The E-Sylum:  Volume 8, Number 46, October 30, 2005, Article 9


Dick Johnson offers another perspective on mintage figures.
He writes: "Coins were set aside immediately after striking at
each U.S. mint for assay, and particularly so, for the Trial of
the Pyx conducted by the annual Assay Commission at the
Philadelphia Mint each year. These coins were chosen prior
to the next step of counting and bagging. Which brings to
mind the technology of counting coins.

Prior to the 20th century, coins at every mint were counted
by "counting boards." These are illustrated in A.M. Smith
(page 22 in my 1885 edition) and in Denis Cooper (page
208, illus 227). Even such a rudimentary contraption as a
counting board was effective for the job they performed
but evolved over time.

The earliest ones had the required number of circular
depressions in a flat board – slightly larger than the diameter
of the coins being counted but of equal depth as the coin was
thick. The coins would easily fall into these openings, but a
second one would not. They required a different board for
each denomination. Coins were dumped on these and spread
around by hand until they filled every depression. Excess coins
were returned to the hopper from which they came.

Later models had channels built into the board the width of
the coin. Even later ones had brass rails the thickness of the
coin to create these channels. The board was supported on
the underside in the center by an horizontal axle, much like
a teeter totter. Coins would be spread over the channels on
the top side, then tilted toward one worker to allow excess
coins to fall back into the hopper. After visual inspection that
all channels were full they would tip the board in the opposite
direction for the coins to fall out of the channels.

The counted coins were then funneled into cloth bags. One
report states 400 coins could be counted in 12 seconds by
two men, one dumping and spreading the coins, one pouring
counted coins into a bag and tying it off. [Try doing this
repetitive job for nine hours a day! Makes sitting at a computer
writing this a dream by comparison!]

At the end of the 19th century it became more difficult for
this manual operation to keep up with coining presses chunking
out many thousands of coins an hour. A more mechanical
method was needed. The first mechanical coin counting
machines were developed in England by Maudslay, Sons,
and Field and installed in the British Royal Mint in 1891.
The Brits had their own term for these machines, "automatic
telling machines."

The U.S. Mint installed similar machines for the new Third
Mint at 16th & Spring Garden Streets in Philadelphia when
it opened in 1904. Of great interest, my film associate Michael
Craven, when researching U.S. mint images, discovered a
very rare film in the Eastman archives. It was filmed by a
Thomas Edison Company crew inside the U.S. Mint at

I believe the year was 1913, and one segment shows $20
gold coins being counted on a counting board in just such
a manner as I described above. Whether these mint workmen
pulled out an old counting board just to show off for the
filming, we may never know. The mint did have counting
machines by then.

So to answer Rich Kelly and Nancy Oliver’s specific question
in last week’s E-Sylum: assay coins were probably not counted
in mintage reports, such mintage reports were probably derived
from the records of the coin counting. The San Francisco Mint
probably got their coin counters shortly after these were
installed at Philadelphia.

Counters installed on each coining presses was a later
sophistication. This would give a true number of pieces struck,
but would include rejects pulled out by inspectors (can you say
"mint errors" collectors?). With increased volume of coins
produced, inspection ceased during the Second World War.
I doubt press counter numbers were ever used in official mintage
reports. The number bagged for shipping was a far more meaningful

Would someone else care to give a history of the Trial of the Pyx,
the American Assay Commission and the reason for assaying of
American coins? This person should be a Democrat who can
justify Jimmy Carter in 1977 killing this 200-year old institution
of numismatic interest. Comments from a Republican numismatist,
I fear, would be incendiary."

[Now, now, let's not drag politics into this. But it was certainly
unfortunate that this ancient tradition was broken in the U.S.

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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