Hiring Women to Adjust Planchets and Operate Presses

This article appeared in the Winter 2012 Issue of the Journal of Numismatic Research

Contrary to popular belief, women formed a significant part of the labor force in nineteenth century America. A 1910 Senate report stated, "The wage labor of women is as old as the country itself and has merely increased in importance." It also reported that in 1820 ten percent of industrial employees had been female, and this was nearly one quarter in 1850.121

The Civil War gave American women the opportunity to enter paid employment in government service, industry, and public schools in significantly greater numbers than previously. The Census Bureau was quick to recognize this, and the 1870 report for the first time showed "Females Engaged in Each Occupation." The same Census demonstrated that women were present in over three-quarters of occupations. They were found in such unexpected places as iron and steel works, mines, sawmills, oil wells and refineries, and held such surprising jobs as ship rigger, teamster, or brass foundry worker. They made up one-third of factory "operatives" and two-thirds of teachers. The Bureau separated out data for married, single, divorced, and widowed women in 1890. The Census data should lay to rest the belief that nineteenth century married women — at least those who were white and middleclass — stayed at home pursuing their "true womanhood" destiny.122

Peale's innovation was to turn a significant part of the coining process over entirely to female employees, and to do this within a major government bureau. His decision was evidently inspired by a combination of errors by the male adjusters, and the drive to save money. Women made less than half what men did in the same job — until 1887 when equal pay was enforced.

Men were employed to adjust planchets and operate presses until early 1850 when women were given a trial as adjusters by coiner Franklin Peale.123 The test period went well and male adjusters were placed in more physically demanding jobs with women taking their place. A similar test was conducted in 1852 or early 1853 by Peale in using women to feed planchets into the presses. This also was satisfactory and several of the less productive adjusters were moved to the less convivial press room. In neither instance did this require any change in operating procedure.

The coining department benefited from the greater dexterity and speed of women in adjusting planchets, and the lower pay given to women employees.124

Comments by Mint Director Snowden were published in 1863:

Women are employed to adjust the weight of the blanks of planchets, preparatory to the coinage — each piece for the gold coinage being separately weighed and adjusted. So also are the larger coins of silver, namely the dollar and half dollar. They are also employed in feeding the coining presses. There are about fifty women at present employed. This force is amply sufficient for our present operations, and for any additional amount of work that the mint may be called on to perform.

The employments in which they are engaged are healthy and pleasant. Some years ago the women received seventy-five cents a day in the adjusting room, and eighty-five cent for those employed in the coining room. Since that time I have increased their per diem compensation to $1.10 in both departments. They are paid monthly. Men employed in labor of a similar character secure about $2.20 per day. A day's work is about ten hours, but ordinarily the women do not work more than seven or eight hours — sometimes more, sometimes less, but never beyond ten hours. There are no other occupations in the mint, than where they are now employed, suitable for women. I am greatly in favor of employing women, and I have extended the employment of them as far as is practicable. For adjusting the wright of coins, and attending or feeding the coining presses, I consider women as not inferior to men, except that they cannot endure work for a great a number of hours.

A great many applications are made for situations in the mint. None but a thoroughly honest person should occupy such a responsible place.125

Light weight blanks, those under the legal margin of error, were thrown into a reject basket and would eventually be sent back to the melting and refining department. Blanks that were slightly underweight and those of standard (legal standard) weight were put aside on stacking trays. Overweight blanks, which were usually the majority since the goal was to have slightly heavy strips for the blanking press, were lightly filed on the edges and individually weighted to make sure too much gold had not been removed.

1852 Description of Planchet Adjusters126
[Author Alice Neal appears to have visited the Philadelphia Mint in the winter of 1851. Her purpose was to examine firsthand the mint's experiment in employing women to adjust gold and silver planchets. The first women adjusters were hired in early 1850 and Neal's visit occurred almost two years after this. Her guide was the coiner, Franklin Peale, who promoted and implemented the idea of hiring women. Not long after Neal's visit, women were also assigned to feed coinage presses. This was the first time that male and female mint employees had worked on production jobs in close proximity at the mint. Gleason's Pictorial Magazine published a general article about the Philadelphia Mint in July 1852 almost simultaneously with Neal's article. Gleason's included the first published engravings of women adjusters at work, and by coincidence a different engraving shows only male operators of presses. This excerpt from Neale's article has been edited for clarity, but retains the romantic language typical of her writing.]

The woman's restless mind, so busy with idle and fanciful dreams, would be well trained by active employment. The self-respect of independence would forbid her any sacrifice of truth or honest feeling. But others remain to be provided for. The daughters of those who have been affluent, but are suddenly reduced to the necessity of labor; the young widow, reared in comfort, who finds herself alone in the world with her children to be reared and educated. This is no small class of community to be provided for, and one whose wants are most difficult to meet for many women. "Work they cannot, to beg they are ashamed," and they live on, eating the bitter bread of dependence. They had wasted the instructions of the school room, save in those accomplishments that fitted them to shine in society, but are useless now. Their physical strength, as well as manual skill, will avail very little in the contest with daily want if there is no means of employment for women.

Every woman who comes before the world as a public teacher or leader seems to us to lose a part of her birthright of purity and delicacy. The pen can send forth its gentle influence from the retirement of the home circle; but we ask no place in the lecture room or the arena of political strife — nothing that could disturb. We are dealing with past tra-ditions that hold women outside industry. Very recently this aspect of society has changed somewhat, and perhaps in no city more successfully than our own Philadelphia. We have thought a glance at some of the sources of industry employment of women might be interesting to the readers of a publication devoted to the interests of our sex.

First of all, we select, for its novelty, unparalleled success, and general interest, the weighing or adjusting of the United States Mint.

Not unless you have visited our city and gone through with its lions, for promi-nent among them stands the pure marble edifice known as the Mint. But, if you have never accomplished the established routine of sight-seeing, allow us to be your chaper-one for the morning, and we shall find what part our sex plays in the production of our country's coinage.

The entrance sign says "No Admittance after Twelve O'clock" but we can ignore it for we have a friend at court whose name is a talisman to the doorman. We enter and are ushered through the paved hall into his neat office, little differing from an ordinary counting-room; here we await the arrival of our guide, no other than the director of the department in which is situated the "Mint cage of Canaries," as someone has pleasantly entitled the apartment which is the principal object of our visit.

We are too late for the melting of gold, but that we have little to do with. We know that the assayed and refined gold is at length out into bars, of perhaps half a yard in length — we will take the largest gold coin, the double eagle, at which they work today and from this the bright circle, with its clear impressions, is to be formed.

What a change the adjusting room is from the noise and clanging of the other apartments! Here, the only sound is the chattering of merry voices, or bursts of girlish laughter, subdued a little, but by no means hushed, at the approach of visitors. The apartment is large and airy, long ranges of windows on each side, and a skylight in the center, securing ample ventilation. Through its width extend three long tables, and on each aide are placed the young girls, busy with this monotonous, but agreeable employ-ment. Not all young girls; for here and there we meet a more careworn face, acting as a balance, perhaps, to the light spirits of those around.

The adjusting room reminded us at first of the large drawing-hall of the a Semi-nary. Here there were the same gayety and cheerfulness, and the scales before each workwoman filled the place of our Seminary easels. Walking about from group to group, with a sweet and serious mien, was a lady in deep mourning to watch the progress of the drawing. Her presence was no arbitrary restraint, and the work went on rapidly, for all the jest and laughter. Some ladies were standing as they worked, the height of the tables making it convenient for them to do so; others made themselves comfortable with foot stools, or were leaning over their work. Hands and arms were in constant motion; in-deed, the whole upper part of the figure is exercised much more than in sewing, or even drawing, by the reaching and filing.

Figure 8. Planchet adjusters at the Philadelphia Mint, 1852. The diagonal chords were connected to the ceiling and allowed curtains to be hung to suppress drafts that might affect the balances. (Engraving by Devaereaux)

The neat scales [balances] are placed directly before them, at just a convenient distance apart. A file and a round brush, like that of a house painter, are their only implements. A pile of unfinished coin is placed before each, which is to be balanced by the exact standard weight. The coin is placed in the opposite scale, and is required to be precisely the same; if it varies ever so little, the index in the center is true to the fault. It moves like the hand of a clock, but with a pendulum motion, upon a tiny white dial plate, and the practiced eye can discover the instant, and to us almost imperceptible movement. If too heavy, the file separates a few tiny particles from the rough edge; or, if too light, the piece is rejected altogether. A round and square can of tin stands before each, for the different pieces. Those that are of just weight are now ready to be milled, the others are reweighed, and, if found to vary more than the eighth of a grain, are considered altogether too light, and are molted and cast again. All this is done with astonishing rapidity and precision. The eye is fixed upon the register, and the busy hands move almost mechanically from pile to file, and to the open-mouthed receptacle. The particles are suffered to fall upon the sheets of stiff brown paper that cover the tables; but think not their escape is permitted. It is for this reason that no current of air is admitted, the room being ventilated by lowering the upper sash.

But how are the gold particles gathered? We shall see as soon as this present weight of gold is finished; they are already near its completion. One by one the adjusters cease from the quick routine, and watch their less industrious neighbors, or chat among themselves as if they were school-girls anticipating an approaching recess. "But why are they not supplied with work at once?" we ask, to be told that each parcel is weighed in the office of the chief coiner before it is brought to the room, and must be weighed again by itself. Now the tin cans are beginning to gather on one of the smaller tables, where a workman from below is preparing their contents for removal.

The scene becomes more animated. Every workwoman has risen, and is busily plying her brush. Her own dress, apron, and sleeves are dusted, then the table before her, the scales, and all the particles brushed down together. We attempt to lift the can of filings thus gathered from the morning's employment; it is about half full of the dull yel-low and brown particles. But, as if a magic weight were concealed in the can, our wrists are so strained that we are fain to replace it upon the table of the lady directress. We are told, to our amazement, that the value of the very sweepings alone will average from twelve to fourteen hundred dollars!

But there is still more cleaning. The water in which the ladies now wash their hands has also its precious deposit. More than two hundred dollars was saved in this way in ten months. "Is it possible?" we say. "Then the very dust of the floor must be val-uable?" And we are told, with a quiet smile, that no sweeping from the whole building is thrown away. It is first "purified by fire," and its yearly yield is almost equal to a Cali-fornia claim.

Our guide points to a large screen, cutting off about one-sixth of the room. "That is the dressing-room" says our guide "The screen opposite it shields the kitchen and din-ing room."

"A kitchen in the Mint!" This was certainly an unexpected novelty; and we are told that the employees do not leave the building through the ten hours, which is their daily limit. Very different from the twelve and fourteen of the seamstress in factories; for everyone knows that the last two or four boars drag heavily enough, when the mind and body are exhausted. The girls themselves prefer the regulation: work commencing at six during the summer season, and seven in the winter, which gives them a long evening; time enough, after four, for sewing, walking, or study. They are certainly the gainers by the noon hour thus being saved; whence the necessity for the kitchen and dining room. With kind permission, we venture to intrude behind the screen. We have startled a din-ner party of six or seven, who are taking advantage of the recess. Two more are em-ployed with basin and towel in washing the delf from which they have just finished their meal.

They smile very good-naturedly at the interruption — we blushing a little, it may be, at our own curious inspection of the domestic arrangements of ladies every whit as well-bred as ourselves — and point out the recess with its fitting of stove and culinary utensils, where one of their number is just now brewing a most inviting cup of tea. The dining room has a goodly row of shelves, with canisters, china, etc. etc., like any other store room. Each person or party play cook and waiter for themselves, so all is neatness and order.

Figure 9. Kitchen and dining room for female employees, Philadelphia Mint 1888. (Photo by Francis Johnston, Library of Congress)

Ten minutes have passed and the recess is not yet over. The pretty faces are gathered in groups around the room and dressing room. Some in the window seats are watching us curiously, as we linger by the raised table of the directress, which commands a view of the room; others are in knots of threes and fives, discussing the fashion of a sleeve or the bright spring dresses displayed in the shop windows. A few, more studiously inclined, have drawn forth a fascinating volume, and are dispatching page after page. Even an industrious needle or two have made their appearance and a few busy stitches are set. How little there is here to mark discontent or suffering, overwork or overtaxed strength! The employment, though monotonous, requires constant thought and attention, so that the mind is not wearied by habitual reverie, and the cheerful hum of voices, or music of laughter, would satisfy the most exacting philanthropist. They are paid on an average and not for the exact amount each person executes. Active or indolent, they all receive four dollars and a half per week (or seventy-five cents per day); however, in justice, we must say that each seemed striving to do her best.

We are struck with the ease and propriety of the employment, the neat and cheerful aspect of the room — so much pleasanter than if the same number of men and boys had been at work. We are reminded to inquire whether this employment of women is unprecedented? Entirely so: the philanthropy and good taste of the suggestion are entirely due to the chief coiner, our attentive guide, Franklin Peale, Esq. It is nearly two years since the experiment was commenced, and is found to answer admirably. "Women are at once more easily taught, and quicker in movement; and," adds Mr. Peale, "we find them more conscientious," which truly noble complement to our sex we could but acknowledge by a most respectful bow.

In making selections from the crowd of applicants, the most intelligent and well educated have been chosen, and we doubt if fifty pleasanter looking faces could be gathered together. The manners of many mark them as educated and refined, which must, of course, give a tone to the whole circle. We could but fancy the intimacies and agreeable acquaintances which are no doubt frequently formed among them.

A situation in the adjusting room being, for these various reasons, so eligible, it is no wonder that constant applications are made. But we were not prepared to hear that the number of disappointed applicants could not fall far short of six hundred, a fact of the greatest weight in proving our proposition with regard to the necessity for female employment. 127

[In concluding the article, the author briefly describes other steps in the coin production process. She does not mention the employment of women in feeding coining presses, and it is presumed Peale's experiments with female employees in this job had not begun.]

Influence of Employing Women
Employing women to work at a government mint was not only considered novel, but for foreign visitors was closer to a radical departure from custom. Sir Charles Rivers Wilson was among officials of the Royal Mint who visited Philadelphia in 1852. His comments, although brief add to Peale's decision to hire women.

I cannot omit a reference to the very excellent remarks of the chief coiner, Mr. Peale, on the employment of females in some of the operations in his department. This, he informed me, had generally excited surprise of, and been commented upon, by foreigners, who had visited the Mint. His experience, however, had led him to believe that in places of trust, where no great physical exertion was called for, but where accuracy and strict integrity were of first importance, the moral perceptions of the female, which are generally stronger and of a higher standard than in the man, would qualify her as his substitute, and thus, while opening a new field of labor for the occupation of females, would strengthen their claims to it by the superior accuracy and economy of their work.128

Additional descriptions published in early 1853 indicate that women were still limited to adjusting planchets.129 Franklin Peale was fired from his mint position in January 1854 and the continuation of female employment indicating that the practice had been accepted at least by that date. It is not until the October 1861 issue of Harper's Magazine that we have an illustration, above, showing women working at coining presses. The description casually mentions women operating the presses, suggesting that by 1861 this was not an innovation.

By 1861 women were also described as operating the upsetting machines, although only men are shown in contemporary engravings.

The example set by the U.S. Mint in hiring women was followed by the Treasury Department after its first issue of paper currency during the Civil War. Women were employed to inspect and count printed sheets before they were cut into individual bills. As paper currency use expanded, and gradually supplanted gold coin in circulation, the numbers of women inspectors and sheet counters increased. But it was not until the late 1870s that employment of women expanded to include clerk and secretarial positions at the Mints or Treasury.

121 U.S. Senate. Report on the Condition of Woman and Child Wage-Earners in the United States. Vol. IX: History of Women in Industry in the United States, by Helen L. Sumner, 1910.
122 Mary Robinson Sive, "American Women at Work in the Nineteenth Century,"
http://historicaltextarchive.com/index.php. Accessed December 6, 2012.
123 A planchet is a flat metal disc of the correct coin weight, but slightly smaller in diameter. When it is pressed between coinage dies the result is a normal coin.
124 Adjusters were called "sizers" at the Royal Mint in London.
125 Virginia Penny, The Employments of Women, Boston, 1863. p.61-62.
126 Alice B. Neal, "Employment of Women in Cities: The Mint Coin Adjusters." Godey's Lady's Book, July 1852, 125—129. The author's real name was Emily Bradley [Neal/Haven] who married publisher Joseph C. Neal but was widowed in 1847 at age
nineteen. She assumed control of the "Saturday Gazette" publishing company and maintained it for the next six years.
127 Alice B. Neal, "Employment of Women in Cities: The Mint Coin Adjusters." Godey's Lady's Book, July 1852, 125—29.
128 Wilson, 1853. Civil Engineer, p.410.
129 See: "The Way Coins Are Made: A Rare Visit to The United States Mint," Philadelphia Dispatch, January 30, 1853. From the scrapbook of John McAllister Jr., provided by Richard Johnson.