New Orleans Mint, United States
The New Orleans Mint operated in New Orleans, Louisiana, as a branch mint of the United States Mint from 1838 to 1861 and from 1879 to 1909. During its years of operation, it produced over 427 million gold and silver coins of nearly every American denomination, with a total face value of over US$307 million. It was closed during most of the American Civil War and Reconstruction.
After its decommissioning as a mint, the building served a variety of purposes, including as an assay office, a United States Coast Guard storage facility and a fallout shelter. Since 1981 it has served as a branch of the Louisiana State Museum. Damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, after over two years of closure for repair and renovation, the museum reopened in October 2007.
The New Orleans Mint has been designated a National Historic Landmark, and is currently the oldest surviving structure to have served as a U.S. Mint. Along with the Charlotte Mint, it is one of two former mint facilities in the United States to house an art gallery.
Antebellum period, 1835 - 1861
The city of New Orleans, Louisiana has been an important commercial center since it was founded in 1718 along the banks of the Mississippi River, near the Gulf of Mexico. This fact was reinforced when the U.S. Federal Government established a branch mint there on March 3, 1835, along with two other Southern branch mints at Charlotte, North Carolina and Dahlonega, Georgia. Such action was deemed necessary for many reasons. For one, in 1832 President Andrew Jackson had vetoed a rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States, an institution which he felt extended credit to northeastern commercial tycoons at the expense of the ordinary frontiersmen of the Old Southwest, a region with which Jackson, a Tennessean, strongly identified. Second, in 1836 Jackson had issued an executive order called the Specie Circular which demanded that all land transactions in the United States be conducted in cash. Both of these actions, combined with the economic depression following the Panic of 1837 (caused partly by Jackson's fiscal policies) increased the domestic need for minted money.
New Orleans' strategic location along the Mississippi River made it a magnet for commercial activity. Large quantities of gold from Mexico also passed through its port annually. In the early 19th century, New Orleans, which was the fifth-largest city in the United States until the Civil War, In contrast to the other two Southern branch mints, which only minted gold coinage, the New Orleans Mint produced both gold and silver coins, which arguably marked it as the most important branch mint in the country.
The Mint's location occupies a prominent place in civic history. It sits at the northeastern edge of the French Quarter, which used to be the entire city, or Vieux Carré, of New Orleans. Under French and Spanish rule the area was home to the defenses of the city. In 1792, the Spanish governor François Louis Hector, Baron de Carondelet, erected Fort San Carlos (later Fort St. Charles) there. The fort was demolished in 1821 and the nearby area named Jackson Square in honor of Andrew Jackson. As a general in the United States Army, Jackson had saved the city from invading British forces on January 8, 1815, in the famous Battle of New Orleans, the last battle of the War of 1812.
Design and construction
The Mint building, which was constructed in red brick, was designed by architect William Strickland in the Greek Revival style, like most 19th-century public buildings in the United States.
On the north façade the mint building features a central projecting Ionic portico supported by four monumental columns that are flanked at the ends by square pillars. The top of the portico contains a simple entablature, crowned by a flat roof in front of a simple, unadorned pediment. This entrance, which sits on top of a basement story, fronts the rectangular central core of the facility and is flanked by two large wings of multiple bays of rectangular windows. These wings wrap around the central rectangular core to form a "W" shaped structure with two square courtyards at the rear. Balconies framed by iron railings and posts adorn the sections of the building's south façade that adjoin the courtyards. Architectural historian Talbot Hamlin described it thus: "it has those graceful, original proportions so characteristic of Strickland's work. Even today
On the interior, Strickland placed the grand staircase that connects the three levels immediately behind the portico in the central core of the structure. The floor system is composed of fired-clay jack arches supported on steel I-beams, a common feature of warehouses and other long-span structures. On the second floor, many of the larger rooms, which were used for coining and melting, contain ceilings with beautiful high arches supported by the walls and freestanding piers. The smaller rectangular rooms on the second level (and the basement), such as the former superintendent's office, also contain these arched ceilings with a single groin vault. The basement formerly contained the boilers inside a brick cage, but now contain museum exhibits devoted to the minting processes as well as the Coin Vault at the Mint, a coin shop.
Structural problems and repairs
Strickland did not take into account the swampy lowland and high water table that characterizes the terrain around New Orleans, and so during its career the New Orleans Mint building has encountered numerous structural problems from the shifting soil beneath its foundation.
Less than two years later, Beauregard would rise to national fame as the Confederate general who ordered the April 1861 assault on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, South Carolina, thus beginning the American Civil War. It was during the war that Beauregard would secure his place in American history as one of the Confederacy's most capable generals.
Early coining operations
Like any other mint the New Orleans Mint was a factory to make coins. Operations at the New Orleans Mint began on March 8, 1838, with the deposit of the first Mexican gold bullion. The first coins, 30 dimes, were struck on May 7. It produced many different denominations of coins in its first tour of duty, all of which were either silver or gold: silver three-cent pieces, half dimes, dimes, quarters, half dollars, silver dollars, gold dollars, $2.50 quarter eagles, three-dollar pieces, $5 half-eagles, $10 eagles, and $20 double eagles.
Many interesting characters served at the Mint during the early years of operation. One was John Leonard Riddell, who served as melter and refiner at the Mint from 1839 to 1848, and, outside of his job, pursued interests in botany, medicine, chemistry, geology, and physics. He invented the binocular microscope. He also wrote on numismatics, publishing in 1845 a book entitled Monograph of the Silver Dollar, Good and Bad, Illustrated With Facsimile Figures, and two years later an article by him appeared in DeBow's Review called "The Mint At New Orleans - Processes Pursued of Working the Precious Metals - Statistics of Coinage, etc." Riddell was not held in high esteem by everyone, however: 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.
Throughout the 19th century the New Orleans Mint was frequently featured in magazines, newspapers and other print publications. Articles discussing and images picturing the Mint, in addition to the one by Riddell noted above, were featured in Ballou's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, published in Boston, and the widely-circulated Harper's Weekly.
Civil War and recommissioning, 1861 - 79
Secession and rebel seizure
The New Orleans Mint operated continuously from 1838 until January 26, 1861, when Louisiana seceded from the United States. On January 29, the Secession Convention reconvened at New Orleans (it had earlier met in Baton Rouge) and passed an ordinance that allowed Federal employees to remain in their posts, but as employees of the state of Louisiana. In March, Louisiana accepted the Confederate States Constitution, and the Confederate government retained all the mint officers. After that, the mint was used for quartering Confederate troops until it was recaptured along with the rest of the city the following year largely by Union naval forces under the command of admiral David G. Farragut.
Occupation by Union forces
For many Southern sympathizers, the Mint soon became a symbol of their hatred for the Union occupation. After U.S. Marines under Farragut had raised the U.S. flag on the roof of the Mint in April 1862, a professional steamboat gambler named William B. Mumford ascended the roof and tore the flag down. He ripped the banner into shreds, and defiantly stuffed pieces of it into his shirt to wear as souvenirs. Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler, the military governor of New Orleans (who was soon to be derisively nicknamed "Spoons" for allegedly pocketing the silverware of New Orleans citizens arrested for treason against the United States), ordered Mumford executed in retaliation. And so, Mumford was hanged from a flagstaff projecting horizontally from the building on June 7, 1862. Mumford's hanging made national headlines. Jefferson Davis demanded that Butler immediately be executed if captured.
The mint reopened as an assay office in 1876. Its machinery was evidently damaged during the war, but because of its importance, unlike the mints at Charlotte and Dahlonega, in 1877 U.S. Mint agent James R. Snowden asked the superintendent of the office, Dr. M. F. Bonzano, to report on the condition of the facility for minting. Upon receipt of Bonzano's report, new minting equipment was shipped to New Orleans. The building was refurbished and put back into active minting service in 1879, producing mainly silver coinage, including the famed Morgan silver dollar from 1879 to 1904.
A second chance, 1879 - 1909
New Orleans coinage
The refurbishment and recommissioning of the New Orleans Mint was due partly to the fact that in 1878 the Federal government in Washington, D.C. had passed the Bland-Allison Act, which mandated the purchase and coining of a large quantity of silver yearly. The Treasury Department needed additional facilities to do so. It reopened the New Orleans facility primarily to coin large quantities of silver dollars, most of which were simply stored in the building instead of circulated. President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed former Mississippi Senator and governor Henry S. Foote the new superintendent of the mint.
During this second period of operation, the Mint also struck dimes, quarters, half dollars, $5 half eagles, $10 eagles and, in 1879 only, 2,325 double eagles. It should also be noted that the New Orleans Mint was used by the Federal authorities in 1907 to coin over five and a half million silver twenty-centavo pieces for the Mexican government as part of the American government's program of producing foreign coinage. The New Orleans Mint, whose coins can be identified by the "O" mint mark found on the reverse of its coinage, earned a reputation for producing coins of a mediocre quality; their luster is usually not as brilliant as those of other mints, and center areas tend to be flattened and not sharply struck. Thus, well-struck New Orleanian coinage is prized in the numismatic world today.
Men made up the majority of the workers at the mint. They worked such jobs as coiners, melters, pressers, cutters, and rollers. The mint was overseen by a superintendent, who was always male. He was a political appointee whose term usually did not last much longer than the party which held the presidency remained in power.
But it was also during the mint's second tour of duty that women began to find work at the New Orleans Mint. Several women workers were sent from the Philadelphia Mint to teach those in New Orleans how to adjust money. About this time, the mint employed forty-four women. Thirty-nine worked as adjusters - employees who weighed the unstamped coin planchets to make sure they were the proper weight before coining. These women would sit at long narrow tables, filing the planchets down to the proper weight, wearing special aprons with pouches attached to the sleeves and the waist to catch the excess dust. Five women served as counters and packers before the coins were shipped to Washington, D.C. Some women were eventually employed at the coining presses.
The women worked from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily - not long hours - but the working conditions were probably unbearable by modern standards. New Orleans has a warm, wet climate. The process of adjusting, however, required the utmost attention to the scales' balance, and the slightest draft could upset it. The draft could also carry off the silver dust from the coin planchets the women would file. For these reasons the windows and doors were almost always kept shut, resulting in a very hot working environment. Workers relied on water coolers to provide relief from the heat and avoid dehydration. The women mint employees were judged to enjoy better working conditions than many other American women workers in the late nineteenth century.
Odd jobs: the mint in the twentieth century, 1909 - present
By the early twentieth century, the U.S. Treasury had mints operating in New Orleans, Denver, San Francisco, and the main center in Philadelphia, which more than met the demand for minted money. In 1904, the government ceased the minting of the silver dollar, which accounted for the bulk of the coinage the New Orleans branch had been producing since 1879. Despite the facility's years of faithful service, in 1909 Treasury officials halted minting activity in New Orleans by simply refusing to appropriate funds for its operation. At some point, however, the original New Orleans machinery was lost, and, at present, has not been located.
After the mint closed, it performed a variety of functions for the Federal government. It was first downgraded to an assay office for the U.S. Treasury as it had been from 1876 - 79. Then, in 1932, the assay office closed and the building was converted into a Federal prison, in which capacity it served until 1943. The Coast Guard then took over the building as a nominal storage facility, though in truth the structure was largely abandoned and left to decay until it was transferred to the state of Louisiana in 1965. During the Cold War, when many believed there to be a high risk of nuclear war, the old Mint was considered to be the best fallout shelter in the city. The state agreed to save the structure from demolition on condition that it be renovated and converted to some other purpose within fifteen years.
Between 1978 and 1980, the state did just that. The Mint building has functioned since 1981 as a museum of the minting activity. Additional exhibitions housed in the Mint have been devoted to New Orleans Mardi Gras (since moved to the Presbytere building on Jackson Square), jazz music (a large exhibition and additional research materials previously in the New Orleans Jazz Museum was donated to the Museum by the New Orleans Jazz Club), and Newcomb pottery, all of which have contributed to New Orleans' international fame. On the third floor, the Mint also houses an archive of maps and documents, including French and Spanish colonial records. Along with the Cabildo, the Presbytere, The 1850 House, and Madame John's Legacy, it is one of five branches of the Louisiana State Museum in the French Quarter. The Mint is located at 400 Esplanade Ave., close to the Mississippi River.
Hurricane Katrina and aftermath
Prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, like all Louisiana State Museum properties, the Mint was open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., except for state holidays. The building suffered significant roof damage from the hurricane. Water entered the building and came into contact with approximately 3% of the New Orleans Jazz collection, portions of which have been removed and are under restoration and care at Louisiana State University, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the Louisiana State Archives. Weatherproofing the building was complete as of August 2006 and contractors continued working on mold remediation. The entire process of structural restoration has been estimated to take about one year (presumably from September 2005). However, the museum remained closed to the public until October 2007.. The exhibition of mint machinery on the ground floor has reopened as well. The jazz exhibit remains closed, with tentative plans to reopen sometime in 2009.