Numismatists love the Old West romance that surrounds the Denver and Carson City Mints. The Gold Rush spirit inspired the San Francisco Mint and the mystique surrounding the New Orleans Mint. Charlotte, Dahlonega and West Point Mints are surrounded by a mist of Civil War legend. Then there is the story that often goes untold – the one that started it all for American numismatics as we know it today. It is the story of the Philadelphia Mint – the “mother mint,” as some like to say.
The United States Mint was established by the Coinage Act of 1792, also known as “The Mint Act” and officially titled An Act Establishing a Mint, and Regulating the Coins of the United States. When this legislation was enacted by the second United States Congress and signed into law by President George Washington on April 2, 1792, it was decided that the place where the nation’s first mint would be located was Philadelphia, which, at the time, was serving as the temporary capital of the United States.
The Philadelphia Mint: A Legacy
The Philadelphia Mint legacy spans across four sites, and has been around for more than 225. Some may say it’s a scrappy tale, encompassing a motley crew of colorful characters – even a menagerie of animals, including horses and oxen. What else can you expect in the City of Brotherly Love with its loveable icons like inventor Benjamin Franklin, fictional prizefighter Rocky Balboa, the cracked Liberty Bell and unique culinary creations such as cheesesteaks, tomato pie and the Liberty Bell?
It’s a story of survival and evolution that took the Philadelphia Mint from its humble beginnings situated in a cramped huddle of small buildings on a tiny lot to becoming the largest government mint in the world.
Building the First Philadelphia Mint
After the Coinage Act was passed in 1792, the United States Mint – the first federal building built under the U.S. Constitution – was rapidly constructed. This first mint was built in Philadelphia near the intersection of Seventh Streets and Arch Streets. The fledgling United States was going through a difficult time. The U.S. Constitution was written in 1787 and ratified in 1788. It began operating only in 1789 when the first federal Congress of the United States met.
David Rittenhouse & His Role
David Rittenhouse was exactly the sort of man President George Washington sought to lead as the founding director of the United States Mint – especially considering that Great Britain tapped Sir Isaac Newton himself to lead the Royal Mint a century earlier. Rittenhouse was a scientist’s scientist, a man who understood Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and gravity, a maker of fine clocks and mechanical models of the solar system. He was an astronomer, mathematician and a maker of fine clocks. He accepted the job on July 1, 1792. However, he began assisting the United States Government in finding the perfect location in Philadelphia for the mint.
“I feel that David Rittenhouse’s role has been long misunderstood,” remarked numismatic historian and From Mine to Mint (Seneca Mill Press) author Roger Burdette. “He was the manager, handled the records, and reported to Congress and the President. He had no practical knowledge of coining. Additionally, he was left out of almost all correspondence relating to contract coinage and Matthew Boulton’s equipment,” the latter a reference to a British industrialist who utilized efficient steam-powered presses that were faster than the screw-press equipment of the day. “Rittenhouse was too infirm to travel to England and his only involvement was a need to import copper sheets, which was handled by Thomas Pinckney.”
Voigt’s “Contraption”, a creation.
Burdette noted the early U.S. Mint, built near the intersection of Filbert and Seventh Streets in Philadelphia, was a “contraption” created by Henry Voigt, the chief coiner of the United States Mint who had drawn on his experiences in mint work in his native Germany. “Equipment depended on mechanical skills of several local machinists including Adam Eckfeldt, who had built a press for John Harper before the mint was authorized,” explained Burdette.
Machinery was powered by the brute strength of man and beast – horses and oxen. “The technology was crude and obsolete. As Ambassador Thomas Pinckney noted in a 1792 letter to Boulton, ‘…the coinage being at present intended on a limited scale, the usual instruments of coinage will be made use of [in] the present establishment not requiring the more expensive improvements of the steam engine.’” After initial strikings of silver half dismes and other pieces, the Philadelphia Mint was mass producing copper coins in 1793, with the Chain AMERI large cent the first of these coins to his large-scale circulation.
Early Mint Has a Rough Time
The United States Mint was a ramshackle, infantile operation that could not be compared to the well-established mints of Europe. “The same basic technology was in use, but European equipment quality and coining knowledge were far beyond anything available in the United States – or anywhere in North America.”
At the turn 19th century the mint faced a decision. Would it relocate to Washington, D.C., where other federal government offices were moving as the District of Columbia became the nation’s permanent capital? Would the mint continue to exist, despite its financial difficulties, with its administrative revolving doors and inability to produce enough coinage for a young nation?
Burdette believes that if the mint had moved to Washington, 1800 or 1801, the most significant difference would have been using water-driven machinery instead of horsepower. “A central argument for leaving the mint where it was included proximity to banks and other bullion sources and good access to Philadelphia’s port for shipment of copper from England,” Burdette remarked.
“The greatest difference would have occurred if the United States had actively followed up on installing one of Boulton’s steam-powered presses and rolling mill.” But that wasn’t to be… Steam power wouldn’t be adopted by the United States Mint until the mid-1830s, by which time the nation’s coining operations had moved into a much statelier facility in Philadelphia.
Full Steam Ahead
The second Philadelphia Mint was opened in 1833, at the corner Chestnut Street and Juniper Street. The second Philadelphia Mint opened in 1833. Designed by William Strickland – a renowned civil engineer, architect, and designer – it was larger and featured white marble columns with Grecian influences. Along with the new digs and the improved coining capabilities, the U.S. Mint also enjoyed the larger digs.
“In 1833 Franklin Peale, a skilled mechanic employed at the Philadelphia Mint, was sent to Europe to study the latest techniques in coinage, especially the presses,” said numismatic researcher and historian R.W. Julian. “Prior to his return in the late spring of 1835, it had been decided to furnish the new branch mints [to begin operations in 1838 in New Orleans, Dahlonega, and Charlotte] with screw presses – the kind used at the Philadelphia Mint since 1792.”
Modern Steam Coinage Presses
During his time in Europe, Peale visited the Paris Mint, which boasted modern steam coinage presses – technology he believed the U.S. Mint should adopt. Peale was inspired to sketch drawings of a new steam press for the U.S. Mint that would incorporate the steam technology seen at the Paris Mint. “Upon his return to Philadelphia, Peale persuaded the new mint director, Dr. Robert M. Patterson, that the idea of a screw press should be dropped in favor of a steam coinage press. Arrangements were made to have a stream coinage press constructed in Philadelphia, using the drawings made in Paris but with improvements devised by Peale.”
Peale’s new steam-operated presses began service at the Philadelphia Mint on March 23, 1836. “[It] proved a resounding success,” Julian remarked. A screw press requires up to five operators in order to produce 14,000 coin on a good-day, while a steam press needs only one operator. It can also produce 40,000 or even more coins each day. “With this in mind Director Patterson changed the orders for the branch mints; screw presses were out, steam coinage presses in.”
Leaping into Future
“The introduction of the steam press was a giant leap forward for the mint,” explained numismatic researcher Len Augsburger, executive director of the Newman Numismatic Portal and coauthor of The Secret History of the First U.S. Mint (Whitman Publishing). The second mint’s physical size would be dwarfed by the coin production run and the requirement for additional minting equipment.
The once-proud “Grecian Temple,” as some called the 1830s-vintage mint building, was showing its age in the waning years of the 19th century. “By the early 1890s, the second mint was old and decrepit,” remarked Augsburger. “Senator Thomas H. Carter, who advocated for the [third] building, personally visited the second mint and described ‘cold, dark, subterranean’ conditions not fit for human labor.” The legislation for the new Philadelphia Mint was passed in 1891. “The third facility again increased the capacity of the mint, moving to a full city block.”
William Aiken’s massive Beaux-Arts design, which cost $3 million dollars, was opened as a mint in 1901. It was a state-of-the-art modern facility. The new mint, which was fully powered by electricity and designed to be efficient, boasted spacious, sun-drenched rooms, designated areas for different stages of minting, and grand accommodation for visitors. A focal point of the mint was a rotunda housing the mint’s massive coin collection, on exhibit for public viewing.
The third Philadelphia Mint was able to adapt as minting demands grew and shrank over the years through expansions and improvements. By the swinging ‘60s, coining operations at 1700 Spring Garden Street had outgrown their quarters and it was time once more for the United States Mint to plan for a new, larger facility.
Arch & Fith Streets
On September 17, 1965, Mint Director Eva B. Adams oversaw a groundbreaking facility for the fourth Philadelphia Mint at Arch and Fifth Streets – just a few blocks from the location of the first United States Mint. The modern $37-million building, a monstrous, Brutalist study popular in the Space Age was dedicated on 14 August 1969. Minting was moved from Center City Philadelphia to 1700 Spring Garden Street, where it became the Community College of Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Mint building at Fifth and Arch and on the northeastern fringes of Philadelphia’s tourist-jammed Independence Mall continues striking away nearly two million coins per hour each business day. The Philadelphia Mint has a high level of efficiency and output, which ensures its sufficiency even after 50 years of striking the first coin. “Given the rise in electronic payments, not to mention the proliferation of change jars in retail establishments, it’s clear that the public has less and less use for circulating coinage,” noted Augsburger. “It seems unlikely that we will need a fifth Philadelphia Mint anytime soon.”
COINage published an article about Philidelphia coins. To subscribe Click here to learn more. Article by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.
COINage Magazine first published Four Philadelphia Mints.