John Sinnock

Most famously known for serving as the eighth Chief Engraver at the US Mint, John Ray Sinnock, was born on July 8, 1888 in the city of Raton, New Mexico. Sinnock had always has an interest in the arts and specifically was talented in sculpting. Eventually he moved to Pennsylvania and attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art and studied artistic methods and designs. At the age of 25 in 1913, he finally earned a degree in Normal Art Instruction.

Upon graduation Sinnock played an active role in the local art community and thus began to grow his reputation. He was a member of the Philadelphia Sketch Club and the Philadelphia Alliance; through these clubs he met other artists and showed off his own works. Some of the portraits and medals he often displayed included famous people such as US President Herbert Hoover, inventor Thomas Edison, writer Charles Dickens and Henry Morgenthau.

Sinnock was able to successfully land a job teaching as an instructor of the arts at the same school he graduated from and at the Western Reserve University. Sinnock taught at Western Reserve University for about 10 years. At a point in those 10 years, the US Mint sought to hire an assistant sculptor, a position Sinnock applied for. He was quickly hired by the Mint’s Chief Engraver George T. Morgan. In 1923, John R. Sinnock became Assistant Chief Engraver at the US Mint.

In collaboration with George Morgan, Sinnock’s first work designing coins at the Mint was the reverse of the commemorative 1918 Illinois Centennial Half Dollar; Morgan designed the obverse of the coin, which depicted US President Abraham Lincoln. Not long afterwards, George T. Morgan passed away and John R. Sinnock took over his post and became the eighth Chief Engraver of the US Mint in 1925.

A year into becoming Chief Engraver, Sinnock engraved the 1926 Sesquicentennial American Independence Half Dollar for the 150th anniversary of the signing of America’s independence. The front of the coin featured both President Washington and President Calvin Coolidge; it was highly unusual that a living president was used as a portrait on the coin. The reverse featured the Liberty Bell, which is a precursor for a future official US coin that Sinnock would help design later.

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John Sinnock also designed the 1926 Sesquicentennial American Independence Gold $2.50 Quarter Eagle coin. The obverse featured a standing liberty while the reverse featured the Independence Hall building located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were signed. This was a US commemorative coin where only 200,000 were produced, but over 150,000 were melted down again a short time later.

PurpleHeartCaseA few years later, Sinnock was involved in the creation of the Purple Heart military medal, a prestigious award that would be given to those who were wounded or killed while serving in the military. Originally, this badge was invented by General George Washington and was called the Badge of Military Merit and consisted of a purple cloth shaped like a heart and lined with lace. There was a call to resurrect this award again and a bill was proposed to Congress. On January 7, 1932, General Douglas MacArthur boldly reopened work on the revival of this award and worked with the Washington Commission of Fine Art. An Army Heraldic Specialist from the Office of the Quartermaster General by the name of Elizabeth Will was in charge of the redesign. The Commission chose three prominent sculptors, including John R. Sinnock, to sculpt the plaster models for Will’s medal design. In the end, John R. Sinnock was selected as the winning sculptor. The medal was officially revived by Executive Order of the President of the United States on February 22, 1932, which was the bicentennial or 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Elizabeth Will takes the credit for the design of the Purple Heart medal and John Sinnock takes credit for making refinements and the modeling of the medal.

The United States was battling the Great Depression and World War II and at the time, the nation and the “Greatest Generation” was being led by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt passed away on April 12, 1945, near the end of World War II. Nellie Tayloe Ross, the current US Mint Director, immediately began plans to commemorate President Roosevelt. Roosevelt, passionately founded and participated in the March of Dimes, which was a campaign to fight and ultimately eradicate Polio. Nowadays, it promotes the general health of women and babies. Because Roosevelt was actively involved in the March of Dimes, it only seemed appropriate that the US dime be used to commemorate Franklin Roosevelt.

Ross appointed John Sinnock to design the new dime since he had already produced a medal depicting Roosevelt in the past. On January 30, 1946, the Roosevelt Dime would be released to the public on what would be Franklin Roosevelt’s 64th birthday. Based on Sinnock’s previous medal, he got to to work and produced what is now known as the Roosevelt Dime. The front of the coin depicts Roosevelt facing left and the reverse of the coin depicts a flaming torch symbolizing liberty, with an olive branch symbolizing peace and an oak branch symbolizing victory.

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Upon the initial minting of the Roosevelt dime in 1946, a false narrative arose in the United States that the letters “JS” actually stood not for John Sinnock, but for Joseph Stalin. The urban folk story coincided with the Second Red Scare. The rumor surfaced again after the release of the Sinnock designed Franklin half dollar in 1948.

Another controversy that surrounded the Roosevelt dime following its public release was an allegation that Sinnock copied or borrowed the design of the President’s profile from a bronze bas relief created by sculptress Selma H. Burke for the dime’s obverse. Sinnock denied this claim and said that the obverse portrait of the President was a composite of two studies which he made from life in 1933 and 1934. Sinnock said that he also consulted photographs of FDR and had the advice and criticism of two prominent sculptors who specialize in work in relief.

220px-Franklin_Half_1963_D_ObverseDuring the same year in 1946, US Mint Director Ross gave Sinnock a new commission to produce a new design for the US Half Dollar. The required theme for the new coin was to honor Benjamin Franklin. Sinnock based the obverse of the coin on a 1933 Ben Franklin medal that he had produced earlier. He was successful in completing the obverse of the coin. However, John Sinnock passed away on May 14, 1947 at a young age of 59 before he could finish the reverse of the coin. The coin was completed by Gilroy Roberts, who took over the post and became the ninth Chief Engraver of the US Mint. Gilroy used the Liberty Bell as the reverse of the coin, which is very similar to the reverse of Sinnocks 1926 commemorative Sesquicentennial half dollar.

In 1948, this new silver coin was first produced and became known as the Franklin Half Dollar. It was released to the public on April 30, 1948, which was the anniversary date of President Washington’s inauguration as US President. The coin would be produced up until 1963 when US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and would be honored on the half dollar.

John Sinnock is remembered as one of the greatest coin engravers. He won many awards, including the A.W. Mifflin Award given for study abroad. John also produced a Congressional gold medal that would be awarded to Thomas Edison, among many other commemorative medals and coins that he had produced. After Sinnock passed away, much of his work and materials in art were given to Margaret Campbell, a trusted friend of his. Some of his work is now part of a collection at the Luxembourg Museum in Paris, The American Numismatic Society of New York and the National Museum in Washington DC.


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James Longacre

James Longacre

One of the most well known engravers of the US mint during the 19th century was James Barton Longacre. After previous engraver, Christian Gobrecht passed away, Longacre would become the fourth Chief Engraver of the US Mint and coin production. He was born on August 11, 1794 on a farm in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

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James Longacre, self-portrait at age 12

Longacre’s Mother Sarah (Barton) Longacre died early in his life; his father, Peter Longacre, was the descendant of early Swedish settlers of North America. When Peter Longacre remarried, his son found the home life intolerable, and James Longacre left home at the age of 12, seeking work in the nearby city of Philadelphia. He apprenticed himself at a bookstore; the owner, John E. Watson, took the boy into his family. Over the following years, Longacre worked in the bookstore, but Watson realized that the boy’s skill was in portraiture. Watson granted Longacre a release from his apprenticeship in 1813 so that he could follow an artistic muse, but the two remained close, and Watson would often sell Longacre’s works.

Longacre became apprenticed to George Murray, principal in the engraving firm Murray, Draper, Fairman & Co. at 47 Sansom Street in Philadelphia. This business derived from the firm established by the Philadelphia Mint’s first chief engraver, Robert Scot. Longacre remained at the Murray firm until 1819; his major work there was portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Hancock which were placed on a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence by publisher John Binns. Also employed at the Murray firm from 1816 was the man who would be Longacre’s predecessor as chief engraver, Christian Gobrecht. Longacre’s work at the company gave him a good reputation as an engraver skilled in rendering other artists’ paintings as a printed engraving, and in 1819, he set up his own business at 230 Pine Street in Philadelphia.

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Declaration of Independence with portraits by Longacre, 1819

Longacre’s first important commission were plates for S.F. Bradford’s Encyclopedia in 1820; an engraving of General Andrew Jackson by Longacre based on a portrait by Thomas Sully achieved wide sales. Longacre then agreed to engrave illustrations for Joseph and John Sanderson’s Biographies of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, published in nine volumes between 1820 and 1827. Although the venture was marked by criticism of the writing, sales were good enough that the project was completed. Numismatic writer Richard Snow suggests that the books sold on the strength of the quality of Longacre’s illustrations. Longacre also completed a series of studies of actors in their roles in 1826 for The American Theatre.


With lessons learned from the Sanderson series, Longacre proposed to issue his own set of biographies illustrated with plates of the subjects. He was on the point of launching this project, having invested $1,000 of his own money (equal to $24,513 today) in preparation, when he learned that James Herring of New York City was planning a similar series. In October 1831, he wrote to Herring, and the two men agreed to work together on The American Portrait Gallery (later called the National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans), published in four volumes between 1834 and 1839. Herring was an artist, but much of the work of illustrating fell to Longacre, who travelled widely in the United States to sketch subjects from life. He again sketched Jackson, who was by now president, as well as former president James Madison, both in July 1833. He met many of the political leaders of the day, who were impressed by his portraits. Among these advocates was the former vice president, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun. In July 1832, Niles’ Register described a Longacre engraving, “one of the finest specimens of American advancement in the art”.

Longacre had married Eliza Stiles in 1827; between 1828, when their daughter Sarah was born, and 1840, they had three boys and two girls. Sales of the Gallery lagged due to the Panic of 1837; Longacre was forced to declare bankruptcy and travel through the southern and midwestern states, peddling his books from town to town, with his wife and elder daughter managing shipping and finances at home. Later in 1837, he was able to return to Philadelphia and open a banknote engraving firm with partners, Toppan, Draper, Longacre & Co. With great demand for engraving for notes being issued by state banks, the firm prospered, and had offices at 60 Walnut Street in Philadelphia and a branch at 1 Wall Street in New York.

Gobrecht’s death in July 1844 left the United States Bureau of the Mint without a chief engraver. Among those who hoped for appointment were Philadelphia banknote engraver Charles Welsh, and Allen Leonard, who had modeled the Mint’s medal for former president John Quincy Adams. Through the influence of Senator Calhoun, however, Longacre secured the appointment. According to coin historian Don Taxay, Longacre did not attempt to gain the support of Mint Director Robert M. Patterson in seeking the appointment from President John Tyler, and “if Patterson resented the slight, however, he was more annoyed by Leonard’s importunities.”

Longacre was commissioned by President Tyler on September 16, 1844; his was a recess appointment as the post of chief engraver required Senate confirmation, and that body was not then sitting. Tyler transmitted Longacre’s nomination to the Senate on December 17, 1844, which confirmed Longacre without recorded opposition on January 7, 1845. According to numismatist David Lange, Longacre was glad to get the position because engravers were receiving less work due to the advent of daguerreotype photography.

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Franklin Peale

According to coin dealer and author Q. David Bowers, upon appointment as chief engraver, Longacre “found that he had entered a hornet’s nest of intrigue, politics, and infighting, dominated by Franklin Peale, chief coiner since 1839”. Peale sent Mint personnel to work on his private residence, and in addition to his official duties—mostly performed by his predecessor, Adam Eckfeldt, who continued in his work without pay despite his retirement—he had a thriving side business preparing dies for private medals using government resources. Peale controlled access to dies and materials, and was close to Director Patterson; the two men later proved to have been skimming metal from bullion deposits. The remaining Mint officers were cronies of Patterson, and Longacre found himself a loner among them. Walter Breen, in his comprehensive volume on U.S. coins, suggests that Patterson resented Longacre because of the engraver’s sponsorship by Calhoun, whom the director disliked as a southerner.

In Longacre’s first years as chief engraver, no original designs were required for coins. Gobrecht had redesigned every denomination of U.S. coinage between 1835 and 1842, and his successor had time to learn arts necessary for coin production that he had not needed as a maker of print engravings. These arts included coin design, making of punches for design elements, and die sinking. Longacre’s work in the private sector had involved cutting lines into a copper plate which was then used to print reproductions. Patterson wrote in August 1845 to Treasury Secretary Robert J. Walker that Longacre “is a gentleman of excellent character, highly regarded in this community, and has acquired some celebrity as an engraver of copper; but he is not a Die-Sinker. Indeed I do not know that he has ever made an attempt in this art.” By December of that year, the Mint director had written to Walker in praise of Longacre, stating that the engraver had “more taste and judgment in making devices for an improved coinage here than have been exhibited by any of his predecessors. He has shown too that he is quite competent to make the required model from his drawings.”

A number of blunders can be seen among the early coins produced at the Mint under Longacre, though it is uncertain to whom these errors should be attributed. These include the 1844 half dollar struck at the New Orleans Mint (1844-O) with a doubled date, and the 1846 half dollar with the 6 overlying an identical digit, but one which had been placed horizontally. Bowers indicates that Longacre likely delegated such work, although in 1849 he wrote that his daily work was punching dates into working dies. Tom DeLorey, in his 2003 article on Longacre, notes that Peale and his staff often made punches without consulting the Engraver’s Department (headed by Longacre), and believes the chief coiner more likely to be responsible.

Despite the charged atmosphere at the Philadelphia Mint, Longacre avoided conflict with Patterson and Peale until March 1849, when Congress authorized a gold dollar and double eagle or twenty-dollar gold piece, both new coins. By then, Patterson had come to desire Longacre’s departure as he was deemed a threat to Peale’s medal business, and opposed new coins which would require the chief engraver’s skills. According to Richard Snow in his book on Flying Eagle and Indian Head cents, “having an ethical chief engraver threatened their sideline.” The conflict came over the use of the Contamin portrait lathe, necessary in the making of dies both for Longacre in producing the new coins and Peale in his medal business. When Longacre complained that Peale was monopolizing the device, Peale decided to sabotage Longacre’s coin work and have him removed from his position.

In early 1849, according to a letter written by Longacre the following year, the chief engraver was approached by a member of the Mint staff, warning him that another officer (plainly Peale) sought to have the engraving work done outside of the Mint, making Longacre redundant. The outside engraver in question was Frenchman Louis Bouvet, whom Patterson had prepare a design for the half eagle, though it was not adopted. Longacre’s response to the information was to spend much of March 1849 preparing the dies for the gold dollar, at some cost to his health, as he later related. He demanded that Patterson hire assistance for him, but found the director willing only to have work contracted out. Longacre was unwilling to consent to this, as he could not supervise work done outside the Mint (he did get help within the Mint from assistant engraver Peter Filatreu Cross, who worked on the reverse of the gold dollar). Longacre proceeded with work on the double eagle through late 1849, and described the obstacles set in his path by Peale:

The plan of operation selected for me was to have an electrotype mould made from my model, in copper, to serve as a pattern for a cast in iron. The operations of the galvanic battery for this purpose were conducted in the apartments of the chief coiner. The galvanic process failed, my model was destroyed in the operation. I had, however, taken the precaution to make a cast in plaster … From this cast, as the only alternative, I procurred [sic] a metallic one which, however, was not perfect; but I thought I should be able to correct the imperfections in the engraving of the die … this was a laborious task, but seasonably completed, entirely by my own hand. The die then had to be hardened in the coining department; it unluckily split in the process.

When Longacre completed the double eagle dies, they were rejected by Peale, who stated that the design was engraved too deeply to fully impress the coin, and the pieces would not stack properly. Taxay, however, noted that the one surviving 1849 double eagle displays no such problems, and by appearance would be level in a stack. Peale complained to Patterson, who wrote to Treasury Secretary William M. Meredith asking for Longacre’s removal on December 25, 1849 on the ground he could not make proper dies. Patterson that day promised the position to engraver Charles Cushing Wright, effective when Longacre was ousted. Meredith questioned whether a competent replacement could be found; Patterson assured him that one could. Longacre objected to Patterson that Peale was delaying acceptance of revised double eagle dies, the director did not reply in writing, but met with Longacre, told him the administration had decided to terminate him, and that he should send in his resignation without delay. Longacre, after thinking the matter over, did not do so, but instead went to Washington on February 12, 1850 to meet with Meredith. He found that the secretary had been lied to about a number of matters. According to Snow, Longacre did not seek retribution, content to be allowed to continue his work in peace. The double eagle went into production in March 1850, though Patterson complained that the coins did not strike well. The double eagle quickly became the favored way to hold gold, and in the years to come more gold would be struck into double eagles than into all other denominations combined.

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1849 Double Eagle

In July 1851, Patterson retired and President Fillmore replaced him with Thomas Eckert. Peale’s medal business suffered a setback when Adam Eckfeldt, who was still performing the duties of chief coiner, died in 1852. In 1854, Mint Director James Ross Snowden fired Peale after the extent to which he had used Mint labor for private gain became public. Nevertheless, the firing caused considerable press attention, a Senate investigation, and a large demand for compensation by Peale. With these obstacles gone, life at the Mint improved for Longacre.

In 1853, Congress authorized a three-dollar piece. In a note found among his papers, Longacre wrote that his task was to make the coin as easy as possible to distinguish from the quarter eagle, which at $2.50 was close in value. Longacre produced a design for a Native American princess, which he made different from Gobrecht’s Liberty design on the quarter eagle with a thinner and wider planchet. At the time, a female Native American was often used to represent America in art, and a depiction of Liberty as an Indian princess was in accord with contemporary practices. The chief engraver wrote to Mint Director Snowden that the three-dollar piece, which went into production in 1854, was the first time he had been allowed artistic freedom in designing a coin. The gold dollar was altered the same year to make the planchet both thinner and wider; Longacre modified his princess design for the gold dollar. For the reverse of the coins, Longacre created a wreath of wheat, corn, tobacco, and cotton, blending the agricultural products of the North and the South.

After a rise in commodity prices, the Mint to sought to replace the large copper cent with a smaller version. Beginning in 1850, a number of pattern coins were struck in attempts

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1857 Flying Eagle Cent

to find a replacement coin. Designs and formats varied; at first, Mint authorities considered an annular, or holed, cent. In 1854 and 1855, much experimentation was done, some with a Liberty Head design as featured on the large cent; others with a flying eagle design adapted by Longacre from the Gobrecht dollar of 1836. Gobrecht’s design said to have been modeled on Peter the eagle, a tame bird which frequented the Philadelphia Mint in the 1830s until it was caught up in machinery and killed; Peter, in stuffed form, was subsequently placed on exhibit at the Philadelphia Mint.

By numismatic legend, Longacre’s Indian Head cent design was based on the features of his daughter Sarah; the tale runs that she was at the mint one day when she tried on the headdress of one of a number of Native Americans who were visiting and her father sketched her. However, Sarah Longacre was 30 years old and married, not 12 as in the tale, in 1858. Longacre himself stated that the face was based on a statue of Venus in Philadelphia on loan from the Vatican. James Longacre did often sketch his elder daughter, and there are resemblances between the depiction of Sarah Longacre and the various representations of Liberty on Longacre’s coins of the 1850s.

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The Civil War brought economic disturbances which resulted in the removal of some coins, including the base-metal cent, from circulation. Paper currency (valued as low as three cents), postage stamps, and private tokens, filled the gap. Many of the tokens were cent-sized, but thinner and made of bronze. Mint authorities took notice that these metal pieces were successfully circulating, and obtained legislation for a bronze cent. Longacre’s Indian head design continued in its place with the new metal; later in 1864 he engraved his initial “L” in the headdress.

In 1865 Congress required the use of “In God We Trust” on all coins large enough to bear the inscription; in 1866, Longacre added the motto to all silver coins larger than the dime and all gold coins larger than the three-dollar piece. He also in 1867 made modifications to the design of the copper-nickel five-cent piece, or nickel as it was coming to be known. In 1865, Longacre engaged British-born engraver William Barber as assistant; William H. Key was also made an assistant in 1864 and remained at the Mint past Longacre’s death.

Some of the coinage which had vanished from circulation during the Civil War and had been exported to South America continued to be used in Chilean trade as nationals found their local coinage valued poorly with the American pieces. In 1866, the Chilean government instructed its representative in Washington to approach the U.S. State Department for permission to have their coinage dies made in America. The Andrew Johnson administration was happy to oblige; Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch gave the Chileans a letter of introduction to Longacre in Philadelphia. Longacre was engaged by the Chileans to redesign five silver and four gold coins, and he agreed, so long as permission from McCulloch was obtained for him to accept an outside fee. McCulloch was initially agreeable, but Mint Director Pollock raised objection on the ground that government property should not be used to enable private gain. Eventually, all parties reached agreement that Longacre could do the work at a total cost of $10,000 provided that he brought in an outside engraver to do some of the work under Longacre’s supervision; the chief engraver selected Anthony C. Paquet, one of his former assistants. Resistance at the Mint dissolved with Pollock’s resignation over President Johnson’s Reconstruction policies, and the dies and hubs (from which more dies could be made) were created beginning in November 1866, probably in-house at the Philadelphia Mint. Longacre’s designs for Chile were used until new ones were adopted in the 1890s.

James Longacre died suddenly at his home in Philadelphia on January 1, 1869. A memorial meeting was held at the Philadelphia Mint on January 5, attended by the facility’s employees. The Director of the Mint, Henry Linderman, delivered a speech in praise of Longacre prior to the formal eulogy, which was given by Longacre’s assistant, William Barber, who would be appointed as Longacre’s successor.


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John R. Sinnock

The Trial of the Pyx

The Trial of the Pyx (pronounced pIks) is a procedure in the United Kingdom for ensuring that newly minted coins conform to the required standards. These trials have been held from the thirteenth century to the present day, normally once per calendar year.

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King Henry III

In medieval times the Master of the Mint was ordered to save for trial one coin for every ten pounds of silver minted. A trial at that time was normally conducted every three months. This procedure was developed during the reign of Henry III and even with modern day technology, the form of the ceremony has been essentially the same since 1282 AD. These events are trials in the full judicial sense, presided over by a judge with an expert jury of metallurgical assayers. Given modern production methods, it is unlikely that coins would not pass the “trials”, but it has been a problem in the past—being too tempting for the Master of the Mint to not steal the coins’ precious metals.

The title of these trials comes from the Greek word for wooden box, pyx. In modern day The Pyx are reinforced (often plastic) boxes of currency ready to be assayed or tested. In them are hundreds of envelopes containing thousands of coins.The coins in 2017’s Trial of the Pyx ranged from a £49,995 commemorative coin made from a kilo of solid gold, down to a simple 20p piece.

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Livery Hall at Goldsmiths’ Hall

Trials are currently (as of 2018) held at the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths; formerly, they took place at the Palace of Westminster. There is also a Pyx Chapel (or Pyx Chamber) in Westminster Abbey, which was once used as secure storage for the Pyx and related articles. The Goldsmiths’ Hall is an  impressive temple to the yellow metal, featuring huge chandeliers, gold-leaf on the walls, and prominently displayed treasures. For the trials, members of the public and invited dignitaries are sat on one side of the room. The Queen’s Remembrancer, a judge, sits at the head of the table to give her address and start the trial.

Throughout the year, coins are selected at random from batches of each denomination struck by The Royal Mint. They are then sealed in bags that contain 50 coins each and locked away in the Pyx chests. The chests of coins are taken to the Trial of the Pyx. The Jury at each trial is made up of leaders from the financial world and at least six assayers from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, who put the coins to the test. The assayers are given two months to test that the coins meet the statutory limits for metallic composition, weight and size. They test the coins against what is known as a Trial Plate, which acts as a benchmark. Trial plates are kept by the National Measurement and Regulation Office. With more than 35,000 coins to count, a lot of the work is also done behind the scenes by machines. After two months the trial reconvenes and the Queen’s Remembrancer asks the Jury for its verdict. The verdict is given every May in the presence of the Master of The Royal Mint, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or his Deputy.

Statutory basis for the Trial of the Pyx is given by the Coinage Act of 1971, the latest in a long series of similarly named Acts of Parliament. Specific procedures are established by Order in Council, the most recent being the Trial of the Pyx Order 1998, which was amended in 2005, 2012, and 2016. It is not required for a new Order to be issued for each Trial: this is mandated (to occur) only with regulatory revision.

This age old tradition is an important step in the minting process for coins in the United Kingdom. It guarantees authenticity of all British coinage and keeps the Royal Mint accountable to their important job.

Minting A Coin to Prove A Point

 

What lengths would you go to to prove a point? One early American minter set up his own press and struck his own coins, just to demonstrate that he could. This created one of the rarest coins in United States history.

 

351105686_bb197d355e_oBefore the creation of the United States Mint and the coinage of American money, John Harper helped created copper coins for the state of New Jersey. While his business partner, Albion Cox, was in charge of the mint, Harper worked with the mechanical processes, and struck the actual coins. After the job ended in 1788,. Harper became a businessman in Trenton, though he sold some of the coin-making equipment to the newly-established United States Mint in 1792. In fact, Harper owned the Philadelphia building that was the first temporary home to the Mint, and where the first silver coinage of the United States was struck.

 

Harper’s original partner, Albion Cox, returned from England to become the first assayer of the Mint. The Mint began to strike copper coins in 1793, but the public was unhappy with the quality of the coins. So intense was the outcry that Congress appointed a special committee to see what had happened and what could be done to correct the problems. Cox suggested that the committee approach Harper, given his expertise in copper coinage.

 

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The head of the committee, Elias Boudinot, met with Harper and was impressed with his knowledge. However, when Harper met with the full committee, he was left with the impression that they did not take him seriously. He created his own minting machinery from repurposed saw-making machines, and even cut his own dies. He rolled out copper and punched out coin blanks, then invited the committee to visit him again. When the committee arrived, he proceeded to strike coins and distribute them to those present. It was unanimously agreed that Harper did, in fact, know what he was talking about when it came to minting copper coins.

 

Those handfuls of Harper-struck coins are now known as Jefferson Head cents, due to the resemblance between the historic figure and the Liberty face on the obverse of the coin. It is one of the rarest coins in American history; only about 25 of the coins struck by Harper himself exist; fewer still remain of the coins made by the Mint, using Harper’s dies.

What Happened When Hamilton Lost the Mint

 

A unique painting hangs in the US Mint in Philadelphia; an intimate group scene, painted by John Dunsmore, shows several Founding Fathers and other figures gathered around a seated Martha Washington. Mrs. Washington is examining the first coins minted by the new United States, made with silver from her own personal housewares (about 1,200 half dismes and a smaller number of dismes, the predecessor of the modern dime. One such disme coin sold for $998,750 in May 2016, while a half disme sold for $176,250, according to Heritage Auctions). In the group behind her, you can see Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, while Thomas Jefferson stands on Washington’s other side, waiting to inspect the new coins.

 

If you’re familiar with the “Hamilton” musical, or just know your American history, you know that Jefferson and Hamilton butted heads during their time on Washington’s Cabinet, and the founding of the Mint became another source of conflict.

 

After having a great deal of difficulty producing money that held its value during the war, America was slow to adopt new currency. Many areas relied on stable foreign currency, like the Spanish silver peso, for trade; in some places, businessmen valued foreign coins differently than in others. Many gold and silver coins had been mixed with base metals, causing merchants to fear using them lest they be cheated. In fact, though the dollar had been established by Congress as the standard currency unit, President Washington’s daily expense reports still used British denominations.

 

Naturally, Hamilton approached this issue in his usual manner: reading everything he could on the subject of coinage and minting. He studied the notes that Sir Isaac Newton had created during his post as master of the mint; these notes included details on the exact value of specific coins. Hamilton insisted on special assays of coins from other nations, trying to determine the metals used in each.

 

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In the interest of improving the economy, as well as making common necessities more available to those with lower income, Hamilton recommended the creation of a range of coins, from dollars minted with precious metals down to half-cents made from copper. He believed this would help the less fortunate “by enabling them to purchase in small portions and at a more reasonable rate the necessaries of which they stand in need.” He also championed the use of beautifully-crafted and intricate designs on the coins, both to inspire patriotism and to deter counterfeiters: “It is a just observation that ‘The perfection of the coins is a great safeguard against counterfeits.’”

 

When Hamilton first began studying and reporting on the need for a mint, he and Jefferson were still civil, if not close friends. Politics and rivalry soon divided them, which was only made worse when Washington decided that his Secretary of the Treasury was too busy for another undertaking, and put the US Mint under Jefferson’s much-smaller State department.

 

Ron Chernow, Hamilton biographer, writes, “Hamilton long regretted that when the U.S. Mint was finally established by Congress in spring 1792 and began to produce the first federal coins, Washington lodged it under Jefferson’s jurisdiction at State. […] Unfortunately, Jefferson ran the mint poorly. Hamilton later tried, in vain, to arrange a swap whereby the post office would go to State in exchange for the mint coming under Treasury control, where it belonged.”

 

Hamilton stepped down from the Treasury in 1795, but kept in contact with President Washington (later writing the bulk of Washington’s farewell address) and gave advice to Oliver Wolcott, who succeeded Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. The Mint became an independent agency in 1799, and turned precious metals into coins for anyone, without charging for seigniorage. It finally joined the Treasury department with the Coinage Act of 1873, nearly 70 years after Hamilton’s death.

 

(Unless otherwise stated and linked, the information in this story is sourced from Ron Chernow’s excellent book Alexander Hamilton, pages 354-356 of the Kindle edition.)

When Coin Making Goes Awry

During the coin minting process, errors can occur at every step in the process.  Often these error coins make it all the way to circulation where a person may be lucky enough to find one in their spare change.

There are several ways in which an error coin is produced.  Most error coins are the result of an accident or an equipment malfunction. Errors also occur  when the striking equipment begins to deteriorate, indicating it needs to be replaced. Finally, errors can occur if mint personnel make slight changes to the process in hopes of improving a coins quality. Sometimes this works and other times it fails, thus creating an error coin.

Here is a list of common errors:

  1. Blank Planchet:  Occurs after a coin blank has been turned into a planchet, but some how skips the striking process, resulting in a coin with no design. Blank_planchets
  2. Clipped Planchet: If the metal strip that is used to stamp out the coin blanks is misfed through the machine, it can cause the machine to punch down a second time on a blank.  This results in a chunk of the coin being cut out. Clipped_planchet
  3. Double Die: Sometimes an image is accidentally stamped twice on a coin, making part of it (usually the text) appear slightly blurry.  Double Die errors are arguably the most popular type of error coin. 1995_DDO_LIB_-_Copy
  4. Off Center Coins:  If a blank planchet gets out of place on its way through the striking process it is possible that it will only receive part of its image.  The other part of the coin will be blank, causing the image to appear off center. Off-center_strike
  5. Broad Strike: During the striking process coins are held in place using a collar which helps give the coin a nice, uniform rim.  If a coin does not get placed in a collar prior to being struck, it may spread out a bit and make the rim look funny.  This results in a coin that is wider than it should be and may or may not have a rim at all.   See how the below penny is just as big as the nickel beside it?  Broad_strike
  6. Overdate or over mint mark: Not everyone considers an overdate to be an error coin, but they are interesting. In the past, rather than creating new dies (stamps used to press the image on a coin), the mint just modified existing ones to include a new date or mint mark over the old one. If this modification was not done perfectly, it would result in the appearance of both dates or mint on the struck coin.

Depending on the type of error, these coins can be very valuable.  The 1955 Double Die Lincoln cent is worth up to $1000.  Many off center coins can be worth hundreds.  Broad strikes are also fairly valuable ranging in price from $20 to $200.  Value, like with all coins, is based on rarity and condition.

This list is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to error coins.  Errors can occur at anytime and for a variety of reasons .  Although an error coin may be bad news to mint personnel, it is good news for collectors, proving once again that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

 

 

Old Fashioned Remedies: Peppermint….More Than Just an After Dinner Treat.

Since the beginning of time, people have relied on herbs and plants to treat every day ailments.  Now, most people rely on pharmaceuticals to do the job, but there are some who stand firmly behind these naturally occurring plants and their healing properties. Today, we take a look at Peppermint.

Peppermint has been used in cooking and as a medicine since 1500 BC and is thought to have originated in Northern Africa and the Mediterranean.  Early Egyptian texts state that it was even used as currency!

Eventually, peppermint was brought to Europe around 1240 A.D.   It was listed in the Icelandic Pharmacopoeia (basically a cookbook containing directions for the identification and preparation of medicines) as an herbal remedy.

Mentha_gentilis_Ypey23

In 1721, peppermint showed up in the London Pharmacopoeia and by was being cultivated on a much larger scale by then. Farmers went from growing a couple acres of the plant, to several hundred acres.

When Europeans began settling in North America, they soon discovered that the Native American’s were already using the herb, although it was a slightly different variety.  Settlers brought their European variety with them and soon that began growing naturally as well.

Today, the United States produces over half of the world’s commercially grown Peppermint. Michigan is the top producer, although it is also found in the northeast from Indiana to New York and the very southernmost areas of Canada. Much of what is produced is made into Peppermint oil.  Although the United States may produce the largest quantity of oil, it is generally agreed upon that the best quality oil comes from England.

Peppermint Oil

Peppermint Oil

Throughout the years, Peppermint has been used for the following:

Relieving toothaches.  When peppermint oil is applied directly to the sore tooth, it soothes the inflammation.

Whitening teeth.  People during the Middle ages used to chew on Peppermint leaves to help keep their teeth white.

Killing bacteria. Mint has long been used as an antiseptic, particularly for the mouth.

Calming an upset stomach and relieving gas.  Peppermint is thought to have anti inflammatory properties.  It calms the muscles in the digestive tract, helping to relieve a stomach ache.  The Romans grew peppermint specifically for this reason.

Getting rid of the common cold. Inhaling peppermint oil will alleviate the symptoms of the cold.  When applied directly to the skin, it is also a painkiller.  The surface heat it produces relieves pain beneath the skin.

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See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]

                                     Relieving itchy skin.  Peppermint has been used to heal rashes and bug bites.                                                                           When put in shampoo, it also relives a dry, itchy scalp.

Perfume.  Peppermint oil applied to the skin gives off a clean, sweet, and refreshing aroma.  For this same reason, it was a used as ground cover in Europe during the middle ages.

After looking at this list, you can see how things like after dinner mints, toothpaste and mouthwash have developed over time.  What is your favorite use for peppermint?  Let us know in the comments!

All About Half Dimes

Before the invention of the nickel, the half dime was a lovely little coin that has now worked its way into some pretty impressive collections over the last hundred years.  With a limited production history and few variations, a well minted half dime is a collector’s dream.

Generally holding the same appearance and designs as larger United States silver coins, the half dime is immediately distinguishable by its small stature.  Originally 20.8 grains and .8924 fineness, the half dime is one of the smallest U.S. silver coins ever to be minted.  They appear to be half of a dime, and so the term for these 5 cent denominates was coined – no pun intended.

The half dime is a unique collectible in that some numismatists consider it to be the first coin minted under the United States Coinage Act of 1792.  The act officially minted currency as legal tender and implemented the decimal system for U.S. currency.  Others argue that it is no more than a pattern coin for testing a system in works.

With the authorization of production in July of 1792, a test piece known as the disme was in circulation the year before the first United States Mint actually opened for business.  Because the facilities were not yet made available, the first half dismes were struck in local craftsman, John Harper’s cellar with the oversight of official mint personnel.  Taking advantage of the limited quantity of available silver, it is rumored that President Washington donated his own household silverware!  In his fourth annual address on November 6, 1792, he stated: “There has been a small beginning in the coinage of half dimes: the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them.”  The half disme would forbear a long-standing history of U.S. coinage as a pattern piece for the half dime.  In 1795, the first official half dime was struck, though some were mint-marked 1794.  From then on, the coins were produced with great expedition and haste.

Over the course of eighty-one years thousands of half dimes were produced.  Most have been heavily circulated.  In 2006, a single PCGS MS67 half dime sold at auction for $1,322,500.  Their value is largely attributed to their historical significance and scarcity.

Image By DavidLawrence.com

Image By DavidLawrence.com

Various developmental designs of the half dime include the Early Half Dime Flowing Hair Pattern (1792), the Draped Bust Half Dime (1996-1797), the Capped Bust Half Dime (1829-1837) and the Seated Liberty Half Dime (1837-1873).  You’ll notice that none of these specimens portray images of presidents, as George Washington insisted the rejection of monarchical imagery, opting for visions of liberty.

As a tangible token from the beginnings of America, it’s no wonder the half dime is so highly valued.  Though your chances of finding one of these by luck are next to none, you can find them in exchange between passionate collectors.  The Stamp & Coin place is home to the world’s finest assembled Seated Liberty 1858-1873 Proof Half Dime collection.  You can view some of our half dimes for sale on  ebay.