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

Chapter 3: Early Dollars, Historical Background
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New Dollar Press Completed

Chief Coiner Voight was able to resume half dollar coinage in January 1795, still using the dies of 1794. This coinage was very heavy, with about 270,000 pieces being struck by the middle of April. About 250,000 of these were dated 1795. A few were made after the beginning of May, when the dollar press was finally completed, but half dollar coinage soon trickled off to nothing. Half dimes were coined on occasion throughout the year, but were not of great economic value.

On May 6, 1795, the first delivery of silver dollars from the newly-completed press was made, amounting to 3,810 pieces. These almost certainly included, as planchets, some of the lightly-struck dollars from October 15 that Chief Coiner Voight had refused to deliver to the treasurer of the Mint. One 1795 dollar is known with the clear undertype of 1794. More may have been made, but many of the originals were very weakly struck and the undertype would have been easily obliterated when recoined with dies of 1795. The belief that 1794 dies were used in 1795 is without foundation, in the writer's opinion.

For reasons that are presently unclear, the first silver dollars reserved for the annual meeting of the United States Assay Commission were not laid aside until May 16, 1795, when three pieces were put into a special chest in the treasurer's vault. No meeting had been held in 1795 and none was to come in 1796. The first meeting, which tested all of the silver coinage struck since May 1795, was not held until March 1797. More than 100 silver dollars were tested at that time.

Dollars of 1795

There is little in the way of real variation for the Flowing Hair dollars of 1795. Two reverse dies have three leaves beneath the wings, in place of the normal two. Breen reports that many of the planchets used for the 1795 dollar coinage are defective in some way or other, which is understandable in view of the relatively crude operations of the early Mint. (In 1991 Q. David Bowers wrote several accounts concerning multiple specimens of 1795 Bowing Hair dollars that had been struck with silver plugs at their centers, possibly from adding metal to underweight planchets.)

From May through October the coinage of silver dollars was heavy, but not all of these were the Flowing Hair type introduced in October 1794. At some unknown date, probably at the end of September, the design was changed to the Draped Bust obverse, which continued to be coined through March 1804. Existing Mint records are silent concerning this all-important change in design.

DeSaussure Named Director

Director David Rittenhouse, worn out by bouts of ill health and increasingly sharp criticism of the Mint, notified the president in the spring of 1795 that he would resign his post as of June 30. He was replaced by Henry William DeSaussure of South Carolina, an old friend of Washington's. DeSaussure did not arrive for a few days into July, but soon threw himself into the work. He expedited the beginning of gold coinage, the first delivery of which, 744 half eagles, took place on the last day of July.

Upon his arrival at the Mint, DeSaussure was informed of the illegal standard for silver coinage then in use. The new director, as he later stated, decided to continue the 900/1000 fineness based on the great reputation and "weighty precedent" of David Rittenhouse. It was also a convenient way of shifting blame to someone else.

DeSaussure also took steps to redesign the silver coinage though it is not clear just why this was done. He may have decided this for himself, and then simply cleared the matter with Washington and Jefferson, or the idea may have come from one of these two men. Present thinking is that DeSaussure was responsible for the change and persuaded his superiors to go along with the idea. It is likely, of course, that the change was made in order to blunt some of the criticism still being directed at the Mint, primarily by enemies of the Washington administration.

(The design change will be discussed in the section on the Draped Bust dollar.)

Technical Matters-Assaying

In the earliest days of the Mint, deposits came in a variety of shapes and finenesses, and it was the duty of the assayer to test the bullion to find out its value and fineness. Albion Cox became assayer in 1793, but it was not until the summer of 1794 that the first deposit of precious metal was tested.

Until 1835 the Mint assayer tested the fineness by the cupellation method, but in that year the humid system was adopted. A small amount of metal-only a few grains-was scraped from the bullion and the amount of pure metal was then determined.' There was some variation in the manner in which gold and silver were assayed.

The assayer did not necessarily test all incoming deposits because some, such as well-known foreign silver and gold coins, had a fixed value by law. The best known examples of these were the Spanish eight reales (dollar) and gold doubloon. French and Portuguese coins were also heavily deposited in the early days.

Once the assayer had certified the weight, fineness, and value of the deposit, the treasurer of the Mint issued a certificate, stating these facts, to the owner. On most occasions the true owner of the bullion would then wait until coins were made and paid over to him. Sometimes, however, the deposit certificate would be sold to a bank or importer having need of coined gold or silver. The deposit certificates were also used as loan collateral.

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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