In the summer of 1792, a distinguished group of Americans, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, gathered in the cellar of a private residence in Philadelphia to witness the striking of the first United States coins. This is the story of one of those coins, and may very well be the story of the first United States coin ever struck.
The 1792 disme is usually catalogued today as a pattern. You can find it listed as Judd #10, Pollock #11, Breen #1362, Davis #2, Adams-Woodin #2, Taxay #EP-25, and so forth. Although a great deal of research has been done on this great coin over the years, much of it is confused or downright contradictory. This is rarely the fault of the researcher; instead, it is the inevitable result of a story told many times over two centuries. A twist here, a turn there, a forgotten point, a misplaced date, a transposed number, an unintentional error, an embellishment...suddenly, you begin to wonder if we're talking about the same coin. Regardless, it has been a joy researching this coin, and I hope that you'll enjoy what I've learned and have chosen to write about it.
On July 1, 1792, David Rittenhouse was named by President Washington to be the first Director of the United States Mint. On July 31 of that year Rittenhouse laid the cornerstone for the first US mint at its Seventh Street location between Market and Arch. On December 17, the first coins were struck at that location. They were the silver center cents of 1792. They were not, however, the first coins struck by the US Mint. The first coins were struck only nine or ten days after Rittenhouse took office, at a temporary mint located in the cellar of a home owned by John Harper. Harper was a saw maker from Trenton, New Jersey, who also owned a residence at Sixth and Cherry streets in Philadelphia. Most importantly, Harper owned a screwpress, which was used to make the first US coins. The coining presses used to strike coins at the official US Mint didn't arrive from England until September 21, 1792.
The dies for the disme and half disme were available immediately after Rittenhouse took office. It is believed they were prepared in March of 1792. Some historians believe the dies were prepared in England. Adam Eckfeldt made the obverse dies of the disme, while Robert Birch did the reverse dies. Of course, some historians disagree, saying that Robert Birch couldn't have done the work, as he was only eleven years old at the time, so it was another person named Birch, but not Robert. Still others say the obverse was designed and engraved by Joseph Wright. I go with the Eckfeldt/Birch die marriage theory, based on the other coins attributed to Eckfeldt of a similar design, the fact that he was there when the first coins were struck, and his lifelong claim that he designed the first US coin ever minted, among other reasons.
On July 9, 1792, President Washington sent a message to Rittenhouse authorizing him to strike dismes, half dismes and cents. Washington, who kept a residence on High Street only a few blocks from Harper's home, attended the striking of the first coins, which took place later that day or on July 10. On July 11, Washington left Philadelphia for Mount Vernon. On July 13 Thomas Jefferson, who was in attendance at Harper's cellar with Washington on July 9-10, received the first 1,500 half dismes. This may have been the entire mintage, although many speculate that an additional 500 to 1,000 pieces were struck.
What about the dismes? They were obviously struck in an extremely small quantity. While perhaps 200 or so half dismes have survived, only a few dismes are known today. In addition to the copper pieces, a few specimens are also known in silver.
It has been stated by no less an authority than Dr. J. Hewitt Judd that "all of the half dismes, dismes, silver center and small copper cents have a diagonal reeding of the edge." Walter Breen, noting the only other variety of the disme to be the plain edge, confirms this. Dr. Judd also recognizes the plain edge disme as Judd #11, so, obviously, what he meant to say is that all reeded edge dismes have diagonal reeding. The example of Judd #10 that is in the National Collection also shows diagonal reeding. It was recently inspected by numismatic historians John Dannreuther and Anthony Terranova, who confirmed this, and also stated that the piece had been pulled from circulation and showed wear and planchet roughness. The significance of this will be discussed later.
Adam Eckfeldt often said that he designed the first United States coin struck. Many believe that he was referring to his 1793 half cent, but that is impossible. The first 1793 half cent was struck on July 20, 1793, more than four months after the first 1793 Chain cents designed by Henry Voigt were minted. The coin Eckfeldt was talking about was the 1792 disme. Eckfeldt should know. He was there at Harper's cellar, along with Washington, Jefferson, Rittenhouse, and Voigt on July 9-10, 1792.
In 1998 the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) was chosen to grade and authenticate the finest known specimen of the 1792 copper disme. This coin is of gem quality, and traces its pedigree to the James Ellsworth collection. When the Ellsworth collection sold in 1923, it was, at the time, the largest numismatic transaction in history. John Work Garrett financed the purchase of the collection through Wayte Raymond, and was given first pick of the coins for his personal collection. One of the coins he chose was this 1792 copper disme. The coin remained in the Garrett collection until it was given to The Johns Hopkins University following Garrett's death in 1942. In 1981 the disme reappeared on the market for the first time in 58 years when it was sold at auction. Over the years the coin has been designated by experts as a business strike, a specimen strike, and as a proof. As Walter Breen noted: "All purported 'proofs' or presentation coins dated before 1817 are controversial. I realize that in enumerating presentation pieces I am to a certain extent violating the rather strict ground rules for identification of coins as proofs, but at the moment I see no alternative. The coins exist, the real presentation pieces show evidence of unusual care in striking on carefully selected blanks, and in a few instances the intended recipients have been identified beyond peradventure." The point of this long quote is obvious. Whether PCGS designates this magnificent coin as Proof 65 Brown, Specimen 65 Brown, or MS65 Brown, it will be accepted by virtually all of the numismatic community as "correct." The coin carries its own credentials.
Now, back to Harper's cellar in the summer of 1792. Unlike the 1792 half dismes, which have no proof characteristics whatsoever in most cases (there are notable exceptions), the copper dismes that have survived in high grade look like proofs (or specimens), with a superb strike and somewhat mirror surfaces. Some are better than others, of course, but no other example is comparable to the Ellsworth/Garrett coin. Now, if the copper dismes were struck first, and I believe they were (based on both historical data and logic), then one of the copper dismes is the first coin ever struck by the US Mint.
Which one of the survivors could it be? Remember Breen's comment that "the real presentation pieces show unusual care in striking on carefully selected blanks...." The Ellsworth/Garrett specimen does indeed show that! In fact, it doesn't have diagonal reeding at all. It has vertical reeding. The edge was made with a Castaing machine. Why? In my opinion, it was done because Rittenhouse, Eckfeldt, and friends wanted the first coin to be as perfect as possible.
There are other 1792 dismes known with vertical reeding, and perhaps even the majority of them have it, contrary to the research and writing of Judd and Breen. Even so, the Ellsworth/Garrett coin is special. It has been magnificently preserved for over two centuries, handled with an extra care that is atypical of all other known examples. It has obviously always been special, from the moment it was struck. I do not want to describe the coin with banal superlatives such as "awesome" or "mind-boggling" or "beyond belief," yet there is accuracy in those usually hyperbolic words when applied to this coin. Instead, just let it be said that the coin has mellowed over the years to a delicate tan-brown, with traces of mint red still in evidence. The original luster is still intense. The strike and surfaces are immaculate, and there is only the most minor discoloration.
If there is a "short list" of the greatest coins of all time, the Ellsworth/Garrett 1792 disme in copper, Judd #10, is definitely on it. A few respected names might even place it at the top.