Collector Basics: History of the U.S. Mint

The United States Mint built in Philadelphia in 1792 has the distinction of being the first building constructed by the federal government
By , Coin World
Published : 05/01/15
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The importance of a federal coinage was widely recognized by national leaders following the ratification of the Constitution.

The newly elected president, George Washington, had spoken about coinage issues and the need for a national Mint in his first three addresses to Congress, in 1789, 1790 and 1791. Congress passed a resolution March 3, 1791, saying, "That a Mint shall be established under such regulations as shall be directed by law." That law came a little more than a year later, with passage of the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, the same legislation which set denominations, specifications and legal tender status for the first U.S. coins. The 1792 Mint Act also specified which officials would be required to conduct operations at the Mint.

The first U.S. coins struck under the provisions of the Constitution were the 1792 half dismes. Much of the minting equipment was beyond the capabilities of America, and had to be ordered from abroad.

(The act called for half dismes and dismes, and those spellings appear on the 1792 pieces. Mint records continued to use the spelling "disme" into the 1830s, and it wasn't until 1837 that the spelling "dime" actually appeared on a coin.)

Research indicates the 1792 half dismes were struck outside of the Mint facility on presses newly arrived from Europe. The striking of coins within the walls of the Philadelphia Mint for circulation began in 1793, with copper half cents and cents. Silver coins followed in 1794, and gold coins in 1795.

The first Philadelphia Mint's presses were hand-operated, with the other equipment powered by humans or horses. The typical coining press in use at the Mint was the screw press, powered by human muscle. The first steam-powered equipment was installed June 24, 1816. Further mechanization came in 1833, when the second Philadelphia Mint was opened. The man-powered screw presses were replaced with steam-powered coining presses in the 1830s.

Despite the improved output of the second Philadelphia Mint, by the mid-1830s additional coining facilities were needed. Gold discoveries in the Appalachian Mountains triggered America's first gold rush. To meet the growing coinage needs of an ever-expanding country and population, Congress authorized the first Branch Mints in 1835: Dahlonega, Ga.; Charlotte, N.C.; and New Orleans. All the Southern Branch Mints opened for coining in 1838.

The Dahlonega and Charlotte Mints struck gold coins only, generally in smaller numbers than struck at Philadelphia. The New Orleans Mint was a better match for the Philadelphia Mint, striking both silver and gold coins.

William Marshall's discovery of gold in California in 1848 triggered the biggest gold rush in U.S. history. Ever larger numbers of men with visions of unlimited wealth undertook the hazardous journey. As the population grew, so did the need for coinage. A number of private mints sprang up in California, striking native gold and fulfilling a need for coinage the U.S. Mint was unable to fill. Congress authorized the San Francisco Mint in 1852. It began operations in 1854, striking both silver and gold coins.

All three Southern Branch Mints were taken over by state and then Confederate forces in 1861, as the Civil War approached. The three facilities struck small quantities of coins in early 1861, the New Orleans facility even striking four half dollars with a special Confederate design on one side. However, coinage at all three Mints ended in 1861 due to dwindling resources. The Dahlonega and Charlotte Mints never reopened following the war; New Orleans resumed coining activities from 1879 to 1909.

Other gold and silver discoveries in the West, particularly in Nevada and Colorado, triggered the need for additional Mints. The private Clark, Gruber and Co. Mint in Denver was purchased by the Federal government in 1863 and extensively remodeled. Although officially designated a Branch Mint, it served instead as an Assay Office, weighing and analyzing the purity of precious metals brought to its front doors, and producing bars and ingots. A new Mint was built in Denver at the turn of the century, opening for coining in 1906. Denver has struck coins of all alloys: copper, copper-nickel, silver and gold.

The Carson City Mint in Nevada opened in 1870 and closed in 1893. Carson City struck silver and gold coins only.

The San Francisco Mint closed after striking 1955 coinage; its presses were no longer needed to keep up with the national demand for coinage. Congress revised its status in 1962, naming it the San Francisco Assay Office. However, a coin shortage struck the country and in 1965 the Assay Office resumed striking coins. The facility regained Mint status in 1988.

Currently, there are four federal Mints in operation in the United States.

The Philadelphia Mint (in its fourth building) strikes all denominations of coins for circulation and some collectors' coins. All of the United States Mint's engraving staff work there. However, die production is no longer exclusive to the Philadelphia Mint. In May 1996, a second die production facility was added at the Denver Mint to meet the ever-pressing demand for coinage dies to produce circulating coins for commerce and specially struck coins for collectors.

The Denver Mint is in its original 1906 building, although there have been recent additions; it, too, strikes a combination of circulation issues and collectors' coins.

The San Francisco Mint is in its third building, opened in 1937; today, it strikes coins for collectors only, although in recent years, it also was called upon to strike coins for circulation.

The West Point Mint is the newest facility, having gained Mint status in early 1988; previously, it had been the West PointBullion Depository (opening in 1938) although its coining facilities have been used since 1974. West Point is currently used only for collectors' programs and bullion coins although it has struck coins for circulation in the recent past.

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