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5000th Post: Timber Artifacts From the First United States Mint

CoinosaurusCoinosaurus Posts: 9,413 ✭✭✭✭✭
As many of you know I am currently working on a book, tentatively titled Pictures of the First United States Mint: The Numismatic Legacy of Frank H. Stewart. Thanks to our good friends at Whitman Publishing, I am able to share a preview of the work here. This excerpt discusses artifacts constructed from first Mint timber. There are many other artifacts as well, and these will be discussed in the book.

To set the stage, is it the year 1911 in Philadelphia and Frank H. Stewart has decided to finish the razing of the first Mint buildings in order to expand his business (located on the next lot) into the former Mint space. We pick up the action as the final razing of the first Mint campus is in progress:

Modern construction sites in the big city are liberally draped in protective plywood curtains, but a hundred years ago it was not so, and certainly not at 37 and 39 North Seventh Street in Philadelphia. Stewart’s demolition was wide open to the public, who were free to wander the site in search of treasure. Stewart thought enough to capture a photo for posterity. “People from off street at noon time - digging for relics,” he wrote on the reverse. To this pictorial record Stewart added the following commentary:

“Every noontime, while the workmen were eating their luncheon, a crowd of boys would search the dirt for relics, and the finds made by these boys will unquestionably be saved by them. Scores of pieces of iron, brick, stone and wood were taken away and curiosity was unhampered to the fullest extent.”

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Despite Stewart’s prediction that the various bits would “unquestionably be saved,” few such finds have survived. Today the most widely known relics of the first United States Mint are various items constructed from first Mint timber. During the demolition Stewart noted that he saved “some heavy pine timbers and oak joists, all from the coinage building,” and further that “a great many requests for old timbers have been granted.” More specifically, Stewart salvaged the roof supports of the Middle Building, as explained in a photograph caption:

“Taking out the…thing made of two planks bolted together…This supported the roof of the coinage {Middle] building and took the place of the original which was burned off. The end was left in wall after being sawed off and I saved it to make souvenirs. It shows strong evidence of fire.”

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Further clarification was offered regarding the fire:

“The first building back of the Seventh street [Front] buildings, which I have always called the coinage building…was…seriously damaged by fire, but when I do not know. It at first had a peaked roof, but after the fire an inclined flat roof replaced it. When it was demolished an immense square timber that had been burned off entirely was found imbedded in the North wall at its center where the floor joists of the attic or third floor were originally placed.”

With timber in hand, Stewart set about putting it to work. A beam donated to Independence Hall was evidently quite a hit with the public, as the curator mentioned in correspondence to Stewart:

“We would also like to have a case made for the exhibition of the large beam which you presented to us. We find that in exhibiting it, as heretofore, on a pair of wooden trusses that the visitors have from time to time chipped pieces from it to carry away as souvenirs. While it is too large in its present size to have a case made for it, with your permission we would like to cut a section of it to be placed in a case…”

Stewart approved the “rightsizing” of the timber in a letter dated the following day. Today a section of timber, exhibiting fire damage, is on display at the fourth United States Mint in Philadelphia, on loan from the Independence Hall [photo courtesy of our own AirplaneNut].

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Apart from the raw beam, a number of other pieces from First Mint timber are known, including two chairs and a bench, all similarly styled. Stewart commented in 1913:

“The bench and chairs... were made of oak joists from the Coinage building. These timbers were so hard that the cabinetmaker claimed extra compensation for his work. One hundred and twenty years of seasoning gave the wood an obstinacy which even a novice would suspect if he were to feel the weight of the furniture. The bench has a suitably engraved brass plate screwed on the top piece. These three pieces of unique furniture are now part of our office equipment.”

Stewart also found pine, which he apparently discarded. “I intented to save some of the big timbers in the basement of the coinage [Middle] building,” he wrote, “but found them to be yellow pine.” As for the the obstinate oak, it had already made its presence felt some years earlier, as Stewart recalled in History of the First United States Mint:

“After I established my business at the Northeast corner of Seventh and Filbert streets (35 North Seventh street) in 1895, there were several serious fires in the neighborhood and nearly every instance of flying embers set fire to the shingle roof of the Old Mint [Front] building facing Seventh street. The last time, the firemen damaged the roof beyond repair, which damage I think was intentional on their part. The owner of the building then decided to change the mansard peaked roof to an inclined flat roof, but when the workmen started to saw off the century old oak rafters they found it too difficult, which resulted in placing a new tin roof over the damaged one with its original rafters intact.”

Stewart offered one of the chairs to Independence Hall, but this gift was apparently not consummated. The location of the two chairs is today unknown, although based on a surviving image they appear quite similar in construction to the bench. Harry Forman and Catherine Bullowa, longtime Philadelphia coin dealers, were both unaware of these pieces. The bench resides at the Gloucester County (New Jersey) Historical Society. Affixed is a brass plate with the inscription:

"This Bench was made from the original timber taken from the Coinage Building of the First United States Mint, erected 1792, and presented to Frank H. Stewart, Christmas, 1911, by the officers and employees of the Frank H. Stewart Electric Company."

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Chairs from first Mint timber (location unknown):

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Stewart commissioned two other souvenirs at the same time: paperweights and gavels. “About two dozen gavels and the same quantity of paper weights made of the same wood as the bench and chairs were made for us by Mr. James Barton, of Camden, N.J.,” Stewart wrote. “These rare mementos were nearly all distributed at the cornerstone laying [of Stewart’s “Old Mint” building in 1912] to those participating and a few special guests." At least three of the paperweights today reside in the collection of the Stewart Room at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. Another example was placed with the Salem County (NJ) Historical Society, which acknowledged receipt of the item on March 10, 1914, more than two years after Stewart’s cornerstone laying. Yet another was given to Jacob B. Eckfeldt of the Philadelphia Mint (Adam Eckfeldt’s grandson), and was on display in the Eckfeldt home as of 1915. The Gloucester County (NJ) Historical Society also retains an example.

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Reverse of paperweight, in Stewart's hand:

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Of the gavels, one is currently located in the display case of the Stewart Room at Rowan University, a second is on display at the fourth Mint in Philadelphia, and a third was placed in the cornerstone of Stewart’s “Old Mint” building, of which more will be said later [later in the text we discuss cornerstones associated with the Mint]. A fourth was given by Stewart to the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia in 1912. The Society Proceedings later noted:

It was reported that the gavel presented by Mr. Frank H. Stewart has had a silver band placed upon it by Mr. [David] Milne, who had defrayed the expense. The inscription is as follows: “Wood from the first U.S. Mint, 37 N. 7th Street, Philadelphia, built 1792. Vacated 1832. Demolished 1911. N. & A. Soc., 1912.”

The whereabouts of the remainder of the “two dozen” manufactured are unknown; none appeared in Craig Whitford’s important sale of Mint memorabilia in 1995. Many were likely gifted to employees of the Frank H. Stewart Electric Company.

Gavel at Rowan University:

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Another gavel, of different design, along with a sounding block, were presented to “Bro.[ther] John Weaver, W.[orshipful] M.[aster],” and are currently on display at the fourth United States Mint in Philadelphia. Weaver was the mayor of Philadelphia from 1903-1907, and probably known to Stewart through their Masonic association.

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Beyond these Stewart-flavored first Mint timber items, a second grouping of first Mint timber objects appeared on the scene ca. 1959-1960, attributed to timber originating with either John Hallahan or John Harrison, who may in fact be one and the same. The Hallahan attribution is based on the November, 1960 number of The Numismatist which described

“a beam removed with permission of the owner [Stewart] in 1911 by John P. Hallahan, a Phildelphia builder. His son…gave a piece of the joist to George B. Cucore…[who] carefully examined the beam and counted one hundred ninety rings”.

The Cucore name pops up again in the “Harrison” account, written by Warren A. Lapp, M. D., in 1969:

“John Harrison, a member of the organization [Philadelphia Coin Club], contributed a section of rafter which had been saved from the Mint building when they were torn down; and a beautiful gavel was fashioned from the piece by George Cucore. The gavel was presented to the [Philadelphia Coin] club at its meeting on March 17, 1959.”

Regardless of whether the timber originated with Hallahan or Harrison, a number of derivative pieces seem to have come out of the shop of George Cucore of Landsdowne, PA, who was a manufacturer of wooden patterns for steel castings. Cucore’s enumeration of the one hundred ninety rings corroborated the “obstinacy” of the timber that Stewart had noted fifty years prior, and Cucore was likely as challenged as Stewart’s cabinetmaker in working the wood. Cucore is credited with the construction of three gavels. The first, mentioned above, was presented to the Philadelphia Coin Club in 1959. A second was donated to the American Numismatic Association at its 1960 Boston convention. An attached engraved plate reads:

“THIS GAVEL AND SOUNDING BOARD MADE OF TIMBER TAKEN FROM THE FIRST UNITED STATES MINT BUILDING IN PHILADELPHIA ARE HEREBY PRESENTED TO THE AMERICAN NUMISMATIC ASSOCIATION BY THE PHILADELPHIA COIN CLUB, 1960.”

ANA Gavel:

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The ANA museum retains the gavel; however the sounding board is today missing. A third gavel is reported to have been presented to President Eisenhower. In addition to the gavels, a piece of scrap was preserved from the Cucore shop, catalogued by Craig Whitford in 1995:

“Piece of wood, 1 3/4” x 6 1/4", from the original U.S. Mint building…Scrap from George Cucore’s shop where he made gavels from blocks, c. 1959…With a letter, signed by past ANA president Arthur Sipe related to this relic.”

A second Cucore scrap seems to have passed through the hands of Alexander Kaptik. Kaptik, like Sipe, was a member of the Philadelphia Coin Club in the 1960s. Eric Newman, the St. Louis collector well known for his studies of early American numismatics, reported the Kaptik scrap, which is accompanied by a typewritten card that indicates “Cross section of the Original Beam from the First United States Mint at 7th and Filbert Streets, Philadelphia / Gift of Alexander Kaptik.”

Included in the set of first Mint timber items is a letter opener, referred to as a “paper knife” at the time of its construction. One Cora Frieman, of Terre Haute, IN, first contacted Stewart in December, 1909, requesting any relic of Stewart’s choosing for her personal collection. Stewart evidently complied with the request, for in February of the following year Ms. Frieman acknowledged receiving a block of timber. The relic came full circle in May, 1910, when Frieman sent the “paper knife” to Stewart. The letter of transmittal, along with the knife, is preserved in the Stewart Room at Rowan University:

“Dear and Kind Sir:
The piece of timber from the ‘Ye Olde Mint’ which you sent me some months ago I had shaved into thin sticks, and from one of them I made the paper knife which I am sending you by registered mail. I did all the work myself even the lettering, and you can see that I am not an expert at such work. However I feel sure that you will appreciate it and trust that you may place it on your office desk or with your collection of relics from the old mint. If not too much trouble I would like to hear from you as to whether you get it all right. With my best wishes to you I am,
Very Respectfully yours,
Cora Frieman”

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Another item of first Mint timber was similarly constructed for Stewart as a gift. John McDowell, carpenter and one time tenant of the Middle Building of the first Mint, presented a picture frame to Stewart some time before February, 1915. McDowell took great interest in the Mint property, and we shall hear more from him later [McDowell provided sketches used in preparation of the painting "Ye Olde Mint," discussed at great length later in the text]. Like much of the first Mint timber, the location of Stewart’s picture frame is today unknown.

A final candidate for inclusion in the first Mint timber fraternity is a wooden ruler used as a promotional item by the Stewart Electric Company. The address given on the ruler is 35 N. Seventh Street, thus dating the item prior to the construction of Stewart’s Old Mint building at 37-39 N. Seventh. While it has been speculated that this item might be constructed of first mint timber, no documentary evidence has been located to support this theory. In light of the difficulty in fashioning first Mint timber artifacts, it seems more likely that the ruler originated with an advertising house, customized for promotional purposes. In any case, Stewart was likely pleased with his first Mint timber experiment, and later was involved in the distribution of other wooden artifacts fashioned from the “Tatum Oak,” in conjunction with the Gloucester County (NJ) Historical Society.

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Comments

  • thebigengthebigeng Posts: 6,255 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Thanks for that, you see we really can go back in time.....
    “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” ~ Dalai Lama
  • PipestonePetePipestonePete Posts: 1,672 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Wow....thanks for the great story, Coinosaurus.
  • MrHalfDimeMrHalfDime Posts: 3,440 ✭✭✭✭
    A fascinating, well researched, and extremely well illustrated post. I can't wait to see the finished product.

    I have a pristine example of the last item pictured, the Frank Stewart Electric Company ruler, which I believe that I have showed to you in the past. I, too, believed that it might have been made from old oak timbers from the first Mint, which would be very difficult to prove. However, my pursuit of such proof may have been seriously derailed when no less than two individuals, both of whom know little to nothing about the history of the First United States Mint, but who are experts in wood, pointed out that the ruler is made of maple, not oak. It is unlikely that the roof support timbers were made of maple. It is possible, however, that the rulers may have been made from maple used in some other capacity at the First United States Mint.
    They that can give up essential Liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither Liberty nor safety. Benjamin Franklin
  • WoodenJeffersonWoodenJefferson Posts: 6,495 ✭✭✭✭
    This kind of information is uber cool! Thanks for sharing.
    Chat Board Lingo

    "Keep your malarkey filter in good operating order" -Walter Breen


  • << <i>A fascinating, well researched, and extremely well illustrated post. I can't wait to see the finished product.

    What MrHalfDime said... Thank you, Coinosaurus!
  • TavernTreasuresTavernTreasures Posts: 1,262 ✭✭✭
    Excellent!
    Advanced collector of BREWERIANA. Early beer advertising (beer cans, tap knobs, foam scrapers, trays, tin signs, lithos, paper, etc)....My first love...U.S. COINS!
  • MarkMark Posts: 3,423 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Extremely interesting. Thanks for the very fascinating post!
    Mark


  • NysotoNysoto Posts: 3,353 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Thanks for the information, I am looking forward to reading the book! image
    Robert Scot: Engraving Liberty - biography of US Mint's first chief engraver
  • MarkMark Posts: 3,423 ✭✭✭✭✭
    It's remarkable that the "Cleaning junk silver" post gets 120 or so replied and yet this truly enlightening post gets (so far) about 10 or so replies. Of course, the life expectancy of this post is a lot longer than that of the now dearly departed "Cleaning junk silver" post... image
    Mark


  • CameonutCameonut Posts: 6,861 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Great read - thanks for posting!

    “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock." - Thomas Jefferson

    My digital cameo album 1950-64 Cameos - take a look!

  • CaptHenwayCaptHenway Posts: 29,105 ✭✭✭✭✭
    image
    Winner of the ANA's 2020 Heath Literary Award, Wayte and Olga Raymond Literary Award, and Lifetime Achievement Award. Winner NLG 2020 Best Numismatic Feature Article, U.S.
  • LakesammmanLakesammman Posts: 16,492 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Very cool - thanks for the preview. image
    "My friends who see my collection sometimes ask what something costs. I tell them and they are in awe at my stupidity." (Baccaruda, 12/03).
    I find it hard to believe that he (Trump) rushed to some hotel to meet girls of loose morals, although ours are undoubtedly the best in the world. (Putin 1/17)
    Gone but not forgotten. IGWT, Speedy, Bear, BigE, HokieFore, John Burns, Russ
  • I love this kind of stuff!

    Wouldn't you love to be one of the guys digging for relics during the lunch breaks - with a modern day metal detector!

    Excellent post!
  • Awesome. Can't waite to buy the book! I was wondering if it was you that had requested a photo of the ANA's gavel. I continue to look for the sounding board and will let you know when I find it.
    Contact me and we can discuss "Ye Old Mint" more.
    Thanks...
    [email protected]
    Because to Err is Human.
    I specialize in Errors, Minting, Counterfeit Detection & Grading.
    Computer-aided grading, counterfeit detection, recognition and imaging.
  • bigmarty58bigmarty58 Posts: 1,719 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Congratulations on your 5,000th post. Thank you for a wonderful history post.

    -Robert
    Enthusiastic collector of Irish & British pre-decimal and Canadian decimal circulation coins.
  • THANKS for the chance of receiving a free copy of your book when it is completed. You are so kind to add you'll sign it too!image
    Ilikacoinsawholebuncha
  • CaptHenwayCaptHenway Posts: 29,105 ✭✭✭✭✭
    The original "woodgrain effect."

    image
    Winner of the ANA's 2020 Heath Literary Award, Wayte and Olga Raymond Literary Award, and Lifetime Achievement Award. Winner NLG 2020 Best Numismatic Feature Article, U.S.
  • shorecollshorecoll Posts: 5,360 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Now which of those pictured items is the subject of this giveaway? Anyway, the book will make an excellent companion piece to my original Stewart. Thank you.image
    ANA-LM, NBS, EAC
  • CoinosaurusCoinosaurus Posts: 9,413 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Sorry, no giveaways image

    I just wish I had been at Craig Whitford's sale in 1995 - as far as I know that was the last opportunity to acquire a piece of first Mint timber. Almost everything illustrated here is from institutional collections and off the market. I'm hoping this post might bring a few other pieces out of the woodwork, so to speak.
  • SwampboySwampboy Posts: 12,266 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Enjoyable reading.
    Excellent post!


    edit to say congrats on 5K.
    Your posts are PQ.
    image

  • CaptHenwayCaptHenway Posts: 29,105 ✭✭✭✭✭


    << <i>Sorry, no giveaways image

    I just wish I had been at Craig Whitford's sale in 1995 - as far as I know that was the last opportunity to acquire a piece of first Mint timber. Almost everything illustrated here is from institutional collections and off the market. I'm hoping this post might bring a few other pieces out of the woodwork, so to speak. >>



    knotty, knotty!!!!!

    image
    Winner of the ANA's 2020 Heath Literary Award, Wayte and Olga Raymond Literary Award, and Lifetime Achievement Award. Winner NLG 2020 Best Numismatic Feature Article, U.S.
  • rickoricko Posts: 82,398 ✭✭✭✭✭
    Superb post... thanks for the interesting read.... Cheers, RickO
  • Well, it was worth a try. Very enlightening article...image
    Ilikacoinsawholebuncha
  • RWBRWB Posts: 8,153
    Wonderful information.

    (I always thought my wooden keg of 1793 cents was unique, too...)
  • krankykranky Posts: 8,749 ✭✭✭
    Very cool post - thanks for sharing!

    New collectors, please educate yourself before spending money on coins; there are people who believe that using numismatic knowledge to rip the naïve is what this hobby is all about.

  • CaptHenwayCaptHenway Posts: 29,105 ✭✭✭✭✭


    << <i>Wonderful information.

    (I always thought my wooden keg of 1793 cents was unique, too...) >>



    Sorry, I thought you said wooden leg..........

    image
    Winner of the ANA's 2020 Heath Literary Award, Wayte and Olga Raymond Literary Award, and Lifetime Achievement Award. Winner NLG 2020 Best Numismatic Feature Article, U.S.
  • Thanks for posting that excerpt. I am really looking forward to your book

    John
    Successful BSTs with lordmarcovan, pontiacinf, Harry779, ajia, jfoot13, coinfame, Hammered54, fivecents, Coll3ctor, al410, commoncents123.
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