As mentioned in the section on the Getz "Half Dollar" Pattern, in 1791 Robert Morris drafted legislation for a national coinage that provided for a presidential portrait on the coins. Washington rejected the idea feeling it was overly monarchical. Learning of the president's views, Congress revised the bill. In the final legislation, which Washington signed into law on April 2, 1792, the requirement for a presidential portrait was replaced by "a device emblematic of liberty." The legislation also provided for the adoption of the decimal system based on a dollar divided into tenths, cents and mills. A decimal based system was a entirely new concept unlike any coinage system then in use and quite different from the familiar British units of pounds and shillings or the Spanish standard of eight reales to the dollar. The bill provided for gold coins designated as eagles, half eagles and quarter eagles ($10, $5 and $2.50); silver coins of a dollar, half dollar, quarter dollar, disme and half disme as well as copper cents and half cents.
On July 1, 1792, David Rittenhouse was appointed director of the mint. Rittenhouse immediately went to work and, with the encouragment of Washington, on July 9, 1792 he received permission to mint cents and small silver coins. Rittenhouse started with the half disme for, as the smallest silver coin, it would allow the largest minting from the limited quantity of available silver. Apparently George Washington personally provided the silver which amounted to about $100 in silver bullion. According to tradition Washington even contributed his household silverware! Dies for this coin were probably made by William Birch with letter punches by Jacob Bay. The obverse depicted Liberty facing left (in a style quite similar to Liberty facing right on a variety of the Birch cent) with the date 1792 below and an abbreviated form of the motto "Liberty Parent of Science & Industry" (which is found in a fuller form on the 1792 cents and disme). The reverse displayed the American Eagle with spread wings in flight and the legends "United States of America" and "Half Disme" with a five pointed star in exergue.
Apparently Washington was desirous of having silver coinage struck as soon as possibly as a public act internationally demonstrating the authority of the new nation and to help alleviate the shortage of small change. Unable to wait until the mint opened, the coins were struck by Adam Eckfeldt and others who had been hired to work at the soon to be completed U.S. mint. They used a private coin press owned by John Harper which was housed in the cellar of his home at the corner of Sixth and Cherry streets in Philadelphia. About 1,500-2,000 half dismes were minted and apparently used as presentation pieces by Washington. In 1844 a John McAllister interviewed Eckfeldt about the minting of this coin. McAllister's final draft of his notes from that interview state the coins were:
"struck expressly for Gen. Washington, to the extent of One Hundred Dollars, which sum he deposited in bullion or coin, for that purpose. Mr. E. thinks that Gen. W. distributed them as presents. Some were sent to Europe, but the greater number, he believes, were given to friends of Gen. W. in Virginia. No more of them were coined. They were never designated as currency. The Mint was not, at that time, fully ready for being put into operation. The coining Machinery was in the cellar of Mr. Harper, saw maker, at the corner of cherry and 6th St., at which place these pieces were struck."
This achievement was mentioned by Washington, in his fourth annual address on November 6, 1792, he stated: "There has been a small beginning in the coinage of half dismes: the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them."
The Philadelphia mint building was ready for occupancy by September and soon thereafter, on September 21, 1792, the coining presses arrived from England. According to existing records the first coins produced at the mint were copper cents with a silver plug designed by Henry Voigt and produced on December 17, 1792. These cents as well as a few dismes, quarter dollars and the two varieties of the Birch large cents were produced in very limited numbers, varieties of these coins are unique or have only two or three examples known. Only the half dismes were minted in any quantity with an estimated 250 surviving examples. Most of the surviving half dismes are in a circulated state adding evidence to Washington's statement that these coins were minted for circulation. Whereas the other 1792 coins were clearly patterns, the half disme may be viewed as the first U.S. regular issue coin. However, as it was not continued in production at the Federal mint, we have added it to the colonial series as the last of the pre-federal issues.
See: Breen, pp. 152-157; Carl R. Herkowitz, "The Mystery of "J MC" and the Eckfeldt Memo," The Numismatist, vol. 109 (June 1996) 687-690 and continued on 708-712; Andrew W. Pollock, III, United States Patterns and Related Issues, Wolfeboro, NH: Bowers and Merena, 1994, pp. 13-14.
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