Even though I have three kids and have been parenting for just shy of two decades, I still actually enjoy hanging out with my children (go figure!) and volunteer to be involved in almost every field trip possible. This morning the upside was that I drove a car of five 12yo girls into Denver to tour the Denver Mint. And it was very interesting, to say the least!
Unfortunately, no cameras are allowed, there’s a lot of security and we were constantly being watched by at least 2 or 3 Mint security staff (actually Federal police, a part of the U. S. Treasury Department) so even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t have taken a single photograph. Fortunately the Web had a few I could dig up for this article, though I’m not sure how they got them in the first place. Publicity pics from Treasury? Maybe.
When we first arrived and had to go through a screening process more rigorous than that at the airport, it seemed a tad excessive given that we were never out of the tour walkways, looking down on the operations through thick glass, but as we learned what else they have in the building, the security suddenly seemed rather light. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
While historically the Mint was staffed by people operating manual presses and stamps, the advent of computer assisted manufacturing and more modern technologies has dramatically changed the main facility, as you can see in the below photograph. In fact, when the Denver Mint first opened it took a dedicated coin maker two days to produce what each of these machines can now produce in 35 minutes.
The 6th graders were quite engrossed in the many historical displays at the Denver Mint, displays that included a history of coinage, an extensive step-by-step explanation of how metal is pounded into rolls, heated up, punched to get the slugs, cleaned, stamped and inspected, and historical displays of Mint police gear and the famous case of Orville Harrington, a Mint employee who stole over 50 sheets of gold, not in his wooden leg as the myth goes, but by simply slipping them into his inner jacket pocket as he’d leave each day.
The cornerstone of the tour is the coin pressing facility, of course, and it’s quite impressive how much they pump out to meet half the national demand for coins (about 25 million coins produced daily, 50% pennies, that are then distributed to the Federal Reserve banks throughout the United States). Peak capacity of the massive industrial stamps are a staggering 40 million coins daily, though demand isn’t that high right now.
The Mint building itself was completed in 1904 and is styled after the Riccardi Palace in Florence, Italy, a classic Italian Renaissance building. It’s gorgeous, with striking chandeliers that look very much like a Tiffany creation but are actually from a competing factory and the only ones of their style in the world. The building also has layers of security, multiple heavy steel doors on egress points, steel bars over all the windows that are at least 3″ across, and more surveillance gear than a TV studio.
Why? Because in addition to making millions of dollars worth of coins, additional millions in collectible coins and memorabilia the Denver Mint houses 17.5% of the United States gold reserve. That adds up to a cool 50 billion dollars worth of gold bullion. Fifty billion. That’s why they need some decent security!
And contrary to what we see in films, the Treasury tour guide told us that no-one had ever tried to break in and rob the Denver Mint. Which is amazing because with a $50 billion prize, spending a few million to engineer an Italian Job-style robbery seems like a reasonable bet.
They had three gold bars on display, each of which weighs about 27 pounds or so. A 27 pound “brick” of gold is 400 troy ounces and with gold currently valued at $1079/oz as I write this, each of those three gold ingots are worth a cool $431,600 USD.
Still, the real job of the Denver Mint is to produce coins, and it turns out that it costs them $0.02 to produce a penny, and almost $0.10 to produce a nickel, interestingly enough. That’s made up for by the fact that their production cost for a dime is $0.04 and a quarter is $0.10, translating into a net profit of almost $500 million in 2014.
The only coins in circulation are the penny, nickel, dime and quarter: half-dollars and dollar coins are in circulation but are no longer produced. Oh, and look closely at a coin. See how the edges are higher than the rest of the coin? That’s not for stacking, it’s simply to ensure that the artwork lasts longer without being rubbed off. Smart!
I’m not much of a numismatist, but I really enjoyed the tour, even if we spent more time peering through heavy glass than anything else. Personable tour guides and engaging displays coupled with beautiful architecture and interesting industrial processes — and money! lots of money! — made it a fun and worthwhile hour.
Here’s a warning, though: you have to reserve a tour in advance, you can’t just show up at the Denver Mint and hope to get in on the next tour leaving the side door. They only run Mon-Thurs 8-3pm and you can learn more about the tours here: Visit the Denver Mint.