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The New Orleans Mint: Part Three

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During the second life of the New Orleans Mint, Morgan Dollars became a mainstay – and featured star – of production there. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.

The New Orleans Mint was the only Southern mint reopened after the Civil War. Some of the considerations were practical. The gold deposits in the Southeast were starting to dissipate. Regional mints in Dahlonega, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina, that had produced only gold coins weren’t needed anymore. Transportation modes, too, had improved and the newer mints in San Francisco and Carson City had been producing coins since 1854 and 1870, respectively.

Before special mint agent James Ross Snowden contacted one-time melter, refiner, and Union spy Dr. M.F. Bonzano in 1877, the New Orleans Mint decision was being thrown around like the political football that it was for 15 years! Much like the Carson City Mint that was closed between late 1885 and early 1889, the status of the New Orleans Mint was in limbo. What do you do in football when you can’t advance the ball down the field? You punt!

Our government punts often!

I’ve uncovered very little on the New Orleans Mint after 1862 when Dr. Bonzano took possession of the mint’s equipment for the U.S. government. What went on at the New Orleans Mint building between 1862 and 1876 when the U.S. Assay Office reopened?

Dr. Bonzano’s report to Snowden in 1877 concluded that “the melting department and refinery needed work and additional machinery. The coining department required a new press to strike Trade Dollars. Boilers installed in 1855 had begun to deteriorate.” Curiously, one has to speculate there is little information available because “no one cared.” Up until 1877, when Dr. Bonzano’s report was requested, the New Orleans Mint had done nothing but deteriorate for fifteen years. Penalty – too much time.

Because Morgan Dollars were needed, repairs were made, equipment was replaced, and the New Orleans Mint resumed coining operations in 1879. While the report I cited in part two of this article series discussed the reopening of the New Orleans Mint to coin all denominations, the report closed with the remarks, in regard to overall Morgan Dollar production, that, “production would be adversely affected by the production of other coins”!

And yet regardless of the need for Morgan Dollars, the political arguments mostly consisting of accusations of patronage for Louisiana legislators continued. By the turn of the 20th-century technological advances, as well as the establishment of the U.S. Mint in Denver, Colorado, and increased production from the San Francisco Mint, made any argument to keep the New Orleans Mint “superfluous.” The importance of producing the Morgan Dollar had vanished… Another punt?

No Morgan Dollars were produced in New Orleans after 1904. While there are many scarce New Orleans Mint Morgan Dollars, ironically many dates didn’t seem to have found any distribution whatsoever. Many New Orleans Mint Dollars are grade rarity dates versus rare dates.

While many of the O-Mint dates from the 1890s are quite scarce in most grades and exceptionally scarce in nice Mint State grades, the dates from 1883 to 1885 and 1898 to 1904 with the exception of the 1903-O often exist in bag quantity. They simply never made it to circulation.

Indeed, there are many scarce and rare New Orleans issues minted from 1879 to 1909. Although you might expect later-date history would be more available, records from the New Orleans Mint during the last 31 years of operation are scarce, too. Great numismatic author Doug Winter commented about the “glaring lack of contemporary accounts and records” available today in regard to the New Orleans Mint.

The late years of the New Orleans Mint had little of the physical, political, and personal upheaval present during the first 24 years of operation. New Orleans Mint coins continued to circulate heavily, but for the Morgan Dollar. The New Orleans Mint needed to produce Morgan Dollars in massive quantities. Because the New Orleans Mint had always been a political football, the superintendent and employees had to have known on some level that their jobs depended on coining dollars.

Some 186.1 million Morgan Dollars were produced at New Orleans. All other silver and gold coins combined amounted to just 136 million total pieces. Minor coins weren’t produced at all until 1891.

Gold issues from the New Orleans Mint, especially in the early years, don’t exist in high grade often because they too were heavily used like the early date minor silver New Orleans issues. Because the New Orleans Mint was reopened in 1879 primarily to make Morgan Dollars, gold issues were produced only sporadically, if at all. Once the Mint reopened only the half eagle, eagle, and a single double eagle issue were made in New Orleans from 1879. The priority was dollars.

The 1879-O Double Eagle was the only $20 gold issue produced during the second iteration of the New Orleans Mint. The paltry mintage of just 2,325 seems like more of a test than a legitimate production run. The half eagle issues are limited to four total dates with three Liberty Half Eagles issues dated 1892 through ‘94 and a single Indian Half Eagle dated 1909. All of the New Orleans Half Eagle issues are challenging as compared with Liberty Half Eagles from the Philadelphia or San Francisco Mints.

The New Orleans Liberty Eagles, too, are all relatively scarce compared to most of their P- and S-Mint counterparts. There were 16 total Liberty New Orleans Liberty Eagle issues. The years these were produced is a picture into the backseat of gold coin production at New Orleans.

When the mint reopened in 1879, only the Liberty Eagle and the Liberty Double Eagle were produced. Just 1,500 and 2,325 $10 and $20 gold coins were produced in 1879. Eagles would be produced five years through 1883, but the total mintage for the first five years was only 30,670 coins. The 1879-O Double Eagle and all the 1879 to 1883 Eagle issues are scarce to rare, because no significant effort was made in producing gold coins at New Orleans.

Some effort was made during the 1890s to produce both half eagle and eagle gold coins at New Orleans. From 1892 to 1894 a total of 136,600 half eagle gold coins were produced in New Orleans. With respective mintages of 10,000, 110,000, and 16,600, none of these dates are common. Indeed, the single 1909-O Indian Half Eagle with a mintage of just 34,200 is scarce to rare in all grades. There are really no “common” New Orleans Half Eagle dates, but the 1893-O is more available than the others.

Another outlier date was produced in 1888 when the Liberty Eagle gold dies were once again used to produce 21,335 coins. Several more years passed before some need for Liberty Eagles was perceived again in 1892 through 1906. During this 15-year time span 711,400 New Orleans Eagles were produced. Mintages vary, but only three dates had mintages greater than 100,000 a year. To put this into perspective, at San Francisco in 1901 the mintage for eagles was 2.8 million coins.

The total mintage of all gold coins produced at New Orleans from 1879 was only 936,300 coins.

From just 1892 and after, there are nine individual date/mint issues from Philadelphia and San Francisco with mintages greater than all the New Orleans $10 Liberty coins produced in total from 1879 onward. When the new $10 Indian design and $20 Saint-Gaudens designs were proposed New Orleans, wasn’t even considered. Because Morgan Dollars were no longer needed, they were done.

The massive effort and output for Morgan Dollars has resulted in some super-scarce New Orleans issues. Yes, there are some scarce and rare Morgan Dollars, but because of the focus of producing dollars, minor silver and gold issues often fell through the cracks. This inattention to the other coins New Orleans produced has resulted in many scarce and rare-date issues.

First let’s do a quick breakdown of the minor New Orleans issues by denomination. We’ve already discussed the gold issues, but let’s look at the minor coins. From 1879 to 1909 the New Orleans Mint produced the following minor silver denominations:

  • Liberty Seated Dime: 1891-O; mintage – 4,540,000
  • Liberty Seated Quarter: 1891-O; mintage – 68,000
  • Barber Dimes: 1892-O through 1903-O, 1905-O to 1909-O; cumulative mintage – 48,300,000
  • Barber Quarters: 1892-O to 1909-O; cumulative mintage – 49,500,000
  • Barber Halves: 1892-O to 1909-O; cumulative mintage – 32,600,000

Total minor coinage mintage – 135,100,000

Isn’t this an amazingly short list? Only two total Liberty Seated minor issues were minted at New Orleans once it reopened in 1879. Only during the last year of the Liberty Seated coinage design production would the dime and quarter be produced again at New Orleans. While the Seated Liberty Dime saw substantial production and circulation, the 1891-O Liberty Seated Quarter seems more of an afterthought?

Like the 1879-O Liberty Double Eagles only with a mintage of just 2,325, was the 1891-O Liberty Seated Quarter produced on a whim? With a mintage of 68,000, the answer is probably no. At the least, the reason for both the production of the Liberty Seated Dime and Quarter at New Orleans in 1891 was the understanding that Barber minor denominations would be minted in New Orleans. The 1891-O Dime and Quarter were warm-ups for a facility that hadn’t minted a minor denomination coin since 1861.

Production at New Orleans for minor coinage was ramped up in the 1890s. All the Barber denominations were produced at New Orleans from 1892 to 1909, but for 1904 when no dimes were produced? Although there are some scarce-date Barber New Orleans issues, none of the three denominations' dates have a mintage less than 390,000 for the 1892-O Barber Half Dollar.

Indeed, New Orleans Barber coinage production was quite substantial. While producing just over 4.6 million total Liberty Seated coins in 1891, the New Orleans Mint produced over 130 million total Barber coins from 1892 to 1909. While there are certainly scarce and rare dates in all three of the Barber coinage series, New Orleans Mint Barber coins can be located in all circulated grades through the lower uncirculated grades, albeit a challenging endeavor. Mid-range Mint State dates of all three denominations can be scarce to rare depending on the grade level.

While doing this date research on the second iteration of the New Orleans Mint, I was struck with the thought that many of the more scarce New Orleans date Morgan Dollars were from the 1890s.

I’ve discussed both minor and gold coin production at New Orleans from 1879 onward. But for the substantial 18-year production run of Barber coinage at New Orleans, the bulk of coin production at New Orleans would still be Morgan Dollars through 1904. I’ve talked about the scarce minor and gold issues, but let’s spend some time on New Orleans Morgan Dollars.

In one of my earlier articles on the Carson City Mint, I cited a great article from William Spears, “The Mystique of the Carson City Dollar” from John Highfill’s The Comprehensive U.S. Silver Dollar Encyclopedia. Bill’s explanation of the Bland-Allison Act is quoted below:

“The Bland-Allison Act was the result of political manipulation by western silver mining owners to combat falling silver prices by making the mint into a captive market paying inflated subsidy prices for domestic silver. The price decline was due to foreign powers dumping thousands of tons of silver on the world market, combined with the discovery of enormous quantities of silver deposits in Nevada (the famed Comstock Lode was only one of many). The Act forced the United States Treasury to buy huge amounts of new domestic silver to be used exclusively for mintage into silver dollars, and it mandated that the four U.S. Mints produce a minimum of two million silver dollars a month. The Carson City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco Mints started production of Morgan silver dollars in 1878, the New Orleans Mint in 1879.”

The New Orleans Mint was the political football when it was reopened in 1879, and the game being played was Morgan Dollars!

Let’s put the numbers right next to each other.

  • Minor silver mintage: 135,100,000
  • Gold mintage: 936,300
  • Total mintage minor silver and gold coins: 136 million
  • Morgan Dollar mintage: 186,100,000

Some 50 million more silver dollars were produced at New Orleans from 1879 to 1904, which is more than the combined mintage of all silver and gold issues from New Orleans from 1879 to 1909!

The good news is that, depending on the grade of coin you prefer, New Orleans Morgan Dollars are generally available. Once production at New Orleans resumed in 1879, the resulting mintages of Morgans climbed on an almost yearly basis for 12 years through 1890 with mintages in 1879 at 2,887,000 and those from 1884 and 1885 nearing 10 million per year and all the dates from 1886 to 1890 exceeding 10 million per year. New Orleans was successfully making dollars.

What happened in the early ‘90s? Was the realization that we had plenty of Morgan Dollars the reason? No, just more political football. Certainly Morgan Dollar mintages from Philadelphia, Carson City, and San Francisco were generally less during the early and mid 1890s also.

In New Orleans, the mint had been called upon to produce minor coinage again in 1891. Like I stated earlier, I believe the Liberty Seated Dime and Quarter issues from 1891 were a warm-up for Barber coinage production starting in 1892. I would also submit that lower Morgan Dollar production at New Orleans was a combination of less need for Morgans and the actual need for minor coinage.

Production of Morgan Dollars dropped in 1891 to just under 8 million and then again in 1892 to 2,744,000. Only 300,000 Morgan Dollars were produced in 1893 and only 450,000 in 1895. These are the two low-mintage New Orleans dates in the series, but mintages aren’t the only factor when gauging scarcity and rarity of Morgan Dollars.

By 1896, production of the Morgan Dollar had once again returned to nearly 5 million coins. Yes, New Orleans was being asked to produce the Morgan Dollar, but what was being done with the Morgan Dollars the New Orleans Mint had produced, in such quantity, earlier?

They were sitting around in bags.

One of the most interesting aspects to collecting Morgan Dollars is grade rarity. Depending on grade, virtually every coin, from every mint, is available if you have the “coin” to buy it. Let me explain grade rarity with an example.

Because many New Orleans Morgan Dollars were minted, counted, and sealed in $1,000 face-value canvas bags and put in storage never to circulate, many New Orleans Morgan dates are easily available in grades up and including MS66. Sure, there are exceptions, but many of these have more to do with the grade rarity than the date rarity.

Bags of 1883, 1884, 1885, 1887, 1888, 1889, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, and 1904 New Orleans Mint Morgan Dollars while not common any longer were available at just over face value of $1,000 a bag well into the late 1960s. Advertisements offering uncirculated bags at $1,100 or less including shipping weren’t unusual.

Morgan Dollars, even when uncirculated, are subject to bag marks. Just like the name implies, bag marks are the marks on the surface of the Morgan Dollar resulting from contact with other Morgan Dollars, often in bags, during any handling. They are uncirculated because they have no wear, but they’re “baggy,” as many dealers and Morgan Dollar enthusiasts would say.

Morgan Dollars dates from other mints are sometimes grade-rarity dates, too, but nowhere is this more evident than with the Morgan Dollar. The overall New Orleans Morgan Dollar production quality was never that of any of the other three U.S. Mints. Workmanship, while adequate for production quotas, was often shoddy and the product quality suffered. New Orleans Mint Dollars, in general, are notorious for weakly struck details and surfaces. Additionally, evidence of die rust is often present.

When you add the overall production quality to the “what do we do with these now?” aspect to Morgans, is it any wonder that so many dates fall into the grade-rarity category. These dates are available in uncirculated bag quantities. The challenge is to find a fully struck, MS67-quality example of most of these supposedly common dates.

How many of those are you going to find in a bag? You won’t.

Early in my career, I realized the difference between an item everyone had to have versus an item (hardly anyone knew about) that was crazy scarce and, yet, no one cared. Having written about the Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints and their great history, I can see the appeal. And, sure Carson City is appealing with all the “strike it rich” fever, but I would argue that New Orleans has more history than the three combined.

And yet, I’ve always thought the New Orleans Mint was short changed!

*Opinions stated in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Professional Coin Grading Service, Collectors, or their affiliates.

References

  • “Andrew Jackson.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Jackson.
  • Bowers, Q. David. The History of U.S. Coinage – As Illustrated by the Garrett Collection. Bowers and Ruddy Galleries, Inc., 1979.
  • Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. Doubleday, 1988.
  • “Hard Times Token.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_times_token
  • Lambousy, Greg. “The Mint at New Orleans.” The Numismatist, March 2003. PP. 36-43.
  • “The Mint at New Orleans.” United States Mint. https://www.usmint.gov/learn/history/historical-documents/mint-at-new-orleans.
  • “New Orleans Mint.” U.S. Department of the Treasury. https://home.treasury.gov/about/history/curator/us-mint-buildings/new-orleans-mint.
  • “New Orleans Mint.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Orleans_Mint.
  • United States Treasury. Annual Report of the Director of the Mint to the Secretary of the Treasury Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1878. United States government publication.
  • Winter, Doug. New Orleans Mint Gold Coins: 1839-1909. A Numismatic History and Analysis. Bowers and Merena Galleries, 1992

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