A Project of the Robert H. Gore, Jr. Numismatic Endowment
University of Notre Dame, Department of Special Collections
by Louis Jordan

Images Coordinated by
James C. Spilman and the Colonial Newsletter Foundation

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FAQ: How Coins Were Minted in Colonial Times

A good book to check is Denis Cooper, The Art and Craft of Coinmaking, 1988. It should be in most libraries or available through interlibrary loan. There is also an exceptional series of articles covering all aspects of the production of Confederation era coppers by James Spilman in The Colonial Newsletter starting in vol. 21 no. 1 (April 1982) serial no. 62 and continuing through vol. 22, no. 1 (March 1983) serial no. 64.

Several people were involved in making coins. The real specialist was the silversmith or goldsmith. This was a person who knew how to work with metal. He could make a large hardened steel cylinder and cut (that is, engrave) an inverse or mirror image into one end of the cylinder turing it into a die. The main design was usually cut into the steel while the letters were added with specialized engraving tools called punches. There would be one die with an inverse copy of the obverse coin image and another die with an inverse image of the reverse coin design. This was the most difficult and time consuming part of the coining operation. The silversmith would also assay the silver or gold used in the coin process. This means they would take out the impurities until the metal met a predetermined fineness. In the production of coppers there was no need to assay the individual sheets of copper used to produce blanks, but individuals would often assay a stock of copper before it was purchased to make sure it was pure enough to produce good quality coins.

Workers would roll out the metal into strips from which blanks were cut out. These blanks are often referred to as planchets or flans. Basically one would use a cookie cutter to punch out the blank metal disks. During the Confederation period, when large quantities of coppers were being produced, the blanks would be placed in a tumbler so the sharp edges could be smoothed out. After smoothing the metal disks were sent to the press room where the coins were minted. At the mint the blank disks would be placed on a lower stable, anvil die, then an upper, hammer die would strike the blank with a great force impressing the engraved images from the dies into the blank producing a coin.

In the most primitive situations a laborer could strike the top die with a hammer forcing the images on the disk. Large scale production usually required the use of a minting press. Two or three laborers would actually stamped out the coins. A pressman would insert an obverse and a reverse die into the central shaft of a press. He would then place a blank planchet on the stabilized bottom die. Two laborers would then pull or swing the lever very hard so that the upper die came down with such force that the images incised into the upper and lower die were simultaneously impressed into the blank transforming it into a coin.