Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States - A Complete Encyclopedia

Chapter 3: Early Dollars, Historical Background
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John McDowell, a local carpenter inspected the Mint building before its destruction and furnished Stewart details of the coinage building roof. Further:
"The cupola placed on the coinage building was sketched from one of the same period on the old City Hall." Still further: "The next building back of the coinage building may possibly at some time have been connected with the coinage building by bridge or stairway because the advertisement of the Mint property in the American Centennial mentions the coinage building of brick about 30 by 68 feet, which would, if correct, indicate that the coinage and smelting buildings were figured as one building. It says the building was two stories high, but inasmuch as the Seventh Street front building is described as three stories, the supposition is plausible that there was a half story on the coinage building at that time, as there was on the Seventh Street building.

Assayer Cox carefully considered the strange fineness mandated by Congress (1485/1664 = .8924+) and decided that he really didn't think much of their work. Instead he felt that. 900 was much easier to work with and the computations would be far less complicated. Cox approached Rittenhouse and persuaded him that silver coinage of .8924+ would turn black in daily use but .900 would not. Incredibly, the director accepted the bizarre argument and ordered that coinage begin at .900.

In an even more incredible move, and to hide the illegal standard, Rittenhouse accepted another of Cox's arguments: to leave undisturbed the gross weight of 416 grains. The dollar would now contain 374.4 grains of fine silver in place of the 371.25 mandated by law. This effectively changed the ratio of gold and silver from the legal 15 to 1-as adopted in 1792-to an illegal 15.13 to 1. (The change was not made just for the dollar, but for all silver coinage.) The secret was well kept, with only Henry Voight at first being told. In late 1794 the new melter and refiner pro tem, David Ott, also had to be informed. Neither Jefferson nor Washington was told, both men learning of it in the fall of 1795.

Supply of Silver is Obtained

On August 29 David Rittenhouse and Charles Gilchrist each brought two deposits of silver, in ingot form, to the Mint for coinage; the four deposits were probably made from melted-down Spanish dollars. The two Rittenhouse entries were for $1,706 and $295, respectively, while those for Gilchrist were worth $1,307 and $47. Why both men made such odd deposits on the same day is unclear, but they were close friends which would help explain it.

There are two possible reasons for the curious small deposits, either of which has merit. The most likely explanation is that each man was acting for a friend or relative who wished to remain anonymous. The second is that Rittenhouse wanted to have more deposits as this would impress congressmen generally opposed to the Mint. On the day following the four deposits, the Bank of North America also brought in silver ingots, worth more than $22,000. This was the final deposit of silver in 1794.

The French coin was slow to be refined and very expensive in the process. In January 1795 congressional investigators were told that it had cost more than $2,500 to refine the Maryland deposit and the melter and refiner, was not yet finished with it. The law required that silver be coined and paid off in the same order as deposited, but Rittenhouse realized that strict adherence to the law would seriously delay the start of coinage, hence the deposits by himself and Gilchrist.

Rittenhouse asked the Maryland Bank for written authority to coin their silver out of the proper legal order, which meant that the director's could be used first. Permission was quickly granted as Rittenhouse had explained the problems that were involved.

Silver deposits Nos. 2 through 5, those by Rittenhouse and Gilchrist, were of ingots, almost certainly, so that the first regular coinage could not be identified as coming from Spanish or French coins. In this way the first American silver dollar would not have an origin, but rather be of "new" metal, just like the nation itself. This kind of symbolism was quite popular in the early Republic.

Preparing Silver for Coinage

There were many operations to be gone through before the Rittenhouse and Gilchrist silver became coin of the realm. After the alloy was checked for accuracy (i.e., at the illegal standard of 900/1000), the ingots were remelted and poured into new molds. The new ingots were gradually flattened between powerful rollers until the thickness of the remaining strip was that of the dollar itself. Planchets (blanks) the size of the dollar were now punched out.

Once the planchets had been made, there were still several operations before coinage could take place. The blanks were annealed (heat softened) before coinage so that they would take a good impression from the dies. One of the last steps was to put each blank in the Castaing machine, which rolled the planchets between a set of parallel bars, impressing into the edge the legend "HUNDRED CENTS ONE DOLLAR OR UNIT" and ornamentation.

The last step (before the edge was lettered) was to individually weigh each planchet; those which weighed more than 416 grains had a file applied to remove metal from one of the faces until the weight was correct. Those which were too light were rejected and later melted, to go through the process all over again.

Preparing Silver for Coinage

There were many operations to be gone through before the Rittenhouse and Gilchrist silver became coin of the realm. After the alloy was checked for accuracy (i.e., at the illegal standard of 900/1000), the ingots were remelted and poured into new molds. The new ingots were gradually flattened between powerful rollers until the thickness of the remaining strip was that of the dollar itself. Planchets (blanks) the size of the dollar were now punched out.

Once the planchets had been made, there were still several operations before coinage could take place. The blanks were annealed (heat softened) before coinage so that they would take a good impression from the dies. One of the last steps was to put each blank in the Castaing machine, which rolled the planchets between a set of parallel bars, impressing into the edge the legend "HUNDRED CENTS ONE DOLLAR OR UNIT" and ornamentation.

Chapter 3: Early Dollars, Historical Background
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

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