By Steve Carr
Welcome back. I hope you are ready to take another trip inside the vault of the Smithsonian. In this edition we will discuss the origins of the National Coin Collection housed at the Smithsonian as well as showing off some pictures of one of the beautiful wreath cents from that collection.
Once in Washington, I got settled in and then went to the Smithsonian. Jim Hughes met me at the entrance and we went through all the paper work necessary to give me access to the collection. Jim then gave me a short tour, showing me where everything was located. I also learned what Jim expected from my visits. I set up my photography equipment and started looking at the collection.
My first task was to see just what was there. One whole room was filled with the national bank note proofs, another room housed about 1.5 million Confederate notes, and a third room held the coins and medals. I went to the coin room and started looking at large cents.
The coins were stored in date order on sliding drawers in locked cabinets. Most of the coins were in T.J. Clark storage boxes. These boxes were a popular way to store coin collections until the 1940s, when different types of albums and holders became available for collectors. The Smithsonian, in fact, had thousands of these boxes in storage. Someone, at some time, probably got a great deal on them.
The coins were all identified with a date, an accession number and a donor’s name. The donors were varied, from Presidents Grant and Eisenhower to individual coin donators. Stacks and the Chase Bank of New York also donated many coins. The one dominant name on the donor list, though, was “U.S. Mint.”
Since the early 1800s, the mint started forming a collection of each issued coin for each date. Every type of coin struck from this time on was saved. Earlier coins were obtained when they came to the mint for re-coinage. Starting in 1817, most of the saved coins were proofs. Following is a picture of the first large cent I studied, a 1793 large cent. Nice coin…sure wish I could afford it!
In the 1840s, the mint started trading for coins they did not have. One of the most famous trades was made in 1844, when Joseph Mickley supposedly traded an “Immune Columbia” for an 1804 dollar. The mint collection was first put on display at the mint building in 1838 (when Congress appropriated funds for a collection). When the collection out grew this site in the 1850s, it was moved to the U.S. Patent Office. This is a picture of the Patent Office exhibit hall, where the coins were displayed.
By 1874, the collection had grown to 6,484 coins, both domestic and foreign, and the collection was again housed in the mint itself. The displays were constantly changing (see pictures below) and the collection continued to grow. When the “new” mint was opened in 1902, a special hall for the display of the collection was located near the entry.
In 1905, Thomas Comparette became the first Creator of the Mint Collection. Others had overseen the collection in the past, but only as a part of their regular duties. Comparette wanted to expand the collection and he did so.
By 1916, the collection was even larger and, fearing a robbery at the mint, Treasury officials proposed the transfer of the collection to “the National Collection” (the Smithsonian). The size of the collection (more than 15,000 items), made the issue even more pertinent for mint officials. They now needed extra rooms to store these coins. By the end of the 1910s, mint officials were desperately looking for another home for the collection.
Thomas Comparette died on July 3, 1922. Mint officials, aware that another curator would be difficult to find and knowing that a recent theft at the Denver Mint would require more security, began negotiations with officials at the Smithsonian. Finally, on May 28, 1923, the entire collection was sent from Philadelphia to Washington, DC insured, by registered mail, and accompanied by Secret Service men. All 18,324 items arrived at the Smithsonian the next morning. They form the heart of our national collection.
More next week.
The history of the Mint Collection comes mostly from stories I heard while there and from Clain-Stefanelli, Vladimir, History of the National Numismatic Collections, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968.