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Cash for China

Bridgeton entrepreneur Oberlin Smith manufactured coin presses for plants in three Chinese cities.

by Vince Farinaccio

Much has been written about Bridgeton inventor and entrepreneur Oberlin Smith, but the tale of his business deal to provide currency presses for China at the end of the 19th century is an overlooked entry in his list of accomplishments.

Smith, according to his website, was a native of Cincinnati, Ohio who “displayed an early mechanical aptitude, and built a working steam engine at the age of 15, most likely while learning metalworking at one of the city’s riverboat engine yards, while being educated in the public and technical schools of Cleveland.”

When his family relocated to Stow Creek, New Jersey, Smith completed his education in Bridgeton and then Polytechnic College in Philadelphia before pursuing his own Bridgeton business venture by opening a machine works and repair shop at 21 North Laurel Street in Bridgeton in 1863. This became an early incarnation of his world famous Ferracute Machine Company.

Early on, the company became known for the manufacture of such items as wrought-iron fences, railings and cans. Smith continued to improve his factory’s equipment, apparently finding it the most inspiring part of the business.

In 1876, Smith chose to exhibit his metal presses at the Philadelphia Centennial, a decision that reportedly became a turning point and resulted in an increased demand for his machines. The following year, his business was incorporated as the Ferracute Machine Company.

In 1896, after several more decades of building a solid reputation, Smith was approached by the Chinese government about designing coin-making machines to be operated in several of its cities. In addition to providing the coin presses, Smith sent Henry A. Janvier, a Ferracute engineer and Bridgeton resident, to China with the machinery to oversee installation and training. The engineer’s visit would last 10 months.

The tale of this business deal was preserved in a 1903 article by Smith and Janvier titled “Coining Chinese Mints” and published in Cassier’s Magazine. The lengthy account not only provides an inside look at what was involved in the process of coin production but also examines what it was like to bridge the cultural differences between the U.S. and China to successfully complete this endeavor.

“One of the plants in question was to be located in the city of Wuchang, capital of the province of Hoo-Pe,” Smith and Janvier recount in their article, “and was to be used exclusively for making the small brass coins with a square hole in the middle, popularly known as ‘cash,’ or, as they are called in China, ‘tsen.’ The machines for this particular mint were to produce something over 300,000 pieces per day…”

A second plant was to be established in the Szechuan province city of Chentu. The writers explain, “The coins made therein were brass ‘cash,’ of the same weight as those made in Wuchang, but of a somewhat larger diameter, and a slightly different design. The production in this mint was required to be at the rate of something over 250,000 coins per day.”

The third plant, also in the province of Szechuan, “was exclusively for the production of silver coinage of the denominations, respectively, of 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents and $1… The total capacity required for silver pieces, in the aggregate, was about 150,000 per day.”

The article notes that, at the time, silver was commonly used in China as payment for higher priced items which couldn’t be conveniently paid for using coinage. In such instances, bars of silver were brought to blacksmiths, who would cut them into a size representative of the amount to be paid. Such an approach was not an exact science, and a portion smaller or larger than required resulted in compensation in the form of coins.

The writers provide an instance in which a certain individual sold $30,000 worth of goods and was paid in coins rather than bars of silver. “The result,” Smith and Janvier explain, “was several days’ work with horses and carts to get the money to a bank, where it could be changed into silver.”

When this series continues, we’ll examine the arduous journey undertaken by the Bridgeton engineer in setting up the machinery to mint Chinese coins.

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