1794 Silver Dollars


Calendar year, Mint report: 1,758 distributed

(from total mintage of c. 2,000)

Coinage Context

Dollars authorized: The Mint Act of April 2, 1792 authorized the production of silver dollars of 416 grains weight, with silver content of 371.25 grains, equivalent to .89243 fine. The remaining metal was to be copper, added for strength. Such coins were intended to circulate at par with Mexican and other Spanish-American silver" dollars" (of the eight reales denomination) which were common in the states at the time. Indeed, earlier the Continental Congress had denominated its paper currency in Spanish milled dollars. The framers of the Mint Act of 1792, mindful of Alexander Hamilton's Report of January 28, 1791, chose the gross weight of 416 grains and the pure silver content of 371-1/4 grains for the silver dollar, and other silver coins in preparation, to match the average weight of Carolus dollars then in circulation, and to exceed the middle fineness Hamilton had specified. (Hamilton had specified pure silver content as ranging from 374 grains to 371 to 368, corresponding to 899, .8918 and .8846 Fine.) No one knew the official Spanish fineness (65/72=902-7/9 or .90278), but the actual Spanish dollars were not then coined in that quality.
A problem with the weight: Albion Cox, Mint assayer who was well versed in coinage (and who earlier produced New Jersey coppers), found that the statutory fineness of .89243 was difficult to attain, and he proposed adjusting it to the point at which the silver content of the dollar was 371.25 grains (thus achieving the amount of silver Congress wanted), but with the copper content lowered to 41 grains, thus yielding a 412.25-grain coin of .900456 fine silver (which was close to what Congress authorized over 40 years later under the Act of March 31; 1837). Congress did not agree with the Cox plan.

Mint Director David Rittenhouse then proposed to increase the silver content from 371.25 grains to 374.74, for a total coin weight of 416 grains, resulting in .90084 silver fineness. Under this proposal, unauthorized by Congress, all 1794 dollars and, it is believed, most if not all 1795 Flowing Hair dollars were minted. Each had 3.49 grains of extra silver, above the Mint Act's limit of 1/144 deviation (2.578-1/8 grains) in weight of fine silver. Depositors receiving silver dollars in exchange for bullion were thus short about 1 % in value for each dollar received (see Additional Information below).

Concerning the copper with which to alloy the silver, R.W. Julian noted this: (Letter to the author, December 7, 1992)

It is my opinion, based on the fact that I have yet to find in the Mint records any purchases of scrap copper after 1792, that the source of 99% of the copper alloy for the dollars of 1794-1804 was the copper coinage, either in misstruck half cents and cents or in the scissel (the remainder of the flattened copper ingot after the planchets had been punched out). Depositors usually had to wait several weeks for their coins, and very rarely obtained them within a month. For example, years later when silver coinage was heavy and regular in 18l4, the delays were sometimes for several months.

Dies made: The dies for the 1794 dollar are almost certainly the work of Robert Scot, a medalist and die sinker. He had begun his career in England as a watchmaker, and had come to America, where he engaged in engraving plates for money and bills of exchange during the Revolutionary War, scales used in the office of financier Robert Morris, and plates illustrating architectural items for Dobson's Encyclopedia, among numerous other commissions. In 1780 he produced an Indian peace medal, "Happy When United," for the state of Virginia. In 1781 his workshop was located in Philadelphia on the west side of Front Street, near the corner of Vine.

Following the death from yellow fever in the summer of 1793 of Joseph Wright, a talented artist of whom many fine things were expected, the Mint sought to add a full-time engraver to the staff. Wright had worked on and off for the Mint, and today is credited with designing the 1792 eagle-on-globe patterns and the 1793 Liberty Cap cent, both beautiful works of art.

On November 23, 1793, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was in charge of the affairs of the Mint, wrote to Robert Scot and sent him a commission to be engraver at the Mint. To Scot fell the task of cutting the dies for coinage, including the 1794 Flowing Hair dollar. In November 1794, John Smith Gardner was hired as his assistant, but by this time the initial delivery of silver dollars had been accomplished, Probably, Gardner worked on some of the 1795 and later dies.

Planchet preparation: Silver was obtained by the Mint from various depositors, who primarily brought foreign silver coins, but often furnished silver utensils and other wrought items as well. The silver was received by the Mint, and in due course, dollars or other coins were made from the metal and paid out. Unfortunately, the Mint did not have a bullion fund, or house account, to provide for the purchase of silver and the immediate payment in kind from earlier-minted coins on hand. Under the procedure in effect during the era of the 1794-1803 silver dollars, depositors often had to wait several days or more for their coins.

After receipt, the silver would be melted, refined, cast into ingots, rolled into bars, and then rolled and drawn into sheets the thickness of the desired planchets. Great difficulties were experienced during these processes, especially with the rolling mills, as the rollers tended to deteriorate and produce strips of metal with uneven thickness. At one time, the Mint operations almost shut down because of rolling mill problems.
From the finished strip of the proper thickness, a small punch and die would cut out planchets one at a time, By this point in time, a great deal of effort and expense had been invested in creating each planchet. However, there was more to be done.