A VISIT TO THE MINT AT LIMA, PERU IN 1805 – PART 2 (FINAL)

Posted on April 14, 2017 by

This is the second (and final) installment of Captain Amasa Delano’s visit to the official government mint at Lima, Peru in 1805. Delano related his story as part of his 1817 book titled “A Narrative Of Voyages and Travels, In the Northern And Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round The World; Together With A Voyage of Survey And Discovery, In The Pacific Ocean And Oriental Islands.” The first installment described the preparation of silver and gold bullion into blank planchets.  This installment describes the actual striking of silver 8 Reales and gold Doubloons.  Of particular interests to American numismatics is the description of the use of silver plugs to increase the weight of below-standard planchets.  This procedure relates directly to U.S. Half Dollars and Silver Dollars of 1795, some of which show evidence of having similar plugs inserted and about which we know very little because of the dearth of records relating to the early Mint at Philadelphia.  Delano’s text appears in the gray text blocks; explanatory annotations appear between the text blocks.

They are next milled by means of running them through a machine that is only the thickness of a dollar, which is confined edge ways, so that by turning a crank it will roll the dollar through, putting at the same time the mill on the edge.

Beginning in 1793, the U.S.Mint added lettering, milling or ornamentation to all U.S. coins using what is referred two as a Castaing machine.  Basically, a planchet was rolled between two parallel bars, each of which had portions of the edge device engraved into them.  This procedure was performed on the blank planchets before the coins were placed into the coining press.  Beginning in late 1795, Half Cents and Large Cents skipped this step and bore plain edges.

The next process is the weighing; the person who performs this has a little square box containing silver pins that are no longer than the thickness of a dollar, and of different weights and sizes; the dollars are thrown one by one into the scales, but seldom any of them are too heavy, when they are they generally pass them without notice, but if any are too light a pin is thrown into the scale, which brings it to the standard weight; the dollar is then put under a screw that has a pointed instrument in the end of it, which is screwed down and pierces a hole in the dollar sufficiently large to receive the pin; then it is placed under another screw, with a smooth end, which completely fastens the pin in the coin; they are then passed into another room and scoured. That process is performed by putting one or two bushels of them into a wooden bowl made for that purpose and lime juice poured into it sufficient to wet the dollars; when a man, supplied with strong leather gloves to prevent hurting his hands, rubs and scours until they become bright as silver can possibly be made.

Mintmasters operated under strict orders to produce coins of the proper weight.  If a coin was overweight, the government suffered a loss.  If a coin was underweight, the mintmaster could be accused of theft.  Underweight planchets could be fixed in one of two ways: 1) melt them down and start over or 2) add a silver plug to bring them up to the proper weight.  What we did not know before was that the pin was pressed into the planchet PRIOR to striking the coins.

After this operation they are passed to another room, which is the last in the square, and the first on the right hand on entering the gate, which is the apartment where all the money is coined. The master set the people to work at coining dollars and doubloons, to shew me the last process, as I had previously seen all but that. The method is, the impressions are cut on two pieces of steel, about the size of a blacksmith’s sledge hammer, and not very unlike it in shape, the impressions being cut on the face of each; these two pieces are fixed, one in a frame made of wood and iron on the ground, fastened very strongly with screws, with the impression upwards; the other piece is fixed at the lower end of a large screw, five inches in diameter and four feet long, with the impression side down, and placed directly over the one that is fixed on the ground, all parts of the machine being framed together in a remarkable strong manner. An iron tiller, or large bar, is put – on the head of the screw in the same manner a boat’s tiller is put over the head of the rudder, the hole for the screw being in the middle of the tiller, which is twelve feet long, having each end of it loaded with about fifty weight of lead, and ropes four or five feet long fastened to each end for the men to pull by, who sit down and take hold of the ropes, being from five to seven in number. The man who puts the dollars under has a hole sunk on one side of his work for him to sit in.

The above is a good description of the use of a screw press, the same equipment found at the U.S. Mint at Philadelphia.

When the men were all called to their stations and a thousand dollars emptied near the work, the master stepped to the pile and took a handful which he brought to me to inspect, and shewed me where the pins were put in to make up the weight, which were very plain to be seen.

 

350538Even after silver-plugged coins are struck, there is usually a seam visible on one or both sides between the plug and the surrounding coin.

One man who stands up at one end of the tiller throws it back and raises the screw. A piece of wood was taken out from between the two impressions that serves to keep them apart and a dollar put under in its stead, on which the screw is turned forward with the full strength of the men placed at the tiller, by which it comes down with incredible force on the dollar.

Die clashing occurs when the obverse and reverse dies come together without a planchet between them.  When this occurs, some of the designs transfer from one die to the other.  As careful as the minters may have been to place a piece of wood between the dies, clashing is a common problem on American coins.

The man at the opposite end of the tiller then heaves it back and raises the screw. The dollar is brushed off by means of a piece of iron twelve inches long, of the thickness and width of an iron hoop, which he constantly holds in his hand, and another dollar is put under. They were handed to me to see how fair and deep the impressions were made, and how completely the pins were pressed in; but I could see on some of them where the pin was. This may often be seen in Spanish dollars, if closely inspected.

The “bushels” of silver-plugged coins that Delano saw in 1805 are exceedingly rare today.  A close examination of many Peruvian 8 Reales from the early 1800’s failed to uncover even a single example of a coin with traces of a silver plug.  We would love to hear from anyone who has such a coin and we will continue to search for one.

After showing me as many as I wished to see, they set the screw to work as fast as possible. They could easily finish fifteen in a minute, or one in four seconds. The process with doubloons is the same as with dollars. The pressure of the screw when it comes down on the coin I should imagine to equal a great number of tons, perhaps one hundred. When we had gone all over this remarkable building, I asked the master many questions, which he answered with frankness, seemingly pleased to inform me of any thing that I might wish to know. On taking leave of the mint, I asked the master how much money they commonly coined in a year in that mint. He informed me that they coined from six to eight millions of dollars value in gold and silver, and also that the mint in Mexico coined from fifteen to twenty millions, and St. Jago, in Chili, from one and a half to three millions, which was all the money that was coined in these three kingdoms.

This was a massive output.  By comparison, the U.S. Mint produced only $319,435 value in gold and silver coins.

He told me that the bullion I saw belonged to different people, and was brought to be coined in the same manner as corn is carried to a mill to be ground, and that as fast as it was coined it was taken away by the respective owners. He gave me much information concerning the regulations of the mint too numerous to be here related.

Absent any special arrangements, the U.S. Mint operated under similar conditions and each individual bullion deposit was segregated and processed separate from all others.  Oh, how we wish Delano had related the regulations of the Lima Mint.

Almost all the heavy work was done by water. There seemed to be as many wheels and bands going in it as in one of our cotton factories. Water works can be carried on in Lima with as much convenience as in any place I ever visited.

In the early years of the U.S. Mint, the heavy work was done by horses.

The reason I had so much attention paid me at Lima was on account of the different services I had rendered, as many great men think it an honour to notice a person who has done well by his fellow creatures. This cause may be assigned for the viceroy’s noticing me, and among other marks of respect, gave me liberty to examine any curiosity in or about the city; as also to visit the prisons, to see any person in them I chose, and take out of confinement any Englishman or foreigner, and take him on board my ship. Many similar favours were granted me during my stay at that place.

It pays to have friends in high places!

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