 128,000 [$6,400 half-dimes], and in March 370,000 [$37,000] pieces in dimes and ½-dimes, and I have reason to believe the result of the present month’s labor will show a continued progressive increase in the effectiveness of the department under my direction[5].”

A total of 568,000 pieces was much more impressive looking than $50,400 in small coins.

Coins were not usually minted in batches of $1,000, or other standard quantity. The Treasurer of the United States decided the dollar value of each denomination that was required for commerce. This varied from one region to another and with the time of year, such as spring planting, fall harvest, Christmas-New Year, and so forth. The Treasurer, with agreement by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Comptroller of Currency, then ordered the Mint Bureau to manufacture, say, $1 million in half eagles by a certain date. The Mint Director then allotted production based on available capacity, regional demand, bullion availability, and other influences, such as equipment out-of-service. On completion, the coins were delivered as instructed by the U.S. Treasurer.

Conversions of dollar value to piece counts were also used to compare cost of production at the mints, such as in this example from November 1898[6]:

(New Orleans costs seem low, but they are skewed because their large proportion of dollars increased the ration of piece per dollar spent.)
New Orleans costs seem low, but they are skewed because their large proportion of dollars increased the ration of piece per dollar spent. Image: U.S. National Archives.

Here’s an example of Special Assay coins where value and quantity were used as a cross check, with value being the official number[7]:

Note of Receipt of Coins Forwarded for Special Assay, January 4, 1899. Image: U.S. National Archives.
Note of Receipt of Coins Forwarded for Special Assay, January 4, 1899. Image: U.S. National Archives.

The mintage results we now depend on in catalogues and guides are the somewhat confused mash of circulation production, plus Philadelphia proof coins, scattered among several mints and in greatly varying quantities.

My forthcoming book, Mine to Mint 2, has an extensive chapter about how coins were issued and distributed from 1793 to the beginning of Federal Reserve System distribution in 1921. It’s something of an eye-opener and can be confusing for modern collectors to understand.

* * *

Notes

[1] PCGS message board, U.S. Coin Forum “Question about mintages of ‘79 to ‘90 seated Liberty halves”, September 8, 2023, 8:47 AM.

[2] Op. cit. 10:27 AM.

[3] Op. cit. September 9, 2023, 12:32 AM.

[4] The other reason was to pay off depositors as quickly as possible. Most depositors of bullion in the Mint’s early decades were banks, which is why so many were later retrieved from their vaults.

[5] RG56 E-289 Box 4. Letter dated April 16, 1839 to David Bradford, Superintendent New Orleans Mint, from Rufus Tyler, Coiner.

[6] RG104 E-229 box 83. Letter dated November 22, 1898 to Director Roberts from Colcord, Superintendent Carson Assay Office.

[7] RG104 E-235 Vol 309. Report dated January 4, 1899 of Special Assay coins received at Washington D.C. from San Francisco Mint.
 

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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