By Joe Darby
(Note to readers: This is one in an occasional series by Joe Darby about stamps and coins. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.)
If you think you’d enjoy owning some attractive bits of history made right here in Louisiana you might do well to look into collecting some of the silver coinage made at the New Orleans Mint from 1838 to 1909.
If you’ve visited the Crescent City there’s a good chance you’ve seen the magnificent old Mint building, which still stands at the corner of Decatur Street and Esplanade Avenue. It’s open to the public as a branch of the Louisiana State Museum System.
The New Orleans Mint was approved by Congress and President Andrew Jackson, who, coincidentally, had reviewed his troops on the very site of the Mint before the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. The cornerstone was laid in September 1835 and the building opened on March 8, 1838.
Until that time, the Philadelphia Mint was the only coin making facility of the United States. But with the growing economy in the South, the government decided to establish the new Mint in New Orleans.
The Mint played an important role in numismatic, or coinage, history during the Civil War. The Confederates took over the building in March 1861 and used it to produce a few Confederate half dollars, which are extremely rare and valuable today.
The New Orleans Mint building was also the site of another very interesting incident during the Civil War. After the Northern army took New Orleans in 1862, Gen. Benjamin Butler raised the Union Flag at the Mint. A New Orleanian and Confederate sympathizer named William Mumford decided to tear down the flag.
Well, Butler had Mumford arrested and hanged him from the same flag staff. So much for freedom of expression, huh?
Before the Confederates gave up New Orleans they sabotaged the Mint to prevent its use by the Union and it wasn’t until 1879 that repairs were finished and the Mint was able to begin making coins again.
The Mint was closed in 1909, after having contributed to America’s monetary history for 71 years.
The popular Seated Liberty coin types were minted at New Orleans beginning in 1838 and ending in 1891, not counting the years when production was disrupted. Those coins included the denominations of half-dime, dime, quarter and half-dollar. All had the same obverse, or heads, showing a figure of Liberty seated on a rock, holding a Union shield and a Liberty cap. On the reverse of the quarter and half-dollar is an eagle, the coin’s denomination and a small “O” showing the coin was made in New Orleans. The half-dime and dime reverses depicted their denominations and the O.
After the US dropped the half-dime and changed the designs of the dime, quarter and half-dollar to the so-called Barber type in 1892, the New Orleans Mint struck that coinage until its closing in 1909. The coins were named for their designer, Charles E. Barber.
The obverse shows a Liberty head wearing a cap and laurel wreath. The back of the dime is similar to the Seated Liberty and the quarter and half-dollar show newly designed eagles and the words “In God We Trust.” They also have the O mintmark.
Quick aside. My mother was born in New Orleans in 1909 and one of her cherished little gifts from me was a 1909 O Barber dime. I pointed out to her that both she and the coin were born in New Orleans the same year.
Finally, the New Orleans Mint also made the beautiful Morgan dollar, from 1879 to 1904. Like the Barber coins, the dollar is named for its designer, George Morgan.
Liberty wearing her Liberty cap is on the obverse and a beautiful eagle within a wreath is on the reverse, along with the O mark.
These coins are readily obtainable. If you’re interested you can Google coin dealers and check them out. A worn Seated Liberty dime, for example, can be had for about $15. A beautiful un-circulated Morgan dollar will go for about $50 (and up). Some of the Seated Liberties and Barbers are quite expensive, but many are not, as seen from the above prices.
Good luck in your quest for New Orleans coins!