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.