While preparing to move a bookcase in January, I found a copy of the
1853 U.S. Treasury secretary’s report to the Senate wedged behind the
books. I don’t remember buying it, but it makes for interesting
reading and provides a glimpse into the operation of the U.S. Mint in
the run-up to coinage of small cents.
The 21-page report is disbound from a larger book, likely that
year’s presidential papers, and has the wonderful three-dimensional
feel of handset type.
Unlike the annual Mint director’s report, which concerns itself with
production, the Treasury report speaks to the cost of doing business.
The report details wages and miscellaneous expenditures.
The year was a difficult one for the Mint.
Rising metal prices were placing a cross-hair on copper and silver
coins. Gold coins were produced in abundance as gold poured into the
channels of commerce from the California Gold Rush.
Since 1850, the Mint had been experimenting with smaller cents. The
issue became even more critical in 1853 when copper crossed the
40-cent-a-pound mark, the point, when labor is factored in, that it
cost the government more than a cent to make a cent.
In 1853, the Mint produced an extensive series of pattern cents in
copper, copper-nickel and billon (copper-silver). The Mint repurposed
a quarter-eagle obverse die to produce many of the coins. The reverse
showed the words ONE CENT within a wreath. Others were uniface, using
just the denomination reverse.
The 1853 Treasury report shows that the Mint paid W. Coffin &
Co. $147.50 for nickel.
Four years later the copper-nickel alloy won. “White” cents produced
from 1857 through mid-1864 were made of copper-nickel.
In mid-1853, the Mint reacted to rising silver prices by reducing
the weight of half dimes, dimes, quarter dollars and half dollars. The
new lightweight coins had arrows beside the date. Older silver coins
were quickly set aside by the public for their higher silver content.
The Mint ramped up production of lightweight coins to meet the demands
The Mint had an annual payroll of about $120,000 in 1853. Mint
Director J.R. Snowden was the highest paid, taking home $3,500 a year.
Chief Coiner Franklin Peale, who designed the Mint’s coinage presses,
and engraver James B. Longacre, famous for the Indian Head cent, were
paid $2,000 a year, slightly more than the $1,800 judges were paid in
Pennsylvania and 5.3 times more than the $376-a-year skilled laborers
earned in manufacturing.
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