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

Chapter 3: Early Dollars, Historical Background
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Before being struck, the blank was once more, cleaned, but there was also a dilute acid treatment (usually sulfuric) to remove any surface oxidation. The blank was now sent to the coining rooms, to receive the impressions from the dies.


Prior to 1836 the Mint used only screw presses in which weighted arms were swung by strongly-muscled men. The screw was driven downwards with great force, and the planchet was transformed into a coin by being squeezed between the obverse and reverse dies. There was an improved automatic feeding mechanism installed in the presses in 1795, apparently at the suggestion of John Harper.

In March 1836 the steam press was introduced to the Mint but did not strike silver dollars until the more general Coinage that began in 1840. (The knuckle-action steam press operates on a different principle than the screw press.) David Gilbert; an employee of the Philadelphia Mint, invented an improved press in 1858; while in 1874, Coiner. A. Loudon Snowden devised additional modifications. Several technical changes have been made since that time, but in essence a device similar in principle to the steam coining press of 1836 is still in use although it is now operated with electrical motors.

Draped Bust Dollars, 1795-1803

When Henry William DeSaussure became director of the Mint on July 9, 1795, in place of David Rittenhouse, he was faced with a situation few men would have wanted. Attacks on the Mint were still going on, fanned by political enemies of the president. There was widespread belief that' the institution had not done its job in providing coins to the public, especially in the precious metal denominations.

There was a certain amount of criticism of the current designs on the silver coins (though modern collectors generally consider the Flowing Hair design a good one). DeSaussure expedited the first coinage of gold (the initial delivery of 744 half eagles was made on July 31) and soon concerned himself with the designs on the silver coinage.

It is not at all clear who instigated the design change although conventional wisdom, based on little more than the fact that DeSaussure happened to be Mint director at the time, says that he was responsible for the new head of Liberty, called the Draped Bust design by modern collectors. It may just as easily have been Thomas Jefferson, who, as secretary of state, was the cabinet officer in charge of Mint affairs.(In numismatic research and publication, as in other areas of inquiry, one person's theory often becomes the next person's authoritative quotation and the third person's accepted fact. In the present book, R.W.Julian and Q. David Bowers have endeavored to use as much original source material as possible, in preference to existing theories. )

Gilbert Stuart

In the 1850s Mint Director James Ross Snowden became deeply interested in the history of the Philadelphia Mint and interviewed many persons in order to learn as much as possible. One of the individuals with whom he discussed Mint affairs was a descendant of Gilbert Stuart, the famed early American portrait painter. The Stuart family member told Snowden that his ancestor had designed the Liberty head introduced to the silver coinage in 1795. This is the sole known basis on which the Stuart name is attributed.

In the nineteenth century it was quite common for extravagant claims to be made about the doings of ancestors in the Revolutionary War era. Had all of them been true, General Washington would have had an army 10 times its real size and the British would have been defeated in a few weeks, not years. One of the most notorious of these claims was the myth of Betsy Ross sewing the first flag.

However, in dealing with the Stuart family tradition, we are more than likely hearing the truth as it was transmitted over several generations. It must be remembered that in the 1850s there was no great national interest in coins, although several hundred avid collectors were active whereas a handful had existed a decade before. The Stuart descendant would thus have had little incentive to fabricate a story, for the simple reason that little was to be gained and all to be lost should Snowden locate documentary evidence to the contrary.

Whatever the true course of events, it remains probable that Gilbert Stuart did redesign the silver coinage as was claimed by his descendant. It is, on the other hand, somewhat unlikely that DeSaussure was the one who approached Stuart to do the work; this would have been Thomas Jefferson or the president, either of whom would have known the artist quite well.

It is not of course certain when Stuart began the task, but judging from other facts, he probably was at work on the designs by sometime in the latter part of July 1795. The artist realized that he was doing something that could affect how the nation was perceived at home and abroad and would have taken his time. He no doubt prepared several drawings so that the top officials would have something to choose from, rather than just one set. None of this work is known to have survived, however.

Some numismatists believe that Ann Willing (Mrs. William Bingham) was the ultimate model for the draped bust figure of Liberty, though this cannot be proven. It may well be that Stuart had her in mind for the profile, but barring further discoveries of documentary material, which is highly unlikely, the best that we can do is to say that this is entirely possible.

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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