Cultural currency: How the Old U.S. Mint evolved from making money to making music
As the United States grew ever more quickly, the sole U.S. Mint in Philadelphia had trouble producing enough coins to circulate. The U.S. government decided to build three more mints around the country, in Charlotte, N.C.; Dahlonega, Ga.; and New Orleans. Construction on the New Orleans Mint began in 1835, and in 1838 it opened for production. While all three locations contributed to creating more cash for the young nation, the New Orleans Mint’s strategic location made it the most important. At the time, the city’s port was a center for international trade, and the river made it easy to move money and goods to the middle of the country. During its production years, the Old U.S. Mint produced millions of gold and silver coins.
The Old U.S. Mint still stands as a beautiful historical landmark and home to the New Orleans Jazz Museum. Admission is free, and visitors can see a wide range of exhibits, including its permanent collection, which tells the history of the building as a mint, as well as rotating exhibits of the city’s musical history. The Mint also contains a performing arts center that hosts regular live performances, recordings and other events. Today, the original coins produced at the New Orleans mint are a favorite for collectors.
- Every mint has a unique mintmark that is stamped on the coin. Any coin that was produced in New Orleans has an “O” stamped somewhere on the inverse — or “tails” side — of the coin.
- The New Orleans Mint is the oldest mint in the nation that is both in its original location and has not been reconstructed.
- The building’s architect, William Strickland, also designed the Philadelphia Mint and the Tennessee State Capitol building. The structure is a classical-revival style with ionic columns and a river-mud brick exterior.
- The building was designated as National History Landmark May 15, 1975
- The Old U.S. Mint is the only mint to have produced both United States and Confederate coinage. During the Civil War in 1861, the Confederate Army seized the New Orleans branch mint. The operations continued for about a month, producing coins with a Confederate design on one side. However, resources were scarce, and the mint soon stopped producing altogether.
- After the Civil War, the New Orleans branch mint was the only mint in the South to re-open. It continued to produce U.S. coins from 1879 until 1909. The building was later used as an assay office and a prison before the federal government transferred it to the Louisiana state government. It opened as a museum in 1981.
- Each floor of the building covers a different aspect of history. On the first floor, the building’s history as a mint is on display, including original coins and coin-production equipment. The second floor’s exhibits rotate, featuring different aspects of New Orleans’ jazz and music history. The third floor houses the Louisiana Historical Center, which is the museum’s archive of historical documents.
- Among the artifacts on display in the Jazz Museum is Louis Armstrong’s first cornet, which he began playing at the Colored Waifs Home in New Orleans, where he was sent after being arrested for firing a gun to mark New Year’s Eve 1912.
- For a historical building, the Old U.S. Mint fared better than many during and after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Although the building sustained extensive water damage to its interior and lost over half of its roof, the building was repaired and re-opened in 2008.
New Orleans brings so much to the table: Once upon a time it was a crucial port city – an economically advantageous place to build a mint. In the 20th century, New Orleans’ gave America jazz music, which the Jazz Museum calls “one of the most innovative, historically pivotal musical art forms in world history.” It may seem odd to display antique coins and jazz memorabilia side-by-side, but today’s Old U.S. Mint building has somehow united these two disparate personalities, underscoring the idea that New Orleans’ history and its culture are among its truest treasures.