1849: The Philadelphia Mint Strikes Gold by Michael F. Moran and Jeff Garrett, Whitman Publishing LLC, 2016, 352 pages $49.95.
Unlike the large inventory of other Whitman books, this is a historical narrative, not a catalog or a price guide. The book does have an Appendix, “Double Eagles 1849 to 1866 in the National Numismatic Collection.” There, you will find images, each with a paragraph supplying some detailed information about varieties or other relevant facts.
The story begins in California, 1847, during the US-Mexican War. The war was over in the west. The United States occupied California. The victorious Brig. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny and Maj. John C. Frémont, saw their work as done; and they left Col. R. B. Mason in charge. He chose Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman as his adjutant general, giving him responsibility and authority not normally granted to a lieutenant. Lieutenants command platoons of 30. Sherman was in charge of a territory the size of a European nation. In the spring of 1848, two men entered Sherman’s office with a large lump of gold.
Sherman conducted an investigation of Fort Sutter, the sawmill where the gold was discovered. He acquired some samples. Returning to San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena), Sherman and Mason bought some more. It was important that the government in Washington understand the situation. Tasked with carrying the proof to the capital was a newly commissioned lieutenant, Lucien Loeser. If silver linings come with clouds, then the gold brought a perfect storm that nearly wrecked the Mint. This is that story.
Moran and Garrett begin at the beginning, with the new republic and the new Mint, both of them barely able to conduct the businesses with which they were charged. In twenty richly detailed chapters, the authors bring the reader to the arrival of Lt. Loeser and his oyster can of gold nuggets. From there, another 14 chapters take the reader to the Civil War. The entire effort, 35 chapters, plus front matter, bibliography and other back pages, delivers a volume of research that promises to be to this generation what Don Taxay’s U.S. Mint and Coinage was to the previous era.
“In the 1840s the Philadelphia Mint was a showplace. The engine room was as clean as a parlor floor, seemingly perfectly noiseless, free from all the hissing, leaks, oily smells, and other nuisances that one would expect when visiting such an operation in those days. Every part of the steam engine was turned with no sharp of abrupt edges, and polished. The journal bearings were supplied with oil by siphon cups that regulated the flow of the lubricating oil that not a drop of excess was seen.
“For the laborers who worked at the Mint, this mechanical beauty made little difference in their day. It started and ended at the sound of a bell rung by the doorkeeper. The men worked 10-hour shifts through the week, except Saturday, when their work ended two hours early. During the warm months, work commenced at six in the morning and ended at four in the afternoon. The men were allowed to bring both their breakfast and their lunch to be eaten in place. From the beginning of October to the end of March, the day started at seven and the men were expected to eat breakfast before starting work. They received three days off without pay during the year—Christmas, the Fourth of July, and Election Day. To operate the Mint took 40 workmen, 2 doorkeepers, and a watchman. Within the operations there were 31 men in the coining department, 8 with the smelter and refiner, and 1 in the assayer’s office. Daily pay ranged from $1.40 to $2.00 for the top skilled mechanics, and $2.50 for the coining department foreman. The men were docked for absences, regardless of the reason and were paid at straight time rates for overtime work. The average daily wage was $1.68. That translated to to annual payment of about $500, assuming there was no lost time.” (Chapter 18: An American Sir Isaac Newton, page 131-132.)
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