In recent columns I have told of the rise of the hobby in 1857 when
the discontinuation of copper half cents and large cents engendered a
wave of nostalgia.
By 1859, the American Numismatic Society and the Philadelphia
Numismatic Society were two years old. In that year, the Philadelphia
Mint commenced a massive program, kept secret, of restriking Proof
coins, patterns and other coins and issuing illogical die
combinations, many of which were funneled into the marketplace through
dealer William Idler.
Hopes were high in early 1860. A record 1,000 silver Proof sets were
produced, 3-cent pieces to dollars, plus an extra 330 silver dollars.
The Mint issue price for a copper and silver Proof set climbed from
$2.02 (for $1.94 face value of coins) to $3, for a set that contained
a copper-nickel Indian Head cent, silver 3-cent piece, Seated Liberty
half dime, dime, quarter dollar, half dollar, and silver dollar, again
$1.94 face value. Proof dollars were available separately for $1.60 each.
J.B. Lippincott & Co. published a book written by Mint Director
James Ross Snowden, A Description of Ancient and Modern Coins, in
the Cabinet Collection of the Mint of the United States.
Snowden, who initiated the program of restriking rarities, was an
accomplished numismatist — the only Mint director in American history
for which this can be said. Readers of Coin World in 2014 might not
agree with his comment on page 101:
“In giving a history of the coins of the United States we shall not
go so far into the details of the subject as to take notice of the
different ‘varieties’ caused by cracked dies, the addition or omission
of a leaf in the laurel, a larger or smaller letter in the
inscription, and the countless other minute and scarcely definable
differences which are found, upon close inspection, to exist in the
coins of nearly every year in which they have been issued. These
little technicalities may be important to those collectors of coins
who pay more regard to the selfish desire of having something which no
one else possesses, than to the historical or artistic interest which
attaches to a coin.”
On June 13, 1860, the Japanese ambassador and his legation visited
the Mint and were welcomed by Snowden. A tour of the facilities
followed. The guests were shown the coinage process, reserves of gold
and silver bullion, and other features. Snowden presented the
ambassador with a full Proof set, including gold, fitted in a special case.