USA Coin Album: Scrapbook Gold

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 2/18/2013

Any veteran numismatist knows that much of the best information is not to be found in books, but rather in articles and filler stories of a more ephemeral nature.

Some of my favorite numismatic writers have never, or rarely, written books, yet their wisdom and research has appeared in the monthly and weekly numismatic periodicals that are seldom saved by the typical collector. For the past 30+ years I’ve maintained a series of scrapbooks that include all of the articles and odd bits of numismatic information I wanted to have available to me when needed. Many of these clippings have already served as the basis for past columns, but this time out I’m making them the featured story by summarizing some of the best ones. If this proves popular with readers, I’ll do it again in future columns.

First up is a gem from the September 23, 1987 issue of Coin World, written by Robert M. Lacewell, who interviewed retiring senior die setter Edgar Fulwider of the San Francisco Assay Office (The name SFAO was used for the mint from 1958-88. It had been applied after coining operations were suspended in 1955, a move that proved premature when the striking of coins resumed in 1965 to combat the nationwide shortage.) Ed was then and remains today a good friend of mine, and it was he who took me and my father into the SFAO for a private, escorted tour at the time of his retirement. He also secured for me invitations to several First Strike ceremonies, including that for the silver American Eagle coins in 1986 at the SFAO. His career there spanned the years 1965-87, some of the most interesting years of its operation.

In 1987 Ed revealed to Lacewell that during the previous ten years proof dies had been chromium plated for endurance, which helps to explain why the proofs of those years are found with cameo frosting far more often than for previous dates. It was a dual-edged sword, however, as the chromium presented its own problems. Dies that were beginning to reveal wear and other flaws required chemical stripping of the plating before repairs and repolishing could be performed. They were then re-plated with chromium and returned to the press.

Another little nugget of useful information concerns the five-centimo coinage for Costa Rica performed at San Francisco in 1967. Struck on stainless steel planchets, these actually led to the dies shattering and sending chunks of steel hurtling toward the press operators. This required the placement of bullet-proof glass shields over the coining chamber, a practice which in later years became standard for all US Mint presses. It seems, too, that the Costa Rican steel coins became magnetized as they moved through the coining process, with the result that they stuck to various points of the press, jamming it.

Active and former US Mint employees have many stories to tell. Unlike Ed, however, few of these individuals have an interest in numismatics, and only rarely are these stories committed to print. In 1992 Thomas H. Miller gave a presentation before the Pacific Coast Numismatic Society in San Francisco that included a number of remarkable revelations. I was there for that program and took copious notes that led to my writing a feature article Coin World published in its November 23, 1992 issue. At the time of this article, Miller was retiring with the title of Special Assistant to San Francisco Mint Superintendent Carol Mayer Marshall. Before the SFM regained its rightful title, he had been Officer in Charge of the SFAO.

Among the juicy bits that Miller revealed to me and my fellow members of the PCNS was that the several “No S” proof coins known to collectors today were just the tip of the iceberg. This same error had occurred on a number of occasions, but in most instances the coins were detected and destroyed before any were sent to proof set buyers. Both quarters and halves had been coined at San Francisco as “No S” proofs, the last incidence known to him having occurred with the half dollar during the early 1980s.

Miller also described the apprehension of an employee who was stealing 1991-S Mount Rushmore halves and 1992-S clad Kennedy halves, both of which had turned up in circulation earlier that year. A sting was set up, and a longtime Mint guard was caught in the act. The coins evidently were stolen to fuel his gambling trips to Reno, where most of the pieces surfaced.

Questions about the San Francisco Mint’s plans to install its own die-making shop were on the minds of listeners, and Miller confirmed that this step would indeed be taken. The die shop was going to be installed within the basement of the Old San Francisco Mint Museum once that structure had been declared safe following the 1989 earthquake. Of course, we now know that this building was found unfit for both the die shop and the existing museum. The latter was closed to the public in 1994, and its exhibits were removed. The die shop was instead built at the Denver Mint.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.