Thursday, March 7, 2024

On This Day in the Old West: March 8

Today we’re talking about something near and dear to most everyone’s heart: money! Specifically coins and how they are made. On March 8, 1838, the New Orleans Mint began operations. They started with an order for dimes, but later produced all sorts of coins. Let’s take a closer look at a mint and how it works.

The New Orleans Mint operated from 1838 to 1861, then from 1879 to 1909 after the Civil War. During that time, it produced over 427 million gold and silver coins of nearly every American denomination, with a total face value of over 307 million US dollars. Some of the coins produced at this mint included silver three-cent pieces (1851 only), half-dimes, dimes, quarters, half dollars, silver dollars, gold dollars, $2.50 quarter-eagles, three-dollar pieces, five-dollar half-eagles, ten dollar eagles, and twenty dollar double eagles.

The first step in the coin-making process is to design the coin. A sculptor (or sculptress) first creates the design with a sketch, then a three-dimensional model in clay. This model is then transferred onto a metal stamp, called a die. The die is what stamps the design onto the coins. Most coins start out as huge rolls of metal, like giant rolls of wrapping paper. Round discs are punched out of these sheets. These are called blanks and are heated to make them softer and easier to work. The blanks are washed, then run through a machine that squeezes them so that the sides push up, making the characteristic coin rims. The coin press then uses the special die to stamp the coin design onto each blank. Mint employees then inspect each coin for flaws before they are counted, weighed, and bagged to be sent all over the country. Each coin will last around thirty years in circulation before it becomes too worn to use further. The coins are then retired and melted down so the metal can be used for other things.

Many interesting characters served at the New Orleans Mint during its early years of operation. One such personage was John Leonard Riddell, who served as melter and refiner at the Mint from 1839 to 1848. Outside of this job, he pursued interests in botany, medicine, chemistry, geology, and physics. Riddell invented the binocular microscope and wrote on numismatics, publishing a book in 1845 titled Monograph of the Silver Dollar, Good and Bad, Illustrated with Facsimile Figures. Two years later, an article by Riddell appeared in DeBow’s Review. This was called “The Mint at New Orleans—Processes Pursued of Working the Precious Metals—Statistics of Coinage, etc.” John Riddell, however, was not held in high esteem by everyone he knew. His conflicts with other Mint employees were well-documented, and at one point he was accused of being unable to properly conduct a gold melt.

Your characters, while probably not familiar with the inner workings of a mint, would certainly have been familiar with the products of that factory, and would have probably preferred the solid clink of coin over the sometimes-unreliable paper bills. It might be interesting to look into some of those more interesting coins in depth, to see if your character might have carried around a three-cent or three-dollar piece, or even a half-dime (and no, this was not just a nickname for a nickel). Looks like a ”mint” condition 1853 half-dime might net you as much as $24,000 today! Too bad your character couldn’t stash one or two away for you.


J.E.S. Hays


  1. Ah, yes. Money and its production is so fascinating to me. We have a "Money Museum" here in town run by the ANA and I visit as often as I can. Doris