1855, 1870 Opinions and Comments on Coinage and Mint Operations

The primary sources of Franklin Peale's opinions relating to coinage and the U.S. Mint are an 1855 article published in the journal of the American Philosophical Society, and his thoughts on an early version of the Coinage Act of 1873, as solicited by Henry Linderman and published in a Congressional report. Peale's opinions from these sources are also consistent with those formed in the 1830s following his European mission. The quotations are presented without editorial alteration.

Peale comments on coinage — 1855. These were published in 1855 after Peale had left employment of the Mint. "Franklin Peale on Coinage." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, February 16, 1855, 95-100; March 16, 1855, 105-113.

Peale Comments on coinage — 1870. These are comments relating to a proposed mint reorganization and coinage bill, 1870. This eventually became the Coinage Act of 1873. Franklin Peale, "Remarks on a Bill Revising the Laws Relative to the Mints, Assay Offices and Coinage of the United States, January 31, 1870." In Letter from the Secretary of the Treasury to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Executive Document 301. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1870.

"It cannot be doubted, that the coinage of a country, of high rank in the scale of nations, should bear evidence on its face of the condition and progress both of the fine, and mechanical arts, within its borders. In the second place it should insure the greatest degree of security against fraudulent imitations, or counterfeiting. This can best be secured by the employment of the highest grade of artistic talent in the design of the devices, and in its execution throughout to the finished coin as issued from the mint.134

Opinions about Coinage Designs

Subject: Coin Designs135
It will not, I hope, be deemed irrelevant to introduce a few remarks on the mechanical relations and exigencies by which the devices of coins are controlled, and which have a most important bearing on the style and execution of them.

It has already been said, and now repeated, that the coiner is limited to a single blow of the press in striking pieces of money. It is important, therefore, that the design of the device should be so disposed as to give the strongest effect with the least degree of relief. This is not only for the purpose of giving the utmost degree of legibility to the impressions on the coins, but also to save the dies as much as possible, under the severe usage to which they are subjected. Highly legible coins are thus prepared to retain their distinctness during circulation for the longest period of time.

Force and strength of expression in a coin are best attained by a judicious outline in strong relief, whilst the general relief is kept as much subdued as possible. In fact, the center of the device should not rise above a plane of which the outline forms the boundary (rim). On the contrary, if a device on a coin rises above the rim in the middle, it compels a reduction of the outline to faintness, producing a weak and unsatisfactory effect. This is also hard to strike, is soon obscured by abrasion during circulation and entirely deprives the coiner of the opportunity of polishing the table or field of the dies, and background of the coin. Irregularities of the table, which is the Royal Mint's usual technical term, are a grave fault very often observed in what, if otherwise executed, would be works of high artistic excellence. The type of relief alluded to as producing exemplary result is found in the frieze of the Parthenon, where strong shadows form a bold outline, and give the effect of depth by means well understood by the ancients, and yet this is of comparatively easy execution.

The obverse of a coin, which is the most important side, should bear the strongest device. The reverse must be subsidiary and its components should therefore be simple, such as broad letters, a shield, wreath or other ornament in low relief. This arrangement will concentrate the force of the impression on the obverse. By this disposition the best effect is given to the most important side of the coin.

The United States Mint labors under a disadvantage in this respect, as most of our pieces have devices on both sides which are of equal depths. In consequence, the force of the blow and the necessary metal to fill the recesses of the die are distributed between the two sides. This makes both weak and loses the effect of a more judicious disposition.

After long experience, observation and reflection on this subject, I am decidedly of opinion that the obverse of all coins should present the device of a head or profile. This may be a "composition emblematic of Liberty," or a portrait — it does not matter. The likeness of our glorious pater patriae,136 George Washington, might justly be considered the embodiment of Republican liberty — or the classic head of high art, with the admitted exquisite beauty of the Greek school, are alike applicable. I do not desire to give a decided opinion relative to either, but I say the obverse should be thus engraved because, in the first place, the highest grade of artistic talent and excellence is required for its conception and execution. Artistry of the portrait is much more elevated than that required for the usual armorial or inanimate delineations common on the reverse. Secondly, because its effect, when well and suitably executed for coining purposes, is better adapted to the mechanical exigencies which control the operation. The reverse should, as I believe, be plain and legibly lettered, with the denomination of the piece in the middle of the field, surrounded by a wreath of rich composition, in low relief, with the usual legend around the border. The design of the wreath might contain the products of the North, West and South, the wheat, corn and cotton of our wide spread domain.

The disadvantages of the full-length figure of our silver coins or of any other fulllength figure, are numerous. The minute size of the head, hands, limbs and other portions of the figure, debars the artist from the ability to give full expression and finish that a high grade of art deserves. The small size and proportion, however well executed interposes difficulty in transferring the impression to the coin.

The various views, above presented, are sustained, and appear to have had their influence, by the best and most recent coinages of Europe. I have only to fear that I have not brought them in relief (to use an appropriate figure), with the force to which, as I respectfully conceive, they are entitled.

Subject: New Coinage Designs137
When new devices are required, the best talent and highest grade of skill, within the command of the government, should be employed at any cost for its execution in the most perfect style. Further, I do not hesitate to say that if artistic talents and skill of sufficient eminence cannot be found in this country, we should look for and employ its aid wherever it can be found. This will place our coin in the highest rank of the coin issues of the civilized world.

The above views are sustained by the usages of the mints of France and England. In the former the original dies or matrices are procured by competition (concurrence), judged and selected by commissioners appointed for the purpose. In the latter, since the late reform of 1853, competent artists selected for the purpose of making new designs.

Subject: Devices for use on the Coinage of the United States138
The representation of an eagle should be omitted on the reverse of all the coins, for reasons that will be stated in subsequent remarks.

"A device emblematic of Liberty" is appropriate, and consecrated by our history, and by usage. A head in profile is the most appropriate, because it gives opportunity for the highest grade of' artistic and classical ability to be employed for the composition of the device, and its execution.

Full-length figures are inappropriate. The parts are too small to permit of expression in the design, and do not permit of sufficient depth to "come up," as it is technically expressed, in striking the coin; and they are easier for counterfeit imitations, and more difficult to detect when counterfeited.

Armorial bearings or devices are to be deprecated. They have all the disadvantages of the last paragraph, and are the relics of feudal and effete monarchical and semi-barbarous times, inappropriate to free and enlightened republican government.

Besides the above objections to the conventional eagle (it has no prototype in nature) on the reverse of several coins of gold and silver, required by law, there are others of grave importance; a device on both sides, obverse and reverse, of a coin compels a sacrifice of relief or strength on the obverse or principal side, the metal of the blank or planchet being absorbed between them; whereas a simple reverse, consisting of the legend "United States of America, E Pluribus Unum," etc., around a wreath in low relief, with the denomination of the coin in plain distinct letters is more expressive, in better taste, and accords with the usage of the most enlightened nations.

The Mint of the United States in Philadelphia is now in possession of improved apparatus for procuring from models, and reducing to all sizes and denominations, facsimiles for original dies, and there are artists quite capable, under instructions in regard to exigencies which control the operation of striking coins, to place the United States in the front rank of all nations in the artistic, classical, and mechanical execution of its coinage.

Subject: Model Reduction139
In the advance of the mechanic arts in modem times great facilities have been devised therein. The arts of medal engraving and die sinking have largely participated in rapid and exact mechanical means, which now take the place of the laborious and imperfect ones which formerly embarrassed this important art. I will endeavor to exemplify them as briefly as possible.

The artist or designer models a medallion portrait, or other device in relief in a plastic material, such as wax or clay. This is of sufficient size to permit freedom of handling and facile study of effects of light and scale. From this model a cast can be taken in plaster of Paris, or it may be electrotyped in copper. From the mold thus obtained, copies can be cast in hard metal, bronze or iron, which may be further retouched or finished at the will of the artist.

The cast of the artist's model is placed in the portrait lathe, for which we are indebted to the French. There are two mandrels on the lathe which revolve in equal periods of time. Upon one of which the model is placed, and on the other the material for the copy or reduction. In front of the mandrels a bar is made to traverse, which carries a tracer that passes over the face of the model. The tracer touches every part of the model in a spiral line from center to circumference, or vice versa. A tool on the same bar, opposite the mandrel bearing the material, necessarily obeys the same motions, and is thus made to cut a facsimile of the model. The construction of the whole permits any proportionate relation in size between the model and the copy. By means of this lathe, rapid and exact reductions are made in steel, with an infinitely decreased amount of labor. For coining purposes it has the great advantage of retaining faithful proportionate relations in the different denominations of pieces bearing the same device. The lettering of legends is usually put in at this stage of proceeding by hand, as well as minor and detached parts.

This, in general but concise terms, is the mode of operating, when a new device is to be executed for a medal or coin. At this point an important distinction exists between medal striking and the coining of money. In the former, repeated blows upon a disc of metal with intervening annealings, enable a device of any degree of relief to be "brought up" as it is technically termed. Whilst in the latter we are restricted to a single blow, or action of the coining press, upon the prepared disc or "planchet" and hence the necessity of such judicious care and skill in the device and engraving as shall give the strongest effect to the coin, with the least degree of relief. This is a most desirable object, when it is known that each pair of dies is required to strike off pieces numbering from 50,000 to 200,000. This must be done with as little injury to the face of the dies as possible, as any difference in appearance of coin from the wear of the dies is to be deprecated.

The foregoing relates principally to the execution of new devices, and it is hoped are sufficiently explicit to show the vast saving of labor derived from the process in comparison to the old plans of operating, in prosecuting which, the engraver was obliged to dig out the solid metal by slow and laborious means, taking impressions of parts as he progressed in plastic material, and consuming long periods of time, according to the elaboration, or magnitude of the device.

Opinions about the Number of Mints

Subject: Number of Mints140
The multiplication of mints is an unnecessary error; one is sufficient for any country; a single one for the civilized world would be best, but that being impossible or utopian, the fewer there are the better. It is less costly to transport coin and bullion than to erect, furnish, equip and provide officers for mints at either remote or near points; and the liability to error, fraud, and departure from uniformity, is multiplied in proportion to the number of such organizations.

The case of California may be exceptional, as is the mint of Calcutta with regard to Great Britain. Its distance, and being the center of bullion-yielding districts, may authorize such an establishment in such a situation; nevertheless, it is, even under the circumstances, a question of true policy.

Opinions about Officers' Responsibilities

Subject: Office of the Director of the Mint Should be at Washington141
It is desirable that there should be a Director of the mints, whose office may be at Washington, or readily accessible to the heads of the departments, of which he should be a member. The incumbent should be selected from among the most, enlightened, scientific, and moral men of the country; such as have occupied the position of Director in the earlier history of the Mint. Rittenhouse, the elder Patterson, and Professor R. M. Patterson; and in England, Herschel, Graham, and others. In Great Britain the master of the mint, as he is called, is a high state officer; the deputy master, as he is called; is his representative, and is in immediate charge.

The office should be entirely free from all partisan inferences; the degrading effects of what has been called, very wrongly politics, better named party chicanery, is too baneful in its habits and tendencies to be tolerated in a matter so sacred and requiring such purity and confidence as the national money and its manufacture. This remark applies, more or less impressively, to every department of mint transactions and incumbencies.

With such a Director, and such freedom from one of the greatest evils of the present political habits of our country, the creation of the office of Director, as contemplated by this bill, would be very judicious; with anything less, it would be only an aggravation of the evil under which we now suffer.

Subject: Position of Engraver or Die Sinker142
The term "engraver" has led to error and evil influences in the nomenclature of the Mint of the United States. The services required are those of a die-sinker, not of an engraver; nevertheless, it has been so long in use that its abandonment may be difficult.

The dies for coinage are struck from a punch in relief, technically called a "hub." There is nothing for the die-sinker to do, further than to strike in the figures designating the year of coinage, all the processes being mechanical from the forging of the steel to the polishing of the tables [fields] of the die for use.

As there is so little said of the duties of the so-called engraver of the Mint, a fuller description of the process with remarks, may be appropriate, particularly with regard to devices, etc. It is one of the important departments of the Mint organization, and should be well considered, in relation to the improved condition of mechanical science in this day. The highest grade of artistic ability should be made subservient to the production and issue of the coins of this republic in which respect it has hitherto been lamentably, if not disgracefully deficient.

Subject: Bond of Certain Officers143
The bill requires securities from the melter and refiner, and coiner but as they have not the control of the operatives, by appointment or discharge, and through whose hands the bullion and coins must pass and be manipulated, they should not be held responsible for any loss sustained by the incompetency or fraud of workmen.

Subject: Subordinate Officers144
The melter and refiner, and the coiner, are responsible for all the bullion charged to them, and yet have no control of the workmen in their departments, either of appointment or discharge; while the Treasurer has the appointment power subject to the approval of the superintendent, as it should be in all cases. The want of control in the departments of the melter and refiner, and chief coiner, has been one of the evils — not to use a stronger expression — of the mint laws of the past, and is embarrassing and unjust those officers

Subject: Qualification of Federal Assayers145
The abolition of all mints, except that of Philadelphia and possibly that of San Francisco (one for the Atlantic and the other, if maintained, for the Pacific portions of the republic) will necessarily require the establishment of assay, offices in various bullion producing or dealing localities such as New York, and the principal mining districts of the western country. The laws for their governance appear to be sufficient, but there are gentlemen, whom you know, whose legal acquirements are superior to mine, and to whose opinions I would respectfully defer. There is, however, one view which I beg leave respectfully to submit, for which we have the authoritative precedent of the mint of France in Paris.

Assayers should be obliged to go through a course of instruction in the United States Mint, be examined, and receive a diploma, with an assay mark, before they are permitted to practice professionally, and that those only, who have been thus prepared, and are of unblemished moral character, should be legally competent to receive commissions as assayers of any of the assay offices of the United States.

Opinions about Issues of Coins

Subject: Base Metal Coinage146
I am clearly and decidedly of opinion that all the heterogeneous coinage of cents and their multiples, made of silver, alloys of silver, copper, and nickel, should cease, and nothing but cents should be made of bronze of the usual proportions of copper and tin as the best in all respects of the known alloys; it is, however, probable that the time will come when the progress of metallurgical skill will authorize the use of aluminum alloyed with copper for the purpose of minor coinage.

Subject: Excessive Issue of Silver Coins147
It is very desirable that a coinage of silver should be commenced at an early day, and the weight of such coin should be so adjusted by law as to secure them from transportation as bullion, (the quality of nine hundred-thousandths sacredly preserved); at the same time the royalty or difference between the intrinsic and legal value should be not so great as to offer too strong a temptation to counterfeiting.

The actual value given to this portion of the minor currency by the law of the United States, is a sufficient equivalent for the less value as mere bullion; and the restriction to their legal tender for more than five dollars or less, as well as a restriction by law to as to excessive issues or emissions, would remove all objections, public convenience being the object of the coinage.

To designate what the weight of silver coinage should be at this time is a difficult problem, and should be carefully considered by competent financiers, bullion traders, and mint officers, before any law is enacted.

Subject: Small Gold Pieces148
Before proceeding with the immediate subject under consideration, a few words will be devoted to the coinage of small gold pieces. Peculiar circumstances, whose influence has been powerful, but, it is hoped, transient, have made it necessary to coin large quantities of gold dollars. A dispassionate view of this coin and its history will, in a candid and just spirit, be appreciated.

The gold dollar coin is not a recent invention. Historical records, and our cabinets, show that pieces of approximately this value have been issued by almost all governments at some period of their career, and that they are now almost entirely abandoned. The reasons are obvious, but may be briefly stated.

The piece is too small for convenient handling and inspection in proportion to its value. It is too liable and easy of counterfeit and imitate in consequence of its light weight and diminutive size. It is too difficult of detection, when even indifferently counterfeited, because it is not appreciable by the sensible tests (feeling of weight, the sight, etc.). Finally, it will become unnecessary when a sufficient supply of silver change shall be spread abroad among the community.

The quarter eagle, on the contrary, is of sufficient value and size to authorize sufficient care in its reception and payment. It is entirely appreciable by the sensible tests and admits of easy detection when fraudulent attempts have been made at imitation or alteration.

The half and quarter eagle have their places in our monetary system for certain natural reasons, which may be illustrated thus. It is easy and simple to divide and add, by halving and doubling, etc. Hence the hold that the Spanish currency of reals has upon our affections (to say nothing of the habit of its use), whereas a decimal system, such as is our money of account and currency, requires some education.

The pons asinorum149 being once passed, however, in the use of a decimal system, its advantages and facilities are without bounds. Why, or how we should tolerate, for one hour, the stupid and false nomenclature of shillings and sixpences, so common in some parts of the Union, is past comprehension or explanation, and will not be attempted.

The quarter eagle, and the three dollar gold-pieces, authorized by the late law (1854), are incongruous, being too nearly of the same value to give any facility in purchases or exchange, and too liable to error in use. One or other will be abandoned, probably the latter, for the reasons above stated. The gold unit being the eagle, which is doubled by the twenty dollar piece, and divided by the half and quarter eagle, these proportionate arrangements are amply sufficient for all practical purposes.

With regard to the quantity and proportions of gold coin, it is unnecessary to speculate. There is probably an abundant supply. If not, it is easy to coin any amount that may be necessary with the means at our command. Silver coin appears to present some need of elucidation, and on this object the following views are presented. The silver dollar remains at its weight as enacted by the older mint laws. The reasons for this do not affect the condition of the silver currency. It is sufficient to say that under present circumstances it will not circulate or affect the currency in any material manner. The half dollar may be considered the largest silver piece or unit for present purposes.

Subject: Unnecessary Gold Denominations150
The three-dollar gold coin should be struck out and abolished for the following reasons: It is a departure from the binary divisions and multiple, so natural and convenient in all human transactions; it is too near in value to the quarter-eagle to be readily distinguished, unless it is made thinner, or by some other form distinguishable from that coin; and finally, it is of no use, but rather an inconvenience in monetary transactions.

Neither is the gold dollar desirable; its coinage should be discontinued. It is not wanted for change, which a proper silver coinage would supply. The objections are, it is too small to be distinguished by the sensible tests and therefore offers unusual temptations to counterfeits made of silver or copper electrotyped, and being of small value is not usually carefully inspected in current use.

Opinions about Assaying and Refining

Assay and Refining of Crude Ore for the Public151
It would seem proper that some legal provision for the melting of deposits, or those crude quantities of gold dust, or other forms of the precious metals, whose weights or qualities cannot be ascertained without this preparation, should be enacted. It is true that there is a law which provides that bullion brought to the Mint should be in a condition fit for coinage. This is theoretically just and proper; nevertheless, there is propriety in affording facility for the accommodation of the public, by authentic and reliable authorities, for melting and assay of crude results of mining operations, hitherto absent in this country.152

Define Responsibility for Melting Deposits153
The melting of deposits has of necessity been always practiced in the Mint of the United States, by workmen nominally in the melter and refiner's department, but it is no part of his duty as defined by law, neither can it be said that it should be, for reasons which will be obvious hereafter.154

The treasurer has no workmen under his control by the present laws, and the deposit melting-room and fixtures are nominally without competent head or direction. In the operations of this department there is a wide latitude for waste, to which must be added considerable difficulty from the presence of the semi-metals, arsenic, antimony, etc. in the crude metals from the new bullion producing districts of Montana, Nevada, etc., causing loss and embarrassment, which losses cannot be defined within limits; averages on the large transactions of the Mint have been established, and are no doubt necessary and correct; and it is also true that in all manipulations of gold and silver, either chemical or mechanical, there are inevitable wastages, and after the "closest getting up" of grains there remains the "sweep," etc., which, in present usages, goes to the reduction of wastage in the melter and refiner's department.155

Finally, as there is no responsibility attached to this department, though doubtless performed in good faith, it is not likely that the degree of care will be exercised which might be under other circumstances. It may be that the best means of recovering the last particles of precious metals are not known or practiced, or, in other words, there is room for improvement in the economical processes, with a view of reducing the wastage or loss to a minimum.156

Subject: Expression of Weights157
The word "pennyweight" should be struck out, and equivalent decimals of an ounce inserted. This is according to the present usage of the mint in this. It would be much better to conform to the actual usage of the Mint in making deliveries of coin, from the coiner to the Treasurer in drafts of five thousand dollars, except the gold dollar, (if retained,) which are usually in drafts of one thousand.

The allowances are sufficient, but should be, as before stated, converted into decimals of an ounce.

I must add, however, that in the operations of a well conducted mint, with properly constructed balances, there is no need of allowances in the weighings of new gold coins; each draft can, and should be, of the exact legal weight when delivered to the Treasurer.

The adjustment of weights in the delivery of silver coins to the Treasurer, etc., should conform in like manner to the usage of the Mint, which is in drafts of one thousand dollars. The allowances should be stated in decimals.

The return of clippings, etc. by the coiner to the Treasurer, but there is no provision for their transfer to the melter and refiner; it is usually, for convenience, a simultaneous operation.

134 Peale 1855.
135 Ibid.
136 "Father of the country."
137 Peale 1855.
138 January 31, 1870.
139 Peale 1855.
140 January 31, 1870.
141 January 31, 1870.
142 Ibid.
143 Ibid.
144 Ibid.
145 Ibid.
146 Ibid.
147 Ibid.
148 Peale 1855.
149 Literally, a "bridge for asses." A metaphor for a problem which will separate the quick witted from the simple.
150 January 31, 1870.
151 February 18, 1870.
152 Ibid.
153 Ibid.
154 Ibid.
155 Ibid.
156 February 18, 1870.
157 January 31, 1870.