'S' Mint Memories, Part Three

Posted on 6/16/2009

This month, David W. Lange wraps up his recollection of the San Francisco Mint, focusing on its mint structure today, and its fond role in his numismatic adventures.

In the two previous installments of this memoir, I described my love affair with San Francisco Mint coins and my experiences with the Old San Francisco Mint and Museum. This month I’d like to wrap up this series with some recollections of the current mint structure and its place in my numismatic adventures.

The mint building which opened in 1937 looks more like a prison than a coining facility. Its severe appearance is reinforced by its placement atop a hill overlooking the main thoroughfare in San Francisco. The heavy steel gates which identify its entrance continue this theme of maximum security, though two teenage boys somehow managed to work their ways through a lower window within a year of the mint's completion! Since that time, however, there have been no unauthorized entries, and the current San Francisco Mint is not open to tours.

I've been fortunate to be an invited guest on a number of occasions, and these have always been memorable experiences. A friend of mine, now retired, was the mint’s senior die setter and was also quite active in local coin clubs. This afforded me the opportunity to attend two first-strike ceremonies at the mint during the 1980s. I was present in 1985 when the first examples were coined of the Statue of Liberty Centennial proof dollars and half dollars, and I also witnessed the first striking of the proof silver American eagle coins the following year. In each instance I and the other persons present received a nice souvenir portfolio which included official photographs of the coins, a commemorative ribbon, press releases and other promotional materials which today I still have as cherished mementos. Sadly, I was not among those permitted to strike the first few pieces, nor was I allowed to obtain any coins that day. VIP status notwithstanding, I had to place my mail order like everyone else.

As I mentioned above, there were and still are no public tours of the current San Francisco Mint. These two instances in which I was permitted to visit the mint were certainly not tours, as all of us were escorted directly to the location of the ceremonial coining and were not permitted to see other areas of the building. As an observant numismatist I was able to pick up on a lot of details with just that limited exposure, but I believe my non-numismatic companions were largely oblivious to some of the more interesting features. A much more satisfying experience was had in 1987, on the occasion of my friend's retirement after 20+ years of service with the San Francisco Mint.

Whether this was the custom with other retiring employees or was done simply because of my friend’s numismatic interests outside of work, he was permitted to personally conduct tours of the facility for very limited groups. I was among the lucky few invited to participate, and I joined him along with my father and two other persons for an extremely hands-on, behind-the-scenes inspection of the mint.

Among the more interesting things I witnessed was the destruction of the remaining proof 1982-S Washington half dollars. The first of the modern-era USA commemoratives, these coins were welcomed by the hobby when they debuted, but their continued sales year after year soon made them a drug on the market. It was not until 1986 that the US Mint finally closed this program, and the remaining pieces were condemned to the melting pot. This was done onsite at the SF Mint, but first it had to overcome the problem of removing them from their hard plastic capsules. This the employees did in a most ingenious manner: The encapsulated coins were run through an upsetting mill (the machine which raises a rim on unstruck planchets) to shatter the plastic and free the coins. In the mint’s basement I was treated to the sight of enormous tote bins full of either plastic shards or mounds of scratched and scraped proof coins!

Also on that special tour I was permitted to handle and inspect the dies for the Mint’s newest collector entry — the Constitution Bicentennial silver dollar. Even in die form this was and is among the ugliest of United States coins, and I couldn’t conceal my disappointment. More interesting to me was the fact that the SF Mint’s die locker was a small compartment with a wooden, swinging Dutch door. It looked just like the coach’s equipment locker when I was in high school!

In an unprecedented move, the doors of the San Francisco Mint were finally opened to public tours for a brief time in 1992 to honor the bicentennial of the US Mint. This quickly became the hottest ticket in town, as only limited numbers of persons would be admitted. It seemed that everyone, whether or not they were collectors, wanted to see how coins were made. Though I would be just another person among a crowd of people taking the tour, I still jumped at the chance. The mint staffers were surprisingly generous in how much was shown to the public and in how much they interacted with visitors in this pre-9/11 era. Perhaps the thing I remember most about this tour was my surprise at the tedious handwork necessary to prepare the proof dies. I watched an employee meticulously cutting away clear tape around the die cavities to expose the frosted relief elements of the design, a process necessary to provide the contrast between brilliant fields and frosted devices. I couldn’t believe that as late as 1992 this process wasn’t entirely automated.

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