This month, David W. Lange begins a new series on a pivotal year in the history of United States coinage. Read on for part one.
There are several pivotal years in United States coinage, and among the richest in the resulting variety of coins is 1837. Not only did the standards change, but this date also was timed to a period of heightened activity within the US Mint’s engraving department. Coin designs were being revised almost annually during the 1830s, largely as the result of enlightened leadership on the part of two successive Mint directors.
Samuel Moore (1824–35) obtained this position shortly after the appointment of a new chief engraver, William Kneass, and he made the most of Kneass’ abilities in updating the existing designs starting in 1828. Moore also employed whenever possible the outside engraver Christian Gobrecht, though it was not until the arrival of Moore’s successor, brother-in-law Robert M. Patterson, in 1835 that Gobrecht was taken on formally as second engraver under Kneass. The timing was fortuitous, as Kneass had recently suffered a stroke that impaired his performance, though he kept on in his senior position until his death five years later.
As technology advanced during the 1830s, this development was clearly reflected in the greater standardization of the USA coinage. Though it has long been taken as gospel that the adoption of close-fitting collars dates to the 1828–36 period, some researchers have provided compelling evidence that restraining collars were in use decades earlier for some denominations. What is not in dispute is that steam power was used for the first time at the US Mint in Philadelphia, replacing horse power in the rolling of ingots into coining strip and, in 1836, finally superseding human labor in the actual manufacture of coins. Both Moore and Patterson pushed for these improvements, as well as seeking from Kneass and Gobrecht modified or entirely new designs worthy of them.
Change was readily apparent in the new dimes of 1828, the first of the "modern" coins to debut under these administrations. Similar upgrades were given to the half dime the following year, to the half cent and quarter dollar in 1831, and to the half dollar in 1836. It was in that latter year that silver dollars returned to the coinage lineup, Thomas Jefferson’s 1804 suspension of their production having been lifted in 1831 by Andrew Jackson. These dollars, however, were produced in such small numbers as to be little more than souvenirs that demonstrated the degree of perfection now permitted by the adoption of close collars and steam power.
The gold coins, too, were upgraded in 1829, though their overly high bullion value meant that few outside of the Mint saw them at the time. It was not until 1834, when a legal reduction in their respective weights permitted them to circulate for the first time in many years, that these coins became components in daily commerce.
The one-cent piece was likewise improved during these industrious years, but its transformation was so frequent and gradual that it’s difficult to say what constitutes the dividing line between old and new cents. This denomination became the test bed for Christian Gobrecht’s design concepts between 1835 and 1839, with several different styles of Liberty bust being employed during these years.
By the end of 1836 the US Mint’s roster of coins had attained a degree of technical and aesthetic perfection that would have been inconceivable to that institution’s founders in 1792–93. Still, however, it was burdened with one unwelcome legacy of the original Mint Act of 1792. The existing standard for silver coins required that each piece be .8924 silver and .1076 copper, while the alloy for gold coins was set at .9167 gold and .0833 copper and silver. One can imagine the skill and labor needed to maintain such precise and awkward standards at a time before calculators.
Recognizing the impracticality of achieving these figures consistently, the Mint actually had begun its coining of silver halves and dollars at the slightly revised but quite illegal standard of .900 silver and .100 copper. When this practice was discovered in 1795, it caused a scandal, as depositors of silver bullion received fewer coins than they were owed under the proper standard. The US Treasury ultimately had to make good on this deficit, and the Mint was ordered to adhere to the awkward figures regardless of the effort involved. It complied with this order for more than 40 years, but the need for a change ultimately was recognized by Congress in 1837.
The Act passed January 18 of that year completely revised the original law of 1792 while retaining some of its key provisions. The line-up of USA coins remained the same, but their legal standards were finally revised to figures which resulted in the desired composition of nine parts fine metal to one part alloy. Also included within this sweeping law was provision for a bullion fund so that the Mint could produce gold and silver coins in advance of deposits. Previously, depositors had to wait weeks to receive their money, while the Mint processed their actual bullion into finished coins. With a bullion fund, the Mint could coin up to a million dollars’ worth of pieces to have at the ready. Thus, as soon as a depositor’s bullion was weighed and assayed, he could receive its equivalent value in existing coins.
Next month, I’ll take a look at what sort of coins would have been paid out in 1837 under this sweeping new law.
David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.