The Curious Collector: A Visit to the Mint in 1919
by Len Augsburger – The E-Gobrecht Volume 9, Issue 3 …….
Lots of numismatic information crosses my desk, and while this month’s missive isn’t directly related to the period of Liberty Seated coinage (1837-1891), I found this outsider’s view of the Mint fascinating. Christopher Morley wrote a series of articles for the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, c. 1919, which comprised “snapshots of vivacious places of the life of today.” One of those places was the Mint, and here Morley recollects his Mint tour as conducted by the assistant assayer, Homer L. Pound.
At The Mint….
I found my friend, the assistant assayer, in his laboratory making mysterious chalk marks on a long blackboard and gazing with keen gray eyes at a circle of little bottles containing pale bluish fluids. At the bottom of each vessel was a white sediment that looked like a mixture of cream cheese and headache powder. “Silver,” said the assistant assayer, in an offhand way, and I was duly impressed.
You may expect to be impressed when you visit the Mint on Spring Garden Street [the third Mint in Philadelphia, which opened in 1901]. Most of us know, in a vague way, that two thirds of our coinage comes from that dignified building, which is probably the finest mint building in the world.
Fewer of us know that most of South America’s coins come from there too, and when the citizens of Lima or Buenos Aires pay out their bright centavos for a movie show or a black cigar their pockets jingle with small change stamped in Philadelphia. And none of us can realize, without a trip to that marvelous home of wonders, the spirit of devoted and delicate science that moves among the men who have spent self effacing lives in testing precious metals and molding them into the most beautiful coinage known on earth.
The assistant assayer, after a last lingering look at his little blue flasks —he was testing the amount of silver in deposits of ore brought in to the Mint from all over the country — if you find any in your back yard the Mint will pay you a dollar an ounce for it — was gracious enough to give me some fleeting glances at the fascinating work going on in the building.
The first thing one realizes is the presence of the benign and silent goddess of Science. Those upper floors, where the assayers work in large, quiet chambers, are like the work- rooms of some great university, some university happily exempt from the turbulent and irritating presence of students, where the professors are able to lose themselves in the worship of their own researches.
Great delicate scales — only you mustn’t call them “scales,” but “balances” — that tremble like a lover’s heart if you lay a hair on one platform, shelter their gossamer workings behind glass cases.
My guide showed me one, a fantastic delicacy so sensitive that one feels as clumsy as Gibraltar when one looks at it. Each division on its ivory register indicates one – tenth of a milligram, which, I should say, is about as heavy as the eyelash of a flea. With a pair of calipers he dropped a tiny morsel of paper on one balance and the needle swung over to the extreme end of the scale.
With his eyes shining with enthusiasm he showed how, by means of a counter- poise made of a platinum wire as slender as a mosquito’s leg, he could swing the needle back toward the middle of the scale and get the exact reading. [In order to keep this related to Liberty Seated coinage, we will mention Joseph Saxton, who brought important advances to the Mint in the late 1830s in the construction of balances. Saxton is also credited with the oldest surviving daguerreotype in America, taken in the 1839 from a window of the second Mint building.]
At another balance a scientist was snipping shreds from a long ribbon of gold. I was allowed to hold it in my hand, and though its curator explained deprecatingly that it was only 999.5 thousandths pure, it seemed pure enough for all my purposes. It is wonderful stuff, soft enough to tie in knots and yet so tough that it is very difficult to cut with heavy shears.
That strip of about sixty ounces was worth well over $1200 — and they didn’t even search me when I left the building. “Proof gold,” it seems, which is 1000 pure, is worth $40 an ounce, and all the proof gold used for scientific purposes in this country is refined in the Philadelphia Mint [“proof” in this context has sometimes been confused with proof coinage – see Bill Bugert’s comments on this with regard to the 1871 - CC half dollar in the Bugert Encyclopedia].
The assistant assayer showed me lots of nice little nuggets of it in a drawer. Almost every drawer he opened contained enough roots of evil to make a newspaperman happy for a year.
In a neat little row of furnaces set into a tiled wall I was shown some queer little cups heating to 1700 degrees in a rosy swirl of fire. These little “cupels,” as they call them, are made of compressed bone – ash and are used to absorb the baser metals in an alloy. Their peculiar merit is that at the required temperature they absorb all the copper, lead or whatever other base metal there may be and leave in the cup only the gold and silver.
Then the gold and silver mixture is placed in boiling nitric acid, which takes out all the silver and leaves only the globule of pure gold.
The matter that puzzles the lay observer is, how do you find these things out in the first place? But I would believe anything after one marvel my friend showed me. He picked up a glass that looked like an innocent tumbler of spring water. “This,” he said, “is nitrate of silver; in other words, dissolved silver. Don’t spill it on your clothes or it will eat them right off your back.”
I kept off, aghast. Into the tumbler he dropped a little muriatic acid. The mixture boiled and fumed and long streamers of soft, cheesy substance began to hasten toward the bottom of the glass, waving like trees in a gale.
“That’s the silver,” he said, and while I was still tremulous showed me wafers of gold dissolving in aqua regia. When completely dissolved the liquid looks like a thin but very sweet molasses.
He then performed similar magic upon some silver solution by unloading a pipette of salt water on it and shaking it in a little machine called an “agitator.” After which he felt I was sufficiently humble to show me the furnace room.
If you have an affection for the nice old silver cartwheel dollars [at this point, silver dollars had not been struck since 1904 – fifteen years previous], keep away from the furnace room of the Mint, for one of the first things you will see is whole truck- loads of them moving silently to their doom.
I was told that there is a shortage of silver in Europe these days, particularly since troubles in Mexico have reduced that country’s output of ore, and in order to accommodate foreign friends Uncle Sam has recently melted 200,000,000 of our old friends into bars and 50,000,000 more of them are on the way to the furnace. None have been coined since 1904, as apparently they are not popular. [Obviously they were not all exported to Europe, as millions more were released to the public by the bagful in the early 1960s.]
The pride of the Mint centers just now upon the two new electric furnaces, the larger of which has only been installed a few weeks (a Swedish invention, by the way), but the old gas ovens are more spectacular to the visitor because the flames are more visible. When the heavy door is slid aside you can see the crucible (made of graphite from Ceylon) with its mass of silver dollars, standing patiently in the furious glow. Then, if you are lucky, you will see them ladling out the liquid silver into the molds. One of the workmen held a slip of paper to the boiling metal: it burst into flame and he calmly lit his pipe with it [smoking in the Mint – no doubt against the regulation today!].
In other furnaces sheets of nickel from which Argentine coins had been punched were being melted, surrounded by a marvelous radiance of green and golden fire. All about you are great ingots of copper, silver, nickel and boxes of queer little nickel nuggets, formed by dropping the hot liquid into ice water. It is a place in which one would willingly spend a whole day watching the wonders which those accustomed to them take so calmly.
In the vault just outside the furnace room I was shown between eighteen and nineteen million dollars’ worth of gold bars stacked up on shelves. There were also more truckloads of the old silver dollars on their way to the fire. Some of them, though dated back in the seventies, seemed as good as new; others were badly worn. They were piled up in lots of 40,000, which, when new, would weigh 34,375 ounces; one lot, I was told, had lost 208 ounces through abrasion. [This equates to a loss of about 0.6%, seemingly a trifle but significant when dealing with large quantities of specie. Readers may be familiar with the concept of “sweating” gold – a large holding of gold coins were put into a tumbler, and voila, with some rigorous shaking, a certain amount of gold dust could be extracted. The face value of the coins was preserved while our unscrupulous banker had created additional “value”.]
In the big coining room the presses were busily at work stamping out new coins, and women operators were carefully examining the “blanks” for imperfections before they go under the dies. To one who expected to see vast quantities of shining new American coinage it was odd to learn that almost all the machines were busy turning out small change for Peru and Argentina. Next week, the foreman said, they start on a big order of the queer coins of Siam, which have a hole in the middle like the Chinese money. But I saw one machine busy turning out Lincoln pennies at the rate of 100 a minute. The one – cent piece requires a pressure of forty tons to stamp the design on the metal; the larger coins, of course, need a heavier pressure, up to 120 tons. The Mint’s wonderful collection of coins and medals of all lands would deserve an article of its own. One of the rarities of which the curator is most proud is a terra cotta medallion of Franklin, made by Nini at Chaumont in 1777.
[This is remarkable – the Nini is a pleasant piece of Frankliniana, but in to- day’s terms only worth a few thousand dollars. By contrast, the Mint Cabinet held all manner of delicacies far sexier to modern numismatists. The 1914 Mint Cabinet catalog lists an 1849 (unique) double eagle, two 1804 dollars, a Brasher doubloon, an 1822 half eagle, and the 1877 half union, which enumeration only scratches the surface.]
It is in perfect condition and was bought by the Mint from a New York newspaperman. A brand new acquisition, only set up within the last few weeks, is a case of French military decorations presented by the French Government — the five grades of the Legion of Honor, the four grades of the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire. Near these are the United States military and naval medals, a sad and ugly contrast to the delicate art of the French trophies.
I was unfortunate in not being lucky enough to meet Superintendent Joyce, under whose administration the Philadelphia Mint has become the most remarkable place of coinage in the world; or Mr. Eckfeldt, the assayer in chief, who has served the Mint for fifty four years and is the son of the former assayer and grandson of the Mint’s first “coiner,” Adam Eckfeldt. These three generations of Eckfeldts have served the Mint for 123 years [Eckfeldt retired in 1929, recording an astounding sixty four career at the Mint]. But my friend Mr. Homer L. Pound, the assistant assayer, who modestly speaks of his own thirty years of service as a mere trifle, had by this time shown me so much that my brain reeled. He permitted me to change my pocket money into brand new coinage of 1919 as a souvenir, and then I left. [Fourteen years later, “pocket money” is said to have been similarly exchanged for a number of 1933 double eagles.]