By 1859, the Philadelphia Mint had long been the focal point of much
collecting activity. In the 1830s, Adam Eckfeldt, who had been with
the Mint since the 1790s, took the lead in helping collectors by
providing restrikes of rarities. Research by Joel J. Orosz has
demonstrated that Robert Gilmor Jr., of Baltimore, stood in the first
rank. In a letter to a friend Gilmor said:
“The Mint has aided me considerably, and has even provided
desiderata from the old dies, when I require it — Mr. Eckfeldt of the
Mint has been of great service to me, and was stimulated by my attempt
to commence one for the Mint itself, which really ought not to be
without a specimen of every one of its coins — by timely attention to
the subject by whoever has charge of the Department may soon make a
considerable advance towards obtaining those in circulation, but no
time should be lost, as the old gold coin is gradually disappearing by
being coined into the new. The Mint would no doubt aid you in this,
and coin your deficiencies.”
The curators of the Mint Cabinet (established in 1838) and others
were glad to help numismatists. By 1859, the situation had changed
dramatically. The Mint was besieged with seemingly countless requests.
In January 1859, P. Clayton wrote to U.S. Mint Director James Ross
Snowden to request examples of current and past pattern coins.
Snowden’s reply, dated Jan. 24, 1859, bore the notation “Unofficial”
and included this:
“Dear Sir, I have rec’d your note of the 22nd inst. and learn from
it that you are acquiring a personal knowledge of the ‘passion for
specimens of coins’ which possesses so many people in our country. On
Saturday I had nine applications of a similar character — today (now
12 o’clock) I have had three.
“It was in view of this increasing, as well as troublesome, task
that I made the request mentioned in my official letter of last
Saturday (22nd inst.) which I hope will deserve the sanction of the
department. In reference to the specimens you ask for I have to state
that the trial piece in copper of the double eagle of 1859 which I
left at the Department is the only one I had: I have a few of the
specimen cents but not all the varieties. I could send you two or
three of these, but perhaps it will be best to defer sending them
until the new arrangement is made, when your friend, and all other
collectors of coins, AND THEIR NAME IS LEGION, can be supplied to
their heart’s content.”
It would seem that no further proof is required to demonstrate that
the Mint in 1859 intended to restrike rarities in quantity. What to do?
The entire business went underground! Old dies were dusted off,
including for Gobrecht pattern dollars of 1836, 1838, and 1839, half
cents of the 1840 that had been made in limited quantities, and more.
Some years later, a writer in The Nation magazine commented, “It has
been estimated than in 1859 and 1860, $50,000 worth of patterns were
struck and disposed of at the Mint, without any benefit to the
government at whose expense they were coined.”
The profits seem to have made certain Mint officials men of wealth!
At the time, $500 to $1,000 per year was a typical salary for an
educated professional. This secret gold mine operated until the summer
of 1885 when a new director stopped the largesse. By that time, more
than 1,500 varieties of patterns had been produced to the extent of
many thousands of pieces. Were it not for this gaming, 95 percent of
the patterns in numismatic hands and all of the restrikes would not
exist today. To this extent, we can be thankful that such capers took place!