Review: John Hull, The Mint and the Economics of Massachusetts Coinage

Louis Jordan. John Hull, the Mint and the Economics of Massachusetts Coinage. No place: C 4 Publications, the Colonial Coin Collectors Club, distributed by University Press of New England, 2002. xx + 348 pp., illus., 52 figs. (b/w engravings and photographs). ISBN 1-58465-292-6.

Students of early American social and economic history, and collectors of the related coinages, will welcome this important new work by Louis Jordan, Director of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of the University’s internet web sites “Coins of Colonial and Early America,” “Colonial currency” and “Washington tokens.” Jordan has also published before on the Boston mint, and on the Nova Constellatio coppers.

Following a brief foreword by editor Philip L. Mossman and introduction by Michael Hodder, the author’s six-page preface explains the book’s development as an exercise in chronology and content. The contents are arranged in five parts followed by two appendices, the figures with their extensive captions, a postscript on a recently discovered “Willow” Tree shilling overstruck on a New England piece, a ten-page bibliography of works cited and an index.

Part One (Chapters 1 and 2), “John Hull and the Massachusetts Mint,” is essentially biographical; of value, it establishes the identity between Hull’s shop and the minting establishment. It analyzes all that is known concerning Hull, the mint’s founder and principal operator, and his partner Robert Sanderson, who may have had a larger part in the actual coining. Part Two (Chapter 3), “The Massachusetts Mint and British Politics,” proposes a realistic revisionist perspective in place of the traditional anti-British colonialist view that has colored interpretation. Part Three (Chapters 4 through 6), “The Economics of Massachusetts Silver Coinage,” discusses Hull’s seigneurage, the weights, wastage and wastage allowance, and the relative value and fineness of the Boston and London mint coinages.

Part Four, “Production Issues,” comprises seven chapters and 74 pages—by far the most extensive section of the work. Chapter 7 covers minting procedures, drawing heavily upon contemporary and near contemporary sources for analogies, among these Lazarus Ercker’s (1574) Beschreibung aller fuernemsten mineralischen Erst- und Bergwercks Arten in its several and various editions and translations (incorrectly and clumsily cited in some instances). Jordan draws rather heavily in this section upon Denis R. Cooper’s The Art and Craft of Coinmaking, a History of Minting Technology (1988), and repeats Cooper’s misidentification of a Spanish 1682 cinquentín (p. 87; Cooper, p. 61-71). Again drawing upon Cooper, Jordan introduces the curious anomaly of relocating the great old imperial mint city of Kremnica into the Czech Republic (history changes things, particularly geo-political units; this is probably just an infelicitous redaction from Cooper’s passing reference to Czechoslovakia)—doubtless a surprise for its present-day Slovak residents!

Jordan accepts Richard Doty’s thesis (offered in “Making Money in Early Massachusetts,” Money of Pre-Federal America, Proceedings of the Coinage of the Americas Conference, No. 7, New York: American Numismatic Society, 1992) that the Willow, Oak and large-sized Pine Tree shilling series of coins, as well as the fractional issues, were minted by means of a lever-controlled “rocker” or “sway” press and the later, Pine Tree shilling series by means of a balancier, or screw press. Along with similar observations by Michael Hodder, this breakthrough has assisted our understanding of fabric and appearance of the Boston Mint issues. One still wonders, however, about the possibility of coins having been hand-hammered, as was the case for standard contemporary Tower mint issues of London until 1663.

The author has succeeded with a number of clever and rewarding approaches toward the evidence. We are fortunate that Hull’s ledger books for the years 1671-6, 1677-8 and 1679-80 have survived, since they have enabled Jordan to undertake thoughtful detective work analyzing the processing of Hull’s silver consignments in terms of their volume and turnaround time. By calculating backlogging intervals and periods of productivity, he has been able to estimate the Boston mint’s output over time, and postulate some of its procedures. For example, he has determined that Hull and Sanderson seem to have attempted, as far as possible, to conduct their melts in 25-pound troy increments, normally one or two in a single day.

Working out annual productivity on the basis of necessary full-capacity days (in relation to the actual recorded amounts of the silver consignments and the practice of breaking them down into installments), Jordan has been able to demonstrate the order of magnitude of the minting for those years for which the ledgers have survived: 1671, for example, yields a shilling face-value production of 4937 pieces; 1673 yields 1776 pieces; and 1677 yields 26,668. The total quantity of minted sterling silver, in troy ounces during the years of the surviving ledgers, comes to 11,161.925; the number of shilling face-value equivalents (that is to say, including an appropriate allowance for the fractional pieces) in coinage, 74,777. This figure would have been broken down, obviously, into some allocation by denomination: for example, it could have yielded a total of 54,777 shillings, 30,000 sixpences and 20,000 threepences. No information on actual coinage output is known, hence the significance of Jordan’s modeling techniques.

Part Five of the book, “The Eight Reales and its Value in Britain and Massachusetts Bay,” places the British, Spanish and American coinages into their international economic and commercial context. Somewhat surprisingly, it does not fully address the crisis which occurred at the great Potosí mint—source of much of the 17th century’s silver supply—just several years before the Massachusetts experiment. I would suspect the Potosí scandal, involving the adulteration of silver alloy, may have had serious repercussions in Boston.

The first appendix consists of a “Transcription and commentary of the Shop Account, 1671-1680” taken directly from John Hull’s ledgers. The second appendix marshals “A Chronological Listing of Documents and Events Relating to the Massachusetts Mint”—the original meat and approach of the project which developed into this book. The “figures” are mostly of coins from the great sale of the Hain Family Collection, by Stacks (January 15, 2002), but also feature some reproductions from Cooper, maps and a few additional relevant coins. This section includes a valuable concordance for the applicable years’ dates of the British/Julian calendar. Another attractive segment of “figures” consists of reduced-size photographic reproductions of pages from John Hull’s original ledgers. For most readers, it probably would have been helpful to have the various figures placed at their respective relative positions within the body of the work.

Some scholars may wince at, and have their confidence eroded by, this work’s shortcomings, unfortunately. It deserved to have been undertaken and published by a serious academic press, but has come out inadvertently, perhaps due to haste to have it appear at the time of the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the Boston mint. It is replete with typological and syntactical errors and stylistic problems (like “sometime between the time John was around the age [sic] of 18 and 21…”). Its text includes common modernisms such as the use of “their” as a singular possessive pronoun and misuse of the verb “impact;” further problems are found in disagreement between subjects and verbs, missing words, missing letters, inconsistent punctuation and other such minor points. As a further observation, one cannot help wondering why there would be a failure in simply alphabetizing the bibliography. These vagaries taken as a whole are regrettably noticeable and disconcerting. They are forms of carelessness which tend to undermine what I believe nevertheless to be the real value and authority of this work. We may lament that the publishers didn’t take a somewhat longer view of its technical aspects, since this is definitely a handsome and interesting book, printed on archival quality paper. It will surely be consulted by all those with an interest in its subject area for years to come.

—Robert Wilson Hoge