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Mints in China

In 1898, a working mint was set up in Bridgeton for test strikes of Chinese cash and coins.

by Vince Farinaccio

When Bridgeton’s Ferracute Machine Company, founded by inventor/entrepreneur Oberlin Smith, undertook the task of providing China with three coin manufacturing facilities in 1896, engineer Henry A. Janvier was put in charge of overseeing that each mint was properly set up and its workers trained.

Smith and Janvier’s article “Coining Machinery in Chinese Mints,” a Ferracute promotional piece that took the form of a travelogue filled with cultural commentary, was published in Cassier’s Magazine in 1903 and offers an insightful examination of the experience as well as China’s people and landscapes.

“The first part of the journey of the voyagers was made in a comfortable steamboat up the Yang-tse-Kiang as far as Wuchang, where the first consignment of machinery was to be set up,” the authors explain. “The country along this portion of the river is mostly devoted to farming and fishing, the land lying low and flat and the scenery being monotonous. The city of Wuchang has a population of about 800,000 and is the seat of the provisional government of Hoo-Pe. Besides the government buildings it contains an agricultural college and an arsenal, in which latter building the coining machinery was to be erected.”

To Janvier’s surprise, the equipment was already unpacked and set up by the time of his arrival in Wuchang, the Chinese engineers having apparently translated the English-language directions. However, since “the power supply was not ready, the running of this machinery was deferred until the return trip of the party.” Janvier therefore embarked on his journey to Chentu “in a much smaller steamboat, which was by no means so comfortable as the other.”

According to “Oberlin Smith: The Man, His Machines and the Myth,” Todd R. Sciore’s June 2010 article in The Numismatist, “the Chentu facilities were to be scaled-down versions of the Philadelphia Mint, with Ferracute personnel handling everything from the design of the building to the installation of the equipment. Ferracute made the blanking dies, while the actual coining dies were believed to have been created by engravers at the Philadelphia Mint, with Charles Barber suggested as the most likely candidate.”

For the Chentu facility to be constructed by time Janvier arrived, blueprints had been sent far in advance, Sciore explains. “Meanwhile,” he writes, “a working mint was built in Bridgeton, with Philadelphia Mint officials present at test strikes of both Chinese cash and silver coins.”

Sciore reports that these test coins “have commanded significant prices” at auction, citing a $36,800 pricetag for the 2008 sale of an 1898 Szechuan Dragon silver dollar.

Once Janvier and his group reached Ichang, they were required to transfer to “an ordinary houseboat… with a captain, a cook, and a crew of twelve men…provided by the government for the party, who were provided with servants in addition to the regular boat’s crew.” The Ferracute engineer reports that it was during the trek to Chentu that he saw evidence of some Chinese displaying a “dislike of foreigners.” They demonstrated their discontent by “throwing sticks and mud at the passengers, sometimes even hurling stones of considerable size.”

After 20 days that included several mishaps, Janvier and his group reached the town of Wan, where they would begin a 400-mile overland journey that would take them to Chentu. During this portion of his trip, the Bridgeton engineer took note of Chinese agriculture and “the immense amount of trouble taken by individual small farmers to use every square foot of ground that is possibly available, thus showing the overcrowded condition of the country. The poverty of many of the natives is indeed pitiful to see, their chief and urgent needs being sufficient rice to keep them barely alive, together with such clothing as will keep them partly warm. Their houses are usually made of bamboo and mud, with an occasional 10-by-20-foot mansion having walls of the same materials but enjoying the distinction of a tile roof.”

In describing the food he and his party encountered, Janvier explains that it consisted “chiefly of rice, with beans, cabbages, and carrots…and a possibility of eggs and chickens for festive occasions.”

The overland trek would take 14 days before the Ferracute team arrived in the city of Chentu to encounter the surprises awaiting them.

Next Week: The Chentu Mint

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