1792 Half Disme -- Significant and Historically Important -- The First Documented Issue of the United States1792 H10C Half Disme, Judd-7, Pollock-7, R.4, MS63 NGC. In July of 1792 high-ranking members of the United States government began to leave Philadelphia and its stifling summer heat. On July 11, President George Washington left the temporary capital at Philadelphia and began the journey to Mount Vernon, his estate on the Potomac River. Two days later, Thomas Jefferson left Philadelphia for Monticello. During that spring the two men were instrumental in the production of the first documented coins of the United States Mint: Washington as depositor of the metal, and Jefferson through his post as Secretary of State, the department that was eventually charged with Mint oversight. The day before the president's departure Jefferson noted in his personal memoranda book that he delivered "75D" to the Mint to be coined. Two days later, in the notation directly preceding his own departure for Virginia, Jefferson took delivery of "1,500 half dismes of the new coinage." Perhaps the small bag of coins was presented to the president on October 1, 1792 when Jefferson stopped at Mount Vernon on his return trip to Philadelphia.
The Washington pedigree of these small coins has been the subject of a significant amount of numismatic debate, much of it of the "George Washington slept here" variety. In a 2004 article in the American Journal of Numismatics authors Joel J. Orosz and Carl R. Herkowitz established a chronological framework for this issue. Most importantly, they confirm the main points of the 1844-dated John McAllister memoranda on the subject, the source of the Washington pedigree.
On April 5, 1844 John McAllister--prominent Philadelphia businessman, numismatist and antiquarian--strode past the visitor logbook at the United States Mint in Philadelphia. He was accompanied by Adam Eckfeldt, and neither signed the book. Eckfeldt had first been hired as a Mint employee in 1792 and retired as its Chief Coiner in 1839. Five years after his retirement Eckfeldt still came to work each day and the Mint provided him an office from which to volunteer. McAllister and Eckfeldt sat in that office, and discussed history:
In conversation with Mr. Adam Eckfeldt (Apr 5, 1844) at the mint, he informed me that the Half Dismes... were struck, expressly for Gen. Washington, to the extent of $100, which sum he deposited in Bullion or Coin, for the purpose...No more of them were ever coined.
McAllister's account went through two drafts according to a June 1996 The Numismatist article by Herkowitz, and recent scholarship demonstrates that the memorandum holds up to historical scrutiny. Eckfeldt's claim that Washington deposited $100, and Jefferson's claim that he delivered "75D" to the mint, is within reason given the amount of silver that might have reasonably been left over in making planchets. Close scrutiny of the major points of Eckfeldt's testimony in McAllister's memorandum show that the main goal was accuracy, not hype.
On April 2, 1792 Congress passed the Mint Act establishing the protocols and specifications for the new currency. Washington and Jefferson wasted little time in getting operations started. Washington persuaded David Rittenhouse--the noted 18th intellectual, astronomer, and instrument maker--to accept the Mint directorship by the end April. Though Rittenhouse was initially reluctant to take the job, he quickly applied his curious and scientific mind to the task at hand. By July he purchased a city lot and workmen began to busily lay bricks and hew beams. He found the necessary machinery and had it installed in the coach house and cellar of the saw maker John Harper, a man who also dabbled in private minting. Finally, Rittenhouse hired Henry Voigt, a Philadelphia clock maker, to act as Chief Coiner. All the Mint needed was bullion.
The Mint Act made provision for deposit and coining of precious metal, but in 1792 only one person was forthcoming. According to the research of Orosz and Herkowitz, at some time during the final days of spring 1792, $100 in "Bullion or Coin" arrived at the temporary Mint in the Cellar of Cherry and 6th Street. It belonged to His Excellency, George Washington.
Orosz and Herkowitz suggest that the silver came in the form of various circulating foreign silver coins. They cite specific gravity tests of two coins that gave an average fineness of .815, and go on to note that: "There were... a number of foreign coins in circulation in the new republic during the early 1790s which, if presented in a miscellaneous lot, could average out to approximately .815 fine." Popular legend has long held that various Washington silver objects--one mid-19th century account suggests Martha Washington's table knives--were melted to provide silver for the half dismes. A bag of worn silver coins is certainly less romantic than Washington's own tableware. And it can easily be contended that the correct mixture of non-sterling silverware, the most common type, could also produce a fineness of .815. Remember that McAllister, a credible reporter, cites Eckfeldt, a credible witness, as to the deposit of "Bullion or Coin." If there was doubt, McAllister could have used the catchall "bullion." The Oxford English Dictionary lists three numismatic uses of the word "coin" that all have to do with stamped metal disks of an established value; bullion has five numismatic meanings, and these refer to a wide range of metallic forms.
Like other 18th century Virginians, George Washington's wealth was in the land, and his income was derived from the products of that land. He sold many of his products in foreign markets. Rather than take the income in cash, Washington, like his contemporaries, used the bank balances to buy English, French, and other European products that satisfied the high tastes of a Virginia country squire. The vast majority of silver at Mount Vernon was in decorative, not coin form. Lest the reader be concerned, Martha was not eating off of wooden bowls so George could have his new coins. As 18th century silversmith ledgers attest, unused, unwanted, or out-of-style pieces were often reworked. And it is certainly possible that a portion of the silver in the 1792 half dismes came from such pieces. One thing is certain: given that the statutory requirement for silver coins was .8924 fine, the 1792 Mint's ability to assay was not very good.
One man could easily have carried the silver--a little under six pounds--the short distance from the president's residence on High Street to the Harper Cellar at Cherry and 6th. Orosz and Herkowitz estimate that $75 of the silver was processed into blanks, leaving $25 as scissel. (Scissel is the metal left over after planchets are cut from a sheet). But Rittenhouse and Voigt had no authority to mint coins. Voigt had yet to post his $10,000 bond and Rittenhouse would not sign his oath of office until July 1. And yet it appears that they had 1,500 planchets that were, according to the Mint Act, the personal property of George Washington. For safekeeping the blanks were placed under Jefferson's watchful eye.
On July 9, 1792, Mint Director Rittenhouse sent a letter to the president to inform him of a need for small coinage, his purchase of real estate and machinery, and the status of Mr. Voigt and the workmen in "preparing the dies." Washington forwarded the letter to Jefferson. Jefferson forwarded two variant replies back to Washington. And Washington, that afternoon, let Rittenhouse know that: "I hereby proclaim my approbation... (for) proceeding to coin the cents, and half-cents of copper; and dismes and half-dismes of silver." With presidential permission granted, on July 11, 1792, as Washington left the city, Thomas Jefferson personally delivered the 1,500 previously prepared blanks to the temporary basement Mint. Two days later, on July 13, Jefferson took delivery of the finished coins. And then he too left the crowded and hot city of Philadelphia for his mountaintop Virginia retreat.
We can only assume that Jefferson examined the coins that day. And it is likely that the design was not a complete surprise to him. However, we know very little about the design process. It is virtually certain that the 1792 half dismes share a designer with the 1792 Birch cents. The case for the connection is strong, and generally accepted. The identity of Birch is not as clear. Carl W.A. Carlson in the March 1982 The Numismatist suggests that he is William Russell Birch, the London engraver and miniaturist. Birch did not immigrate to the United States until 1794. Carlson posits that Birch visited the United States for about nine months in 1792 before returning to England and immigrating with his family in 1794. As evidence he points to the banknote engraver William Harrison, Sr. who made just such a there-and-back-and-there-again trip in the years 1792-1794.
In Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's report of 1791 on the establishment of a mint he states that: "The devices of the coins are far from being matters of indifference, as they may be made vehicles of useful impressions. They ought, therefore, to be emblematical, but without losing sight of simplicity." There was much debate just what these impressions should be. The earliest legislation for the Mint required, "an impression or representation of the head of the President" on all coins. This proved controversial--especially we are told, to the president who held very anti-monarchical views--and was later revised to provide for an, "impression emblematic of Liberty..."
Such an impression was certainly in the creative realm of allegorical 18th century Neoclassical artists. Liberty on the half disme is an older woman, whose long curly hair lacks volume, with a few locks curling attractively around her neck. She is similar to the bust on the G*W.P.T cent. Birch's only modification is slight delineation of the cheekbone and a small tick below her lips that gives her a faint double chin. Folklore attributes these changes to a desire to model the portrait on Martha Washington. Norton's Literary Letter in 1857 states that, "The profile on the obverse is supposed to have been modeled on Lady Washington." It is true that contemporary portraits by Charles Wilson Peale, James Peale, and Gilbert Stuart suggest a slight resemblance of Liberty to the First Lady. The historian Henry Wiencek observes in his book Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America that Martha Washington, for all her virtues was a rather plain-looking woman. The image of Liberty looks like many older women of the period. Given her husband's distaste for portraits on coins, and the lack of documentation, the portrait is almost certainly not related to Martha Washington.
John Ward Dunsmore's famous 1914 painting of Washington reviewing the first coins of the new United States Mint is a romantic but misleading view of history. Washington may never have set foot in the Cherry Street Cellar; Eckfeldt almost certainly would have remembered such a visit and mentioned it to McAllister. The event probably occurred at Mount Vernon around October 1, 1792, and probably without great ceremony. Washington certainly received the coins by November 6, when he told Congress of the "small beginning in the coinage of half-dismes."
Whether the coins circulated is a matter of some debate. Orosz and Herkowitz contend, rightfully, that the presence of so many circulated examples suggests circulation, but that the overall survival rate is evidence of presentation. Eckfeldt told McAllister that the coins "Were never designed as currency." But he could not know what Washington chose to do with his coins, though his hunch that, "Some were sent to Europe, but the greater number... were given to friends of Gen. W. in Virginia," seems likely. Circulation and presentation are not mutually exclusive: Washington may have intended the majority of the coins to circulate, but people receiving them from the General may have decided to save their examples. A personal memento from Washington was worth a half disme to recipients.
The present coin was almost certainly a cherished example. Its surfaces are silver-gray with nice underlying luster and some mottled deep golden and violet toning. A few small planchet flaws, as often seen on these coins, are noted in the upper right of the obverse. Some adjustment marks, as struck, are seen on Liberty's cheek. A tiny spot of verdigris in the lower loop of the B in LIB might serve in the future are an identifying mark. This is a truly superb example of this historic coin. Only four other pieces have been graded MS63 by the two major services. Just 13 coins have been graded higher by PCGS and NGC combined (6/05). It is rare to have an opportunity to acquire such a well-preserved example of a coin so closely connected with the history of the United States Mint and two founding fathers--George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.(Registry values: P9) (NGC ID# D93T, PCGS# 11020)
Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.
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