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The E-Sylum:  Volume 9, Number 9, February 26, 2006, Article 15

HOW MUSEUMS HANDLE DIES: THE SCOVILL DIE EXPERIENCE

Dick Johnson writes: "Katie Jaeger’s experience related in
last week’s E-Sylum at New-York Historical Society finding
a box of dies in their archives, and handling these, reminds
me of similar experiences with dies in museums. I have handled
dies since 1966 when I was hired by Medallic Art Co. These
ranged from 1/2-inch emblem dies to massive 8-inch monster
open face dies capable of striking 6-inch medals.

Medallic Art Company had the policy of never discarding a
useable die, nor giving it to the customer (it remained in
the company’s die vault in case it was later reused, which
frequently occurred for award medals). The earliest MAco die
I found dated back to 1909. A numbering system I devised for
the archive medals was also applied to the dies, all were
renumbered with this same archive number (it was punched or
painted or both on the die). Thus I had my hands on many dies
for the decade I worked for the firm.

In my retirement I researched the tokens and medals issued
by Scovill Manufacturing of Waterbury. I arrived 14 years
too late, however. I learned the dies had all been dispersed.
Scovill had ceased operation in 1960, ownership passed to
Waterbury Companies; the Scovill dies were transferred in
1961. Some machinery was donated to the Mattatuck Museum in
Waterbury, all paper records were donated to the Baker Business
Library, Harvard University, Boston. Neither wanted such a
large quantity of dies however.

A museum consultant was called in, Bruce S. Bazelon, registrar
at Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.
Among the 15,000 dies, he determined 2,044 dies had historical
significance. By November 1982 he had donated these historical
dies to 18 museums, all selected by geography or topical interest.
Albany Institute got all New York state dies, for example. A
Pennsylvania railroad museum got all the railroad related dies.
The chore for me, then, was to visit these museums to examine
these dies.

Most Scovill dies were button dies, of course, since Scovill
was noted for button manufacturing for over 150 years. I learned
a great deal from handling these dies. I learned, for example,
19th century die blanks were made by "die forgers." Before there
was a specialty iron and steel industry in America, die blanks
were made by brawny men who treated the iron much like blacksmiths,
or more precisely, like sword makers, folding it over and over,
annealing it, hammering it, heat treating it, to harden the iron
(to prevent or retard "sinking" during prolonged striking).

Scovill required the die forgers to sign the die blanks (since
they ordered these from die forgers all over New England, I’m
certain they wanted to know whose die blanks worked best, whose
dies didn’t sink). "O.J. Brown" made more of these die blanks
for Scovill than anyone else. He signed these on the side with
a large lettered punch.

At every museum – and this is the funny part – the curators made
me wear those damn white gloves. After handling thousands of dies
before (some greasy, some rusty, most dirty), I now had to treat
them like jewels! I got the curators to compromise however; I only
wore a white glove on my left hand to handle the dies, leaving my
right hand free to record my notes.

Every numismatist, every collector – it is my earnest recommendation!
– should own a matched pair of dies. Only then will every person
understand die technology, how they create our beloved coins, medals
and tokens."

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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