Clifford Hewitt: International Man of Mystery?

by David Hill

When in early 2012 there emerged a previously unknown die used in 1920 to strike the obverse of a medal commemorating the opening of the Manila Mint in the Philippines, attention in some quarters turned to the person who had long been credited with its design, Clifford Hewitt (fig. 1). In reaction to published accounts, contributors to Internet forums such as the Numismatic Bibliomania Society’s E-Sylum and the Collectors Society member journals debated the true extent of his involvement as a “designer,” with one person pointing out that Hewitt—at the time the chief mechanical engineer for the U.S. mint—was a machinist and not an engraver and lacked the experience to design a medal
and another offering a detailed debunking of this persistent “numismatic myth.” Others had already been seeking more prosaic bits of information on Hewitt—What were his birth and death dates? Did anyone know his middle name? Was he related to Lee Hewitt, editor
of Numismatic Scrapbook?

It has always seemed there was something elusive about the facts of Hewitt’s life and career. The one detailed published account looking back on his work was an article in CoinAge magazine from 1971 discussing a collection of papers and photographs—which now reside in the ANS Archives—that relate not to the Manila Mint but rather to his later work on China’s Central Mint at Shanghai (fig. 2). “It is amazing,” the author noted at the time, “that such a large contribution to numismatics as has been made by Hewitt should
have been overlooked by the coin fraternity for so many years.” He marveled that Chinese coin authority Eduard Kann neglected to even mention Hewitt in his writings, though the two were both in the same area of China contemporaneously. “An Unknown but Great
Contributor to Numismatics” proclaimed a label from an exhibit of the archival materials that was displayed at the American Numismatic Association (ANA) convention in Washington, D.C., the same year. Modern electronic search tools yield little more: a search of the historical archives of The New York Times fails to find a single mention of Hewitt.

In truth, thanks largely to Hewitt’s own two-page sketch of his life—a copy of which can be found in the ANS Archives collection—and a profile published in the China Weekly Review in 1930 that was based on it, we actually do know quite a bit about him. Born in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, in 1869, he was the son of Isaac Hewitt and grandson of Thomas Hewitt, both pioneering railroad engineers. Following in the family tradition, he says he served an apprenticeship with the Janesville Ironworks in Pennsylvania before graduating from the Franklin Institute of Mechanical Engineering in Philadelphia in 1893. After making a name for himself around Philadelphia with several years work at various shops as a tool and jig designer, he was in 1900 “called into the Government service” as a mechanical
expert in charge of building and equipping the new mint at Philadelphia, which, he would proudly point out years later, was “still known a the ‘Mother Mint’ of the U.S.A.” He built and installed mint exhibits at the St. Louis Exposition of 1904 and the Panama-Pacific
Exposition at San Francisco in 1915. When in 1918 the United States Government, which twenty years earlier had acquired the Philippines in the wake of the Spanish- merican War, made plans to outfit a new mint in Manila with equipment constructed in Philadelphia, they turned to Hewitt, who then oversaw the installation and opening in 1920 of what is still the only branch of the U.S. Mint to have operated outside of the continental United States.

His success in Manila again brought demand for his expertise, this time coming in the form of a cable from China’s minister of finance, who invited him to discuss plans for a central mint to be built at Shanghai. Hewitt would devote the next twelve years of his life to the project. Though the various provinces of China had ostensibly been united in 1912 following the revolution that overthrew the last of its dynastic rulers, the Qing, in
reality the country remained fractious. Various provincial mints, acting more or less on their own, produced currency that varied in weight and fineness. Banking interests in northern China, needing to operate in the world financial markets, hungered for reform—craving uniform, stable, reliable currency—and agreed to loan the money for the new mint. The Chinese government turned to Hewitt, who was granted leave from his
service to the United States to serve as technical mint expert for the Chinese government. He is credited with choosing the site on the Suzhou Creek, with its ideal rail and water access and proximity to the Shanghai banking center, and for insisting that it be built outside of the International Settlement, a trading zone occupied and administered by foreign interests (fig. 3).

Hewitt had his work cut out for him. Conditions in China, always unstable, were looking increasingly tenuous. Regional warlords fought one another for most of the 1920s, and ongoing battles over the control the capital city of Peking—the prize, it was assumed, that
would deliver the entire country—seemed to ensure that the kind of stable centralized authority needed for the success of his project would remain out of reach. With this chaotic state of affairs as a backdrop, the minister of finance was forced to suspend operations in 1926, though the buildings of the mint complex had been completed and the U.S.-built machinery had arrived and was ready to be installed. Hewitt found himself
back in the United States taking a “vacation.” The next couple of years seemed to bring a renewed promise of stability, however, as the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, under Chiang Kai-shek was able to crush its regional and ideological enemies, establish a grip over southern China and the economic center of Shanghai-Nanking in the north, and finally march triumphantly into Peking in 1928. The mint project was revived under
the strong hand of the new minister of finance—and Chiang’s brother-in-law—T.V. Soong. A commission invited to China to produce a monetary plan, headed by “money doctor” Edwin Walter Kemmerer of Princeton University, was blunt in its assessment of the situation: “China has unquestionably the worst currency to be found in any important country of the world.” Despite the troubles and setbacks, the Central Mint was finally completed in 1930 and celebrated with the production of a medal whose design, like that of the Manila mint, has been credited to Hewitt from the start (fig. 4). On the obverse it featured a profile of Nationalist founding leader Sun Yat-sen, and on the reverse, a classic
Chinese junk, or boat, with two sails backed by the rays of the sun. These basic design elements had been seen before: the obverse portrait profile and a three-sail boat reverse having been used on pattern coins resulting from a 1929 competition among foreign countries to design a Chinese dollar, and the rays of the sun on a proposed dollar coin of 1927 showcasing Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum. Though the Chinese government more
or less prescribed the design features to be included in these patterns, it is conceivable that Hewitt had a hand in the conception of the elements.

Despite the enthusiasm surrounding the mint’s official completion in 1930, there were further delays before it could be put into full production, not the least of which were brought on by the increasing aggression of Japan, which, having invaded Manchuria in 1931, was by 1932 battling the Chinese on the streets of Shanghai. The fighting was noted by Hewitt (who, it seems, had in engineering skills what he lacked as a speller and typist):
“The Dam Japs delayed things but thank heaven the Mint was saved several bombs droped in the court I have them for souvenirs fighting was going on all around the Mint it all was very exciting.” Despite the excitement, the mint went into full production on March 1, 1933, though the opening ceremonies were canceled by a government wishing to avoid the “holding of any pompous opening rites…during the present national crisis.” Operated by
about 800 by laborers, many of whom lived in housing built adjacent to the complex, the mint produced the silver dollars that would replace the tael as China’s official standard unit of exchange, as well as silver bars. In addition to offices and minting machinery, it had its own power plant and tool and die shop (figs. 5-10).

Hewitt certainly considered himself the designer of the new dollar coin, and by extension the Completion Medal of 1930, which shared its most prominent design features: “I completed the Chinese Mint and put it into full operation March 1933, with a coin
designed by myself with Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s profile on the obverse and a typical Chinese junk on the reverse, which is now the coinage of the Chinese Government”
Included in the ANS Archives collection are pages from a notebook of designs that, along with the correspondence, provide some insight into the extent of his role as a designer. For the dollar coin, for example, Hewitt would arrange various compositions of cut and pasted photographic images onto a circular field with some hand-drawn elements, which he would then get cleared by the Chinese authorities before submitting them to John R. Sinnock, chief engraver at the

Philadelphia Mint, who actually cut the dies. Hewitt’s “design” for the two-sailed junk, for example, is simply a photograph of a manned boat at sea (fig. 11). The Sun Yat-sen profile for the obverse is a cut photograph of a sculpted bust, said to be done in the same style as
the one submitted by the Italians in the 1929 competition, leaving open the question of how much of a role Hewitt played in its conception (figs. 12-13). For the dollar coin, Hewitt had suggested using three stars on the obverse to represent Sun’s three principle
virtues—nationalism, democracy, and the livelihood of the people—but these were rejected, as Minister Soong felt them to “detract from the beauty of the coins.” After
experimenting with various arrangements (fig. 14), Hewitt used three seagulls on the reverse instead and added the orb of the sun to the rays in the lower right for what turned out to be the first minted design (Fig 15). The result was a disaster. With tensions between
China and its bitter enemy Japan at a high pitch, the gulls were perceived by the public, according to published reports at the time, not as three virtues but rather as a small air squadron on a bombing run emanating from the Land of the Rising Sun. Fifty-one thousand of the coins entered circulation, but over 2 million were withdrawn and melted. A slightly different design, with gulls and sun removed, was issued in 1934 and again in
1935, the final year they were produced (fig. 16).

The Kemmerer Commission report had recommended that China adopt the gold standard and issue subsidiary coinage—denominations less than a dollar—in silver, nickel, and copper. Correspondence and reports in the Hewitt collection document specifications, design elements, experiments with nickel types, and other matters pertaining to the planned production of this fractional currency. Soong approved Hewitt’s design for these, “showing the national flower on the obverse and a pointed star on the reverse,” and instructed him to have the dies made while he was in Philadelphia, where he would be leading a contingent of China Mint officials in the spring of 1931. In contrast to his cut and
pasted efforts for the Sun dollar, Hewitt’s notebook contains what might be considered a design in a more traditional sense: an inked drawing in his own hand for a ten-cent coin, the so-called Temple of Heaven design (figs. 17-18). Essay specimens differ only slightly from this design, though they were produced both with and without holes (figs. 19-20). With the ultimate rejection of the gold standard, the subsidiary coins were never
produced for circulation.

At the time the mint became operational in March 1933, Hewitt was actually back in the United States, settled down in San Diego, and suffering from a debilitating dental affliction. He had left China in January 1933, and the mint had changed directors the
previous September. The transition was not a smooth one, judging by the flurry of telegrams that March that sought to cajole him into returning: “Boss dissatisfied
with present administration, sure change if you cable affirmative reply,” “minister desires your earliest possible return,” “you must return for China and your reputation sake,” “reply immediately thus regain your prestige and reputation” (fig. 21). In addition to
the perceived shortcomings of the new management, it had become apparent by at least March 18, less than a month after they were first issued, that the dollar coin was going to have to be withdrawn and redesigned, and Hewitt was being asked to weigh in on the matter. He cautiously considered a return to China, inquiring “under wh[o]se dir[ec]torship must I serve on my return to the mint[?].” But by April, with a relapse of his
health problems, or simply a desire to wash his hands of the whole project, he cabled, “sincerely regret further developments in my physical condition makes return to Shanghai absolutely impossible.” Nearly four decades after Hewitt left China, his papers relating to the Central Mint—along with coins, essay pieces, planchet’s, and other items—were exhibited at ANA conventions in 1968 and 1971 before being offered for sale by Superior Stamp and Coin in August 1975. The consigner, Edward P. Janzen, stated in his introduction to the exhibit that “some years ago I was fortunate in acquiring official documents and correspondence relating to [Hewitt’s] activities while serving the government of China,” but he was mute on the provenance of the numismatic items themselves, and thus the trail back to Hewitt is uncertain. In 1977 some of these numismatic materials were donated along with the papers to the ANS by Frederick Werner, who was presumably the buyer of the entire lot.