When a mob showed up at the Philadelphia Mint on May 25, 1857, what did they want?

Philadelphia Mint offers exchange for new 1857 Flying Eagle cents
By , Coin World
Published : 12/02/16
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Old numismatic books, catalogs and periodicals are obviously literature, but we often overlook vintage newspapers, which during the 19th century frequently carried articles of numismatic significance. An example appeared in the May 25, 1857, issue of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. The Numismatic Bookie’s friend and mentor, Eric P. Newman, discovered this story and wrote an article about it in The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine for October of 1962, but since your columnist was then a kindergartner, sufficient time has passed to revisit the case of “the mob at the Mint.”

On May 25, 1857, at Philadel­phia’s second Mint, “old coin was traded for new.” Specifically, the Mint took in large cents, as well as worn Spanish and Mexican fractional silver, in return for 1857 Flying Eagle cents. People were highly motivated to make such exchanges, for the Coinage Act of Feb. 21, 1857, had discontinued production of half and large cents, and demone­tized Spanish silver coins, giving the public two years to exchange foreign coins at par.

The Bulletin’s cover­age begins: “Every man and boy in the crowd had his package of coin with him. Some had their rouleaux [which evolved into our word ‘rolls’] of Spanish coin done up in bits of newspaper or wrapped in handkerchiefs.” The Mint constructed a wooden structure in its yard, with two windows, one labeled “Cents for Cents,” the other “Cents for Silver.” Clerks and weighers were deployed with canvas bags, each marked “$5” and holding 500 of new small-sized copper-nickel cents.

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The clock at Independence Hall a few blocks away struck 9, and the crowd surged forward. Mint officials directed those holding silver to the right, and those holding copper to the left. “These lines soon grew to an unconscionable length, and to economize space they were wound around and around like the convulsions of a snake of a whimsical turn of mind.” Clerks handed out bags of cents, and the throng, at times exceeding a thousand people, “… rushed into the street with their money bags, and many of them were immediately surrounded by an outside crowd, who were willing to buy out in small lots at an advance on first cost. We saw quite a number of persons on the steps of the Mint dealing out the new favorites at an advance of from 30 to 100%, and some of the outside purchasers even huckstered out the coin again in smaller lots at a still heavier advance.”e funeral of the old coppers and of the ancient Spanish coins.” This dirge was premature, for both circulated widely for years thereafter. But the writer was correct in judging that there was never, “… in the history of Mint. ... so great a rush inside the building, or so animated a scene outside of it.”

And it would have been forgotten if not for the Evening Bulletin story. Newspapers carrying numismatic tales would make a distinctive collection, even for those with “a whimsical turn of mind.”

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