Financial History Issue 121 (Spring 2017) - Page 31

CATHEDRALS of COINAGE A History of the US Mint’s Locations By Michael A. Martorelli Throughout American history, the US Mint has operated facilities in nine US cit- ies, as well as in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Another was planned, but not completed, in the state of Oregon. Six of these specialty manufacturing facilities were founded in response to gold or silver strikes in their regions, and many of them have become more iconic in their retirement than when they were in full-scale operation. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Great Britain did not supply its colonists in British North America with enough official coins to facilitate inter-colonial commerce. The colonists, therefore, used coins from Spain, Portugal, France and other countries as mediums of exchange. They also used nails, tobacco, Indian wam- pum and the barter system to expedite the purchase and sale of goods and services. Following the American Revolution, government officials recognized the need for a standardized monetary system, and in 1781 the Articles of Confederation gave both Congress and the states the right to produce coins. However, none of the multi- ple varieties of coins struck by the federal or state governments or their authorized con- tractors achieved widespread circulation. In 1789, the US Constitution gave Con- gress the exclusive power to coin money, but it still took several years of study and deliberation before that body passed the first of many Coinage Acts. The new mon- etary system that law created was based largely on Secretary of the Treasury Alex- ander Hamilton’s January 1791 “Report on the Establishment of a Mint.” The April 1792 Coinage Act was officially named “An Act establishing a mint, and regulating the Coins of the United States.” It designated First US Mint building in Philadelphia, circa 1850–1860. the US dollar as the standard unit of money, established the US Mint, autho- rized the production of coins in denomina- tions ranging from a half cent ($0.005) to an eagle ($10) and detailed the standards for the production of America’s coins. Since Philadelphia was the nation’s capital and its largest population center, it made sense to locate the first US Mint in that city. In July 1792, President George Washington appointed former Pennsyl- vania Treasurer David Rittenhouse as the first director of the Mint. Later that month, Rittenhouse purchased two properties on Seventh Street and laid the cornerstone of the first public building to be constructed by the United States. The first mint building was completed in September 1792, and two others fol- lowed in the next few months. The mint began producing copper coins in 1793; it added silver coins in 1794 and gold coins in 1795. The growing population’s strong demand for coins prompted the govern- ment to construct a larger production facility at the corner of Chestnut and Juniper Streets in Philadelphia in 1833. Initially, the new facility used the old machinery brought over from the Seventh Street buildings, but the equipment’s reli- ance on human muscle power to strike coins limited the new mint’s capacity. Realizing the need for upgraded tech- nology, the Mint’s fifth director, Samuel Moore, hired the well-known machinery expert Franklin Peale to study coin-mak- ing techniques in Europe. Upon Peale’s return from his two-year information gathering trip, he supervised the instal- lation of state-of-the-art steam powered presses and milling machines. Thus, in 1836, the Philadelphia Mint became the world’s most advanced coinage facility. An article entitled “The First US Gold Rush” in the Summer 2016 issue of Finan- cial History describes the little-known North Carolina gold rush, which began in 1799. In the first two decades of the 19th century, various mines in that state produced several thousand ounces of gold and sent them to Philadelphia to be made into coins. In 1828, gold was discovered in the nearby state of Georgia. By 1832, mines in that state were also sending Philadelphia a large supply of gold destined for coinage. To ease production bottlenecks and meet the demand for coinage, President Andrew Jackson signed The Mint Act of 1835, which authorized the establishment of US Mint branches in Charlotte, North Carolina; Dahlonega, Georgia; and New Orleans, Louisiana. All three of these branches had rather limited lives. They were seized by the Confederate government during the Civil War, with officials continuing to produce coins for a short time. After the war, the US government decided to close the Charlotte and Dahlonega facili- ties. But in 1876, it gave the New Orleans branch another chance at life by reopening it as an assay office. In 1879, after refur- bishing its minting equipment, officials re-commissioned the facility as a producer of silver coins. For the next 25 years, it was the largest producer of the famous Morgan silver dollar. In 1909, Treasury officials decided the country no longer needed the mint’s production capacity; they decom- missioned it in 1911. The discovery of gold in California prompted the government to open another branch of the US Mint in San Francisco in 1854. In its first year of operation, the San Francisco Mint turned $4 million in gold bullion into coins. Growing demand from the western states prompted the govern- ment to build a larger San Francisco facil- ity in 1874. This unusual building featured an enclosed central courtyard with a well. Within several years, this mint was pro- ducing more than 60% of the country’s gold and silver coins; its vaults became the repository for nearly one-third of the nation’s gold reserves.  |  Spring 2017  |  FINANCIAL HISTORY  29