Peter Takes on History
March 3, 1791
The U.S. Mint
On this day in 1791 Congress authorized the creation of The United States Mint; directly under control of the president and authorized by the president to hire the directors, assayers, tradesmen and artists. They authorized a building to house the agency - the first Federal building project. The agency (today technically a bureau) has had, as I count them, nine branches over the years. The newest branch is in West Point, NY, the most familiar branches are in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco, designated by P, D or S respectively. The least familiar branch, I’m guessing, is the branch that operated for twenty years in the Philippines!
Colonial America never had a “monetary system.” People bartered or used precious metal, often foreign coins like the Spanish Peso. There were banknotes around but they were printed and backed by local banks and most colonists didn’t trust paper. Can’t blame them. They’d been burned by paper. The colonies actually paid for the revolutionary war by printing paper - basically IOUs called “Continentals” but after the war cash strapped states started defaulting and the bills became worthless. So the framers of the Constitution avoided any mention of paper currency.
By 1790 President Washington had had enough of America’s economic entropy and pushed Congress to come up with a uniform currency.
His buddy Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury, got right on it. He studied world monetary systems and began writing what would become the Coinage Act. Passed by Congress in 1792, the act established the US Mint and authorized the manufacture of precious and semi-precious metal coins worth ten dollars, one dollar, a quarter of a dollar, a tenth of a dollar and so on. The decimal denominations; that was Thomas Jefferson’s idea.
Making coins of precious metals is tricky. Many practical considerations like, if you plan to make a ten dollar gold piece out of ten dollars worth of gold, a one dollar gold piece is going to be one tenth the size and weight and a one cent piece of copper is going to be way bigger than a ten dollar gold piece.
Another consideration, the young country didn’t own much silver and gold. That’s why subsequent branches of the mint opened in Denver, then Nevada, then California. They followed the gold!
Anyway, the first US Mint was built in Philadelphia, at that time the nation's de facto capital. Presses were built, powered by horses and oxen until the first steam powered press in 1836. And coins were designed.
There was popular support for putting a portrait of Washington on the first dollar but George said, fogetaboutit! That’s something royals do and we’d just fought a revolution to get rid of a king! So, they went with an eagle instead.
Ever wonder why there are ridges around the edge of coins like our quarters and dimes. It was to discourage a practice known as “clipping.” If a coin has ridges or some other edge pattern, it becomes far more difficult to clip off tiny, unnoticeable quantities of precious metal from a coin.
By March 1793 the Philadelphia mint released its first run of coins and they’re still pounding them out today from a sprawling five acre facility; the largest mint in the world! Both US coins and, by contract, foreign coins, are struck at a rate of nearly 2 million each hour! .
A far cry better than their first run of 11,178 large cents and though those large cents were the first minted coins to enter circulation, they weren’t the first made. The first made were silver half dimes — which were produced, in part, using silver melted down from flatware donated to the government by a couple that really gave a fork; George and Martha Washington.