United States Mint
This is no mere nickel-and-dime operation. The Philadelphia Mint has the capacity to produce 1.8 million coins an hour, 32 million coins per day, and 13.5 billion coins every year.
E Pluribus Unum. This motto is found on all United States coinage. It means "out of many, one," indicating that the United States is just that — a united confederacy comprising several states, each with its own laws. But, should each mint its own coins?
The First Mint: Who Will Make The Money?
The United States' first mint — indeed the first structure sanctioned by the United States government — was erected in 1792, just two blocks from the present site. Many citizens of the new nation were deeply suspicious of federal power. They were accustomed to using coins issued by their own state banks, along with various forms of foreign currency. The suggestion of a single federal mint producing a uniform coinage was disturbing.
A coalition championed by adamant federalist Alexander Hamilton prevailed in these debates. The result was both the First Bank of the United States and a United States Mint.
The First Mint was completed in the fall of 1792 in the capital city of Philadelphia. As a new capital city was being built along the banks of the Potomac, it was expected that the Mint would move there. Yet in 1800, when Washington, D.C., was ready, the government did not have the money to replace what was already an efficient operation. An Act of Congress in 1828 ensured that the Mint would remain permanently in Philadelphia.
The First Mint Needs Silver...
The metal used to strike the first coins at the Mint came from the silver in George Washington's household goods. Washington keenly wanted the Mint to succeed. At the current site, you can view a painting by John Dunsmore, titled "First Coinage Inspection." The painting shows a seated Martha Washington surrounded by the President, Harry Voigt (who would become the first Chief Coiner), future President Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, David Rittenhouse, the Mint's first director, and a few others. Martha is poised to inspect the first coins minted.
Credit for the success of the Mint belongs in great part to David Rittenhouse. In Philadelphia today, his name graces the city's most fashionable address — Rittenhouse Square, about a mile west of the Historic District. Like Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram (see Bartram's Gardens in this Virtual Tour), he was one of those extraordinary men of early Philadelphia with diverse interests who made manifold contributions: he was a clockmaker, philosopher, surveyor, mathematician, politician and astronomer; he determined the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland long before Mason and Dixon; many credit him with having built the first telescope made in the United States; he constructed an orrery, a device familiar mostly to astronomers and crossword solvers — it's a clocklike mechanism that describes the position of the planets as they orbit the sun; and, he was director of the Mint for its crucial first three years.
The Second Mint: Need More Space
By the late 1820s the original Mint lacked the space and capacity to keep up with the demand for coinage. A new Mint designed in the classic style favored by the federal government of Andrew Jackson's era was finished in 1833. It was located on Broad Street, about a half mile west of its current location.
The Third Mint: A Roman Temple
Again, a larger Mint was needed. The third Mint, built in 1901, still stands (it now houses the Community College of Philadelphia). It is a block long and has a Roman temple's facade. Marble is ubiquitous. Massive Ionic columns lead to a lobby with vaulted ceilings which were bejeweled with seven Tiffany glass mosaics. The mosaics depicted ancient Roman methods of coinage. Two of the mosaics are seen today at the current Mint.
The Fourth and Present Mint: What's There Now?
You guessed it! Once more, a larger Mint was needed — but also one with better access to highways and with more sophisticated security.
As a result, the latest Mint lacks the intimacy of the first Mint and the majesty of the second and third edifices. It is white, boxy, and nearly windowless. Upon entering the present Mint, one must place purses, bags, and backpacks on an airport-like conveyor belt for x-ray examination. A sign warns that no videotaping or cameras are allowed. An escalator leads to a long hallway with interior plate-glass windows on one side and a display built into the wall along the other. On your self-guided tour, you look down at the various operations taking place. Signs on the work floor clearly identify the processes — Bonding, Blanking, Annealing, Riddling, Upsetting, Striking, Inspecting, Counting, and Bagging. Flames shoot out from the tops of the annealing furnaces where the coins are heated. Countless shiny dimes pour from coining presses into overflowing containers. Forklifts heavy with copper profiles of Abraham Lincoln plod toward vaults. There are frequent signs telling you not to touch the glass. Nonetheless, kids and adults alike press their noses excitedly onto the window to gasp at the scene below. By pressing buttons along the way, recorded information details what is going on.
On the hallway's other wall is a history of United States Mints and an exhibition featuring the nearly 300 people who have been awarded Congressional gold medals (most of which were minted in Philadelphia). The first gold medal was awarded to George Washington. All Presidents and many military heroes have received gold medals, which show a likeness of the recipient. Gold medals have also been awarded to a diverse list of Great Americans, including Jesse Owens, John Wayne, Bob Hope, Marian Anderson, Walt Disney, Jonas Salk, Lady Bird Johnson, Joe Louis, Elie Wiesel, Matthew Perry, Robert Frost, and Harry Chapin.
There is also one for George Foster Robinson, whose story deserves to be told. He was a wounded Civil War soldier assigned to protect Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward (the man who negotiated the purchase of Alaska) in 1865. On the fateful night Lincoln was assassinated, Seward was also targeted for assassination. Lewis Powell broke into the Secretary's quarters and rushed in on the sleeping Seward. Robinson interceded and though stabbed numerous times, managed to thwart the assailant and save Seward's life.
The Philadelphia mint also produces Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts awarded to military heroes.
Now you'll take the down escalator to the mezzanine where you find the David Rittenhouse Room. Exhibited are gold coins including the famed $20 pieces designed by the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. Also on display are early tools and hardware used to make coins and a deed to the original Mint.
Don't leave without seeing Peter, the Mint Eagle. As the story is told by Philadelphia historian John Francis Marion, early in the 19th century Peter adopted the Mint as his home and became a mascot. One day he was perched on a flywheel when it suddenly started. His wing was caught and broken and though tenderly cared for by his Mint mates, he died. Peter was mounted and is still with us today — the spirit of the past in the modern Mint. Some believe that Peter was the model for the eagle on the United States silver dollars (1836-39) and for the Flying Eagle cents (1856-58).There are today four United States mints: Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, and West Point. The bullion depository at Fort Knox is also part of the Mint system.
On October 19, 1995 — a typical day — the mint produced 30 million coins worth about one million dollars.
The Philadelphia facility is the largest mint in the world.
At the original Mint, a lone night watchman armed with a sword, pistol, and watchdog was responsible for security.
George and Martha Washington donated the silver which was used to make the first coins.
Baseball fans will appreciate that the narrator you hear when you press the buttons on the self-guided tour is the voice of the Phillies, Harry Kalas.
Location: 5th and Arch Streets (Map)
Architect: Vincent G. Kling and Associates
Style: Modern monolith (this author's opinion)
Tourism information: 9am-3pm Mo-Fr, excluding Federal holidays. If the Department of Homeland Security level is elevated to CODE ORANGE, the United States Mint at Philadelphia will be CLOSED to the public unless otherwise noted. The United States Mint reserves the right to deny access to anyone at any time; in addition, members of the general public wishing to tour the facility may be subject to search by the United States Mint Police. NO CAMERAS ALLOWED INSIDE.
Official website: www.usmint.gov/mint_tours/index.cfm?action=philadelphia