The U.S. Mint of today is a solid and stable institution that Americans rely on to keep up the supply of coins for all their personal and business needs. It almost seems like the Mint has been around forever, or at least since the beginning of the United States. However, there was a time when there was no U.S. Mint. The story of how the mint came into existence and how it developed into what it is today is a fascinating one.
The U.S. Without a Mint
While the leaders of the new country were busy setting up its laws and institutions, life went on. People couldn’t wait for U.S. coins to be made before conducting business and exchanging goods and services. So, they bartered and traded for what they needed or used foreign coins to conduct business. They traded musket balls or wampum, or they simply traded one type of goods for another. Trading products from hunting, farming, or construction was known as “country pay.”
Spanish milled coins were often used and recognized as legal tender. The ½, 1, 2, and 4 reales coins as well as the Spanish dollar were the main coins used in the U.S. until 1857. Private mints also contributed coins such as the Chalmers threepence, sixpence, and shilling silver tokens. Individual states authorized private mints to make coins as well. The result was that there was no uniform monetary unit in the new United States until long after the U.S. Mint was established.
Imagining the Dollar
In April 1776, a congressional committee was formed to look into possible types of gold and silver coins similar to the Spanish dollar that might be used in the U.S. Thomas Jefferson submitted a report later that year suggesting the new coins should be dollars and decimal parts of a dollar.
The recommendation to start a mint didn’t come in until 1777, and even then, there was no follow up. Alexander Hamilton submitted a proposal for a National Bank in 1781. The National Bank was to be given the power to strike coins. In 1786, a report was submitted asking for the establishment of a mint, but in 1787 another report stated that coins should be minted by contract rather than at public expense. The Coinage Act of 1792 finally established the U.S. Mint and provided for it to produce coins in copper, silver, and gold.
First Mint Constructed
With approval in hand to build the first U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, President Washington proceeded with construction. It was the first federal building built under the constitution. Washington appointed David Rittenhouse as its first director. Congress gave Rittenhouse the go-ahead to buy copper to be coined into cents and half cents.
The First Coins
The first coins were silver half-dimes. As the story goes, these coins were minted using silver from George Washington’s personal silverware. However, the first coins that went into circulation were copper cents.
The earliest U.S. coins were minted using a hand press that could only produce about two dozen coins a minute. Later, in the 1830s, steam power would be used for striking coins faster, at a rate of about 100 coins a minute each. Electric power changed minting processes again in 1901.
“A Dog for the Yard”
The first security system was none other than a watchdog named Nero. The Mint bought Nero for the sum of three dollars. This expenditure was listed in the records as a purchase “for a Dog for the Yard.” Over the next years, Nero and other dogs after him were kept at the Mint to assist the night watchman and take over for him completely if he had to be away.
Temporary Mint Closings
Over the years, the U.S. Mint has been closed temporarily for several reasons. In 1797 and 1802, it was closed due to yellow fever. In 1791, it was damaged by fire. In 1814, the British set it on fire. Still, the Philadelphia Mint was always put back to rights and continued to be the center for coinage. It became an independent agency in 1799.
First Women Employed at the Mint
Women have had a place at the U.S. Mint from early in its history. In 1795, two women – Sarah Waldrake and Rachel Summers – were hired as adjusters for the mint. They were the first two female employees in any federal agency. By the 1830s, many women were working at the mint, operating milling machines and coin presses. In 1877, Elvira Cowen became the first female supervisor at the mint.
In 1911, although women still did not have the right to vote, a woman held the second highest position at the U.S. Mint. In 1933, the first female Mint Director was appointed, with others to follow soon after. Since then, women have continued to work in a variety of positions at the Mint, now serving as chemists, sculptors, machine operators, lawyers, and management.
North Carolina and Georgia Gold Rushes Bring More Mints
The Philadelphia Mint moved into a new fireproof building in 1833. After three years at the new location, the first steam press was added to speed up coin production. In previous years, the greatest challenge was the scarcity of metals needed for minting coins. However, in the early 1800s, that began to change.
Gold fever took hold, and rushes began in North Carolina and Georgia. Suddenly, the Philadelphia Mint was called on to strike so many coins that it couldn’t keep up with the demand. Three more mints were established, and they were built in Charlotte, NC, Dahlonega, GA, and New Orleans, LA. When the Civil War started, the Confederacy took over these three mints. In 1862, the U.S. regained control of the two mints that still remained open, the Charlotte Mint and the New Orleans Mint. Charlotte eventually closed in 1919, and New Orleans closed in 1942.
Western Gold Rushes and the Comstock Lode – More Mints
Gold rushes happened in the West starting in 1849, bringing the need for more mints. California came first, and in 1854, the San Francisco Mint was established. Colorado came next, and a mint was established in Denver in 1862. Oregon’s gold rush prompted Congress to authorize a mint in Dalles City, OR. The Dalles Mint was constructed, but that building was never used as a mint.
The largest silver strike in the country was the Comstock Lode in Nevada. Congress authorized a mint for Carson City in 1859. That mint opened in 1870 and operated until 1899, when silver at the Lode began to run out.
Assay offices were needed to handle all the metal ore that was being brought in by miners. The metal had to be assessed and processed at these assay offices before they could be used for making coins at the Mints. There were assay offices in: New York, Boise, Helena, St. Louis, Deadwood, Seattle, and Salt Lake City.
Fort Knox and West Point
By the 1930s, the population had grown tremendously. So many coins were needed that the metals for those coins could no longer be kept at the mints and assay offices. The country needed somewhere secure to store their bullion. That’s why the Fort Knox Bullion Depository was built. It opened in 1936 and received its first shipment of gold from Philadelphia and New York soon afterwards. Two years later, the West Point Bullion Depository opened for the storage of silver.
Today, the U.S. Mint is headquartered at its facility in Philadelphia. There, coins are planned, designed, and struck. Coins are also struck at three other mints. They are the San Francisco Mint, the Denver Mint, and the West Point Mint. The bullion depository at Fort Knox is still in operation.
The Mint has continued to change. Now, with computer-controlled machines, the Mints can produce coins at a rate of 720 coins per minute for each machine. Coins are still minted for circulation, to the tune of about 30 million pennies per day, along with all the nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollar coins that are added into circulation constantly. The Mint also produces military medals and peace medals, as well as collectors’ pieces not meant for circulation.
The history of the U.S. Mint is a fascinating subject. It can also help you if you’re a coin collector or investor. When you’re aware of the historical significance of different coins and can identify them by their unique features, you can become wiser in buying, selling, and trading coins. This brief history is only a small fraction of what you can learn about the U.S. Mint.
If you’d like to learn more about coins, whether as an investor or a collector, you can take advantage of a free consultation with our precious metals experts at GMRgold.com. Call us at 1 (877) 795-9585 during regular business hours or drop us a message through our convenient contact page. The more you know about the history of the Mint and the coins it has produced, the better off you’ll be when you add coins to your collection or precious metals portfolio. GMRgold is your go-to resource for true coin knowledge.