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The E-Sylum: Volume 14, Number 17, April 24, 2011, Article 7

BOOK REVIEW: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE FIRST U.S. MINT

Bill Eckberg submitted this review of The Secret History of the First U.S. Mint How Frank H. Stewart Destroyed And Then Saved A National Treasure. Thanks! -Editor

Secret History of the U.S. Mint This much anticipated work by Joel Orosz and Len Augsburger was released just in time for marketing at the Whitman Baltimore show earlier this month. In their introduction, the authors discuss how this began as two separate, much smaller projects that morphed into something far larger and far more complex than either had anticipated. For the reader, it's absolutely worth it. This is a well-told story about American coinage history, art history, early efforts at urban archaeology and one man's dream. At 250 very profusely illustrated 8 x 11" pages, it is crammed with information about Philadelphia businessman Frank Huling Stewart who purchased the property that comprised the first Philadelphia Mint (the one that produced all of the coins minted from late 1792-1835), tried to save some of the buildings, and ultimately had them all demolished to build a larger location for his electrical supply business. Whitman Publishing is to be congratulated for bringing an excellent volume out and at a very reasonable $24.95 cover price.

This is really the story of Stewart (born Steward) more than that of the Mint, and a fascinating story it is. Stewart was a self-made man. From his early life on the family farm to his career in the electrical supply business, to his later community boosting, sport fishing and philanthropic activities, this book tells it all: his motivations for buying the old Mint property and for trying to save it, for demolishing it and for preserving as much of it as he could and donating it for public display. Stewart was first and foremost a businessman and promoter. He painted 1792 "YE OLDE MINT"' in huge letters on the front of the original building and then sold lines of electrical supplies that he called "Old Mint" and "Stewart's Old Mint Gold Standard." The authors do a great job of getting into his head and making him accessible to us.

Part of the story of Stewart's work with the Mint property was told in Stewart's own 1924 book, but Orosz and Augsburger expand greatly on that material, and their efforts correct a number of inadvertent errors that Stewart made. His largest error? The brick building Stewart considered the "Coinage Building" and the first built in 1792 by and for the fledgling US Government was neither used for coinage nor built until 1816, when it replaced an earlier wood frame edifice destroyed by the Mint fire of early 1816. Many collectors are familiar with the painting of the three buildings of "Ye Olde Mint" that Stewart commissioned, but Augsburger and Orosz tell us there were TEN buildings in the early Mint complex and that they were crowded into the middle of an urban block, not the bucolic view from the famous Lamasure painting now on display at the Fourth Mint in Philadelphia. They even have a new, much more accurate and very different view, produced by Pete Smith, of what the Mint buildings really looked like in their actual environment. Rittenhouse, the first Director, apparently picked the site because of its proximity to his own house, but for many reasons well documented in the book, it was inadequate for the government's needs, almost from the beginning. The authors clearly document the complex' expansion over its 40+ years of service, using excellent illustrations.

They also carefully researched the history of the two famous but apocryphal Mint-related paintings Stewart commissioned: Edwin Lamasure's "Ye Olde Mint" and John Dunsmore's "Washington Inspecting the First Money Coined by the United States". Both are now on display at the Philadelphia Mint, but how they got there tells a fascinating pair of stories that I won't spoil for you. The chapters about these paintings had perhaps too much information for my tastes, and I'm an art lover, but I consider any quibble about too much information to be very minor, indeed.

Stewart saved as much as he could from the destroyed Mint, including furniture, timbers (several were turned into gavels), a boot scraper and discarded small pieces of apparatus for producing coins. He also found and saved coins and planchets from the site, including two silver center cent planchets, as well as several pieces of scissel, the leftover strip from which planchets had been cut. There is a copper trial strike of a 1795 half dime. These are all illustrated by new color photographs. Stewart donated all of these to the Congress Building, one wing of Independence Hall, where they were to have been on permanent exhibit. Alas, permanent exhibits have a way of becoming impermanent. Much of the material spent many years in storage, and some was lost. Fortunately, most of it is still with the collection and on display at the Fourth Philadelphia Mint, a few blocks from the First Mint. Again, I won't spoil the authors' interesting story of how they got there.

Stewart even proved to be a numismatist, having published good work on the enigmatic St. Patrick half pence coinage associated with Mark Newby in The Numismatist and later expanding that work into a pamphlet.

My only other complaint and I am nitpicking is that the book could have used a bit tighter job of editing. There are places where information is repeated, and there are a few places where dates are inconsistent, but I found no significant errors of fact and very few typos.

Orosz and Augsburger have done a very solid, scholarly job, using primary source material throughout and clearly sourcing their findings. Where their findings are uncertain or depend on educated guesswork, they say so very clearly. The source material is discretely located in endnotes, so if the reader doesn't care about the sources, he doesn't have to be distracted by them; if he does, they are easy to find. In his forward, Eric Newman says this book is "outstandingly presented." I agree with Eric. If you have any interest at all in the First United States Mint, you should buy this book. What more can a reader ask than a fascinating story that is outstandingly presented? Read and enjoy!

Dave Lange adds:

I want to add my voice to the chorus of cheers for The Secret History of the First U. S. Mint. Joel and Len did a truly outstanding job in making this a compelling read that I'm now close to finishing. It is so well researched and written, and it goes into so many intriguing sidebar stories, that there is really something to please everyone. Every year sees a crop of popular books in American numismatics that offer little in the way of new research and interpretation, and that makes this volume truly memorable. I'm so jealous that I didn't write it myself, but I'm certainly glad that they did.



Wayne Homren, Editor

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