The first mint in the United States, the Philadelphia Mint, was established in 1792; apt as Philadelphia was the United States’ capital at the time. This mint struck all United States coinage until 1835. According to the United States Mint, the Act of March 3, 1835, established the first branch mints in Dahlonega, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The Act also provided that the Director of the Mint would decide on the regulations for identifying coins stamped at each institution to ensure the central control of all coinage.
What is a Mint Mark?
The provision of the Act to include such marks on coins was so that production from different branch mints of the establishment could be standardized. Mint mark usage also ensured easy identification of the Mint of issue should a given coin be received in circulation or returned to the Mint. Have you ever noticed a small letter on a coin near the date? This letter is the mint mark of the coin. A mint mark is defined as a small letter on a coin identifying which of the United States Mint’s facilities struck the coin. Other world mints also employ mint marks for much the same reason. Collectors around the world will recognize the Perth Mint’s “P” mint mark.
Historic Branches of the United States Mint
Charlotte (“C” mint mark) and Dahlonega (“D” mint mark) were the first two branch mints, and they were established because of the discovery of gold nearby.
The Dahlonega Mint was opened in 1838 and coined more than $100,000 worth of gold in its first year and produced almost 1.5 million gold coins. The Charlotte Mint opened for business in 1837, and raw gold would be processed and refined until 1838 when the first $5 gold half eagle was struck. Both mints were closed in 1861 because of the Civil War and never re-opened.
San Francisco (“S” mint mark) opened a mint in 1854 to handle the discovery of gold in nearby Sutter’s Mill and to make circulating currency for the recent influx of people to the area hunting that gold. It is the only mint in this section of this article, which still operates today by minting proof coins, commemorative coins, and bullion coins (see below for more information).
New Orleans was a major worldwide port, and it was here that a new mint would be opened in 1854 (under the same Act as the San Francisco Mint) to refine foreign silver entering the port.
The New Orleans Mint (“O” mint mark) closed after minting its final coins in 1904 because of its limited capacity and a lessened need for its existence. In 2021, the United States Mint issued modern day Morgan Silver Dollars that were struck from .999 fine silver, including some that were struck with an “O” privy mark in honor of the now-defunct New Orleans Mint.
The Carson City Mint (“CC” mint mark) was opened in 1870 for silver coinage production because of the discovery of large nodes of silver nearby but was closed in 1893 due to a lack of volume in mining new silver.
Issues from this now defunct mint are particularly prized due to the Carson City Mint’s ties to the American frontier. In 2021, the United States Mint struck .999 fine Morgan Silver Dollars, including some that were struck with a “CC” privy mark in honor of the historic Carson City Mint.
Current Branches of the United States Mint
San Francisco Mint (“S” Mint Mark)
The “S” mint mark was used on all coins minted in San Francisco from the beginning of production in 1854 until 1955, when production at the mint was suspended. In 1965, production resumed but on a more limited basis. Supplemental coinage was produced at the San Francisco mint from 1968 to 1974 and once again displayed the ‘S’ mint mark.
The Denver Mint (second use of the “D” mint mark)
The Denver mint began operation in 1906, re-using the ‘D’ mint mark that Dahlonega had used from 1838 through 1861. There was a point in time, though, that the mint mark was removed.The Coinage Act of 1965 was established, in small part, to prohibit the use of mint marks for five years (along with its primary purpose of removing silver from circulating coinage). While coins dated 1965, 1966, and 1967 don’t have any mint marks, using mint marks was resumed in 1968. This year was also when mint marks were permanently relocated from the reverse of coins to the obverse side.
The West Point Mint (“W” mint mark)
The West Point Mint was initially built to store silver in 1938 and was known as the West Point Bullion Depository at the time. The branch’s primary purpose changed in the 1970s. In 1973, the West Point Mint produced some of the United States’ cents. In 1980 it began to strike gold medallions and storing gold in vaults. In 1983, the West Point Mint began minting gold coins. Now, the West Point Mint is strictly a specialty shop and helper to the other branch mints. The West Point Mint produces primarily commemorative coins and collector bullion issues.
First W Pennies and Nickels
In recent years, the United States Mint has started including special West Point Mint first-evers in their annual Proof and Mint Sets. In 2019, the Mint issued the first-ever Lincoln cents that were both struck at the West Point Mint and bore its “w” privy mark with the Proof, Uncirculated, and Silver Proof sets that year. In 2020, the Mint continued this tradition by including West Point Mint struck Jefferson Nickels. The bonus coins included with each set featured a different finish, allowing collectors to appreciate the iconic designs for the first time with a “W” mint mark.
The Philadelphia Mint (“P” mint mark, selectively)
In the early years of coin production, the only Mint in operation was located in Philadelphia, so identifying where a coin was minted wasn’t necessary. And even after the other branch mints were established, the Philadelphia mint – because they were the ‘main’ mint – continued to mint coins without a mint mark. Due to rationing and metal shortage during WWII, in 1942, the five-cent coin’s composition was changed to 35% silver, 56% copper, and 9% manganese.
To distinguish these special coins from those that had already been minted, a ‘P’ mint mark was added to the reverse side of the coin above the Monticello dome. After the war, the United States Mint returned to the regular alloy composition, and the ‘P’ mint mark on Philadelphia coinage was largely discontinued. The mint mark on Philadelphia coins once again began reappearing in 1979, and today all coins minted in Philadelphia bear the ‘P’ mint mark except the cent.
“Struck at” American Silver Eagles
While bullion American Silver Eagles do not bear a physical mint mark, it is sometimes possible to discover where a given coin was struck thanks to both identifying marks on sealed monster boxes and information released by the United States Mint in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request filed by Coin World back in 2017. Now grading companies can sometimes identify which bullion issues were struck at the various branch mints, which is indicated on their certification labels with a parenthesis around the mint mark. For example, if you see a 2020 (W) Silver Eagle for sale, that shows that the coin does not carry a mint mark but that whatever grading service authenticated and certified it, was able to verify that it originated from a respective mint.
For more information about the initial discovery of these “hidden mint marks,” read this article.
What is the Difference Between a Privy Mark and a Mint Mark
You have probably heard the term “privy mark” in your coin collecting journeys as well. A privy mark is very similar to a mint mark. Privy marks have been used for centuries to identify the mint or issuing body of coinage, the artist who created its design, or some other element of the coin’s origin. Today, privy marks are most often used to mark special releases of coins, major world events, or even designers.
A coin can bear both a privy mark and a mint mark! For example, the United States Mint introduced a V75 privy mark in 2020 to honor the 75th anniversary of the end of allied involvement in World War II. Some issues, like circulating 2020-W quarters, which were struck at the West Point Mint, actually carried both the “W” mint mark and a V75 privy. The W- mint mark, denoting that it was struck at the West Point Mint, while the “V75” privy denotes its inclusion in the Mint’s end of world war II anniversary issues.