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An Assayer of the U.S. Mint

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

Second U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, PA, opened in 1833

William Ewing DuBois was born 15 December 1810 to the Reverend Uriah and Martha (nee Patterson) DuBois in Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania (Please refer to separate posts for Uriah and William's brother Samuel. I also created a category "The Doylestown DuBois" for this family).

William was 11 years old when his father died, leaving him and his seven siblings to be provided for. The kindness of friends, but above all, the energy and devotion of their widowed mother, lightened the weight of the calamity. William's education had already begun at his father's academy and was continued there under his successor, Reverend Samuel Aaron. For a short time William also attended the Gummere Academy in Burlington, NJ, a boys' school offering classical education. It had been founded by John Gummere, a prominent Quaker educator and author of textbooks.

Although his education did not extend beyond the schools named, he was well furnished in the classics, mathematics, and English literature. At the age of 16, he developed a freedom and capacity as a writer that was quite remarkable. He was a frequent contributor of articles to the county newspapers and weeklies and assisted in running one of them.

His oldest brother, Charles Ewing DuBois, was an eminent member of the bar and William, under his guidance, adopted the law as his profession. He accordingly pursued the usual course, in the meantime supporting himself by literary work and helping with the preparation of documents for the transferring of property. He was admitted to practice in September 1832.

William, always somewhat delicate in constitution, suffered a bronchial disorder that would affect him the rest of his life. It rendered his voice unfit for the legal profession, or any other that would require him to publicly address anyone. This physical affliction caused him to change his profession. He accepted an appointment from Dr. Samuel Moore as Director's Clerk in the U.S. Mint at Philadelphia in September 1833. The Mint had been established on 2 April 1792 when Congress passed the Coinage Act. The original Mint was the first federal building erected under the Constitution, but William worked at the second Mint building completed in 1833.

1833 Capped Bust Half Dollar

In 1835 he was transferred to the Assay Department at the request of Jacob Reese Eckfeldt, the Assayer, who was responsible for testing the purity of the precious metals used by the Mint. In 1836, William was appointed as Assistant Assayer.

For the special branch of metallurgy in which William found himself now engaged, his previous training had not prepared him; but doubtless he had been marked as having the intelligence, the carefulness and the concentration of mind required for this work. He also had Jacob as an instructor, a thorough master of the art.

The close partnership made needful by their official relations developed into a warm friendship. The bond was made closer by the marriage of William in 1840 to Susanna Eckfeldt, the sister of his chief. Both Jacob and Susanna were the children of Adam Eckfeldt, the second Chief Coiner of the Mint appointed by President James Madison in 1814 and served in that capacity until 1839.

A variety of circumstances gave importance to the Assay Department of the Mint during William's service. Jacob was the scientific center, while William expanded the sphere of labor by venturing into new fields, not contemplated in the establishment of the Mint.

In 1834, a change took place in the ratio of gold to silver in the standard of U.S. coins, the result of which was to bring large deposits of gold to the Mint. The coinage previously had been chiefly of silver. The more equal supply of the precious metals gave active employment in the assay of each of them and was, of course, most valuable as an experience for William.

In 1848, the great discovery of gold in California brought a tremendous pressure on every department in the Mint, and not the least on the Assayers. The gold coinage was in three years raised from a little over three million dollars to more than sixty-two million.

When a minor coinage, in part of nickel, was established, the assay of that metal became a part of the routine of that department. The determination of nickel alloys was not well laid down at that time and the assay was troublesome, but a practical method was introduced. A bronze coinage followed, calling for further assay processes.

In 1839 William became the first curator of the Cabinet of Coins, the Mint's coin collection, which his father-in-law had started the year before. A small annual appropriation was procured from Congress for the purpose of selecting some of the best specimens for the collection. It grew year by year, by making exchanges, by purchases, and by saving foreign coins from the melting pot. He also obtained valuable donations from travelers, consuls and missionaries. After it had taken shape, William wrote and published a description of it under the title "Pledges of History: A Brief Account of the Collection of Coins Belonging to the Mint of the United States, More Particularly of the Antique Specimens." He thought that a coin should be prized for its historical teaching or artistic merit. He added to it a special study of counterfeits, in the detection of which he became an expert, and was able to give much valuable information to the public.

During Jacob and William's tenure in the Assayer's Department, some English sovereigns were sent to the Mint for recoinage, and they were reported by them as below the standard claimed. This was vehemently denied by the English authorities, who said, “It is impossible; the London mint makes no mistakes.” Jacob maintained that they were right, and subsequently an investigation showed that they were. The excitement in monetary circles that followed resulted in a parliamentary law ordering the closest possible examination of the weight and fineness of all the coins in the world. It was found that those of the United States were more uniform than the coins of other nations, and thenceforth Jacob's reputation as an assayer was world-wide.

In September 1872, when Jacob died, William succeeded him as Assayer, and remained at the head of the department until his own death.

William E. DuBois, abt 1881

William was described as being tall and spare, showing marks of the delicate health to which he was subject from early manhood. His features were regular, his eyes dark and brilliant, his countenance habitually grave, but easily lighted to kindly expression in the intercourse with friends. He was deterred by the vocal difficulty, mentioned above, from seeking society, but he enjoyed it when it came in his way. He was a good listener, observant, and with a keen sense for the humorous side of things. He was very accessible and ever ready to lend aid from the stores of his knowledge, but in particular did he delight to instruct and bring forward his younger friends.

After an illness of several months, William died on 14 Jul 1881, having worked for the Mint for nearly forty-eight years He left his wife, two sons and a daughter.


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