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Coin Collecting: New Role For Old Distillery

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( Published 1963 )



What could be done with an old distillery property? If the year was 1792? If the city was Philadelphia? Here's the story:

When David Rittenhouse was appointed by George Washington to be the first director of the United States Mint on April 14, 1792, it was considered an honor, a responsibility and a challenge.

Here was a brand new republic with no monetary system of its own; the United States was simply coasting along using various foreign coins. The Spanish 8 reales or "piece of 8" was the commonly accepted standard of value, although Dutch and English and German coins could be found among those in circulation.

However, that was not the biggest problem for the new mint director-he had no mint to directl

So Mr. Rittenhouse started searching through Philadelphia, at that time the federal capital, for a likely place for his mint. He found some property that was fairly close to his home and not too far from President Washington's residence. It looked good and was certainly convenient. So he recommended its purchase and Washington okayed it.

The new mint site was the former home of an old Philadelphia distillery. Cost to the U.S. taxpapers-exactly $4,266.67.

The old buildings which had been used by the distillery weren't quite right for the manufacture of coins, so Congress came through with money for a new mint structure, the first cash ever appropriated for erection of a public building in the United States.

The first of three mint buildings, eventually erected on the old distillery site, was completed September 7, 1792. Later that month, workmen started on a somewhat hesitant production schedule.

Free coinage of silver was to be the policy of the United States. The new mint wasn't ready to start full-scale operations, but President Washington thought it ought to have a trial run at making some coins.

So, according to tradition, he bundled up some of the family silver and took it to the mint to be melted down and coined. There is no record of exactly what silverware he took along, but the items may have included some old candlesticks and snuffers, a battered berry spoon or two, and whatever other articles appeared not needed in the Washington household.

There's no way of knowing whether Martha Washington was consulted in what silverware could be spared. It's possible that the President decided to act first and tell her about it afterwards.

So, late in September or early October of 1792, there were coined some silver "half dismes." These were turned over to the President (after all, it was his silverware that went into them), and he distributed them to friends and relatives. It is said that the portrait on those first "half dismes" was of Martha Washington, although it is doubtful if she was flattered by the somewhat too plump representation.

In his fourth annual address to Congress, in October of that year, President Washington reported:

"There has been a small beginning of coinage of half dismes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them:"

The word "disme," current in 1792, stems by way of the French from the Latin "decimus" or tenth. The pronunciation in those days was "deem." While it was spelled out on those very first half and full disme experimental coins of 1792, when regular full-scale operation of the mint was begun in 1794, no mention of value was made on either coin. The American of that day was presumed to know at a glance, by the size of the coin, which was which and worth how much.

Marks of value were left off the half dimes from 1794 through 1805- When coinage of this small silver piece was resumed in i829, the value was expressed on the reverse side as "5 C: " With the change of design in 1837, the original name of 1792 was resumed-half dime (without the "s" in the middle)-and it continued to be so designated until its career ended in 1873, 81 years later.

When the mint was ready to start business in 1792, Director Rittenhouse hired a watchman, hung a large bell in a tower in the mint yard, and bought a watchdog for $3 as protection for the mint.

There is no record as to the dog's name-it may have been Rover or Tige, Butch or Strongheart. But he was a good watchdog. And that $g price tag is no guide to the dog's real worth; after all, Director Rittenhouse, considered America's topmost scientist of his day, drew only $2,000 a year as mint director.

There were certain rules which the dog and his friend, the watchman, followed. No one except the watchman was allowed to feed the dog. At night, when the mint was closed down, the watchman, armed with a pistol and short sword, was required to ring the yard bell every hour on the hour by the mint clock. And, after the bell had tolled out its message- that all was well within the mint, the dog was turned loose to make his own private inspection of the premises.

The mint watchdogs, from that first one which cost $3 through all his successors, turned in perfect performances. Not once, from 1792 until the old mint was abandoned and sold in 1832, was there a successful break-in.

Mint employees in these early days turned in a full daily measure of work. They reported to the job at 5 A.M. and weren't through for the day until 8 P.M. There were no coffee breaks and they couldn't go out for breakfast, lunch, or dinner; they either carried their food with them to the job or depended on relatives and friends to bring meals to the mint.

Once on the job, no worker could leave the mint without permission. If caught outside the fence, he was considered to be guilty of a dishonorable act and was promptly stripped and searched. Few workers wandered outside.

The 15-hour day prevailed throughout the year. But there were two big holidays when the workers could stay home all day-the Fourth of July and Christmas Day.

Lighting in the mint buildings left something to be desired. There were plenty of tallow candles but only a few whale-oil lamps. Considering all this, it is remarkable that early American coins look as good as they do.

On several occasions, the mint had to be closed down for months at a time due to epidemics of yellow fever.

Power for the coin presses and other machinery was supplied exclusively by men and horses until 1816. Following a mint fire in January of that year, steam power for certain heavy work was introduced. But it was not until 1836 that true steam coinage finally got under way in the newlyopened second mint in Philadelphia.

In its act establishing the U. S. Mint, Congress ordered that on each gold and silver coin "there shall be the figure or representation of an eagle:" That same act stated that on all copper coins the denomination of the piece be stated "cent or half cent, as the case may be." There was no such requirement for silver and gold, and the earliest American gold and many silver pieces curiously omit any statement of value.

No one knows what eagle or eagles posed for the required "figure or representation" on the reverse of America's earliest coins. But the bird that served as a model for the silverdollar designs of 1836-1840 was a famous eagle called "Peter."

Why an eagle should select the U. S. Mint for his home isn't too clear, but Peter did so and lived there for some six years. Peter, considered a magnificent specimen of the American eagle, daily flew leisurely about the city of Philadelphia. But he never failed to come back to the mint building before it was closed far the night.

Christian Gobrecht had been appointed an assistant engraver at the U. S. Mint in 1836. Upon orders of the mint director, he set out to design some "pattern" dollars. In each case, the flying eagle an the reverse was a "representation" of Peter, the mint eagle.

The age of mechanization eventually proved Peter's undoing. He came to an untimely end after an unfortunate set-to with a flywheel. Exactly what happened is lost in the mists of history. One version is that Peter attempted to perch on the moving flywheel, another is that Peter tried to fly through the wheel while it was moving so rapidly that it was little more than a blur.

Whichever account is correct, America's most famous eagle did reach an unfortunate end. But Peter's career of service to his country was not closed then. The magnificent bird was stuffed and found a permanent home in a glass case in the mint collection room.