Heart of Louisiana: Old U.S. Mint

Updated: Aug. 9, 2016 at 9:47 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - At one time, New Orleans was a major player in the production of money for the U.S. government.  Throughout most of the 19th century, a U.S. mint in the French Quarter was turning out hundreds of millions of coins.

All of these old coins have at least one thing in common.  When you look closely at the reverse side, bottom-center, you see the letter "o."  For 80 years, from 1838 until 1909, coins that were produced in New Orleans had this mark.

The old U.S. Mint in the Quarter was created by President Andrew Jackson.

"It was hard to get hard currency out to the frontier, and so New Orleans was well positioned for that. And also, New Orleans was a booming town then. It seemed a very logical place to put a mint," said Karen Leathem.

Before the mint was here, this was the site of an early New Orleans fort.  Then it became a public park called Jackson Place, named after a guy whose statue is a few blocks away from here in Jackson Square.

The old mint's furnaces would melt bars of silver and gold.  Round coins were punched out of metal sheets and the designs pressed onto both sides. Workers would stand over a table and try to spot any imperfections. The coins were weighed and finished by hand.

"One of the interesting things in the late 19th century, women were employed here as adjusters," Leathem said. "They'd get the coins before they were stamped and have to weigh them and file them so that they were the proper weight, and this was considered a very delicate operation so one that was suitable for women."

During its early days, the New Orleans mint was one of the busiest in the country, producing hundreds of millions of coins of every denomination.

"The first coins they made here were silver dimes and then half dollars, and what's known as quarter eagles, half eagles, double eagles," Leathem said.

Operations at the New Orleans mint came to a halt during the Civil War, but not before the Confederacy minted four half-dollar coins that never went into circulation.

"At that point they didn't' have access to bullion so they couldn't go ahead with the plans. They had had to make Confederate coins here," Leathem said.

In the 1870s, coin production resumed and continued until 1909.

Denver and San Francisco were seen as the places to make coins, and it was thought that the New Orleans mint was obsolete so they shut it down," Leathem said.

But the fact that United States currency was produced at this site for nearly a century speaks to the importance of New Orleans as a major city that provided the currency for a young, rapidly growing country.

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