by Peter J. Miksich, Jr., a Buffalo Nickel Devotee
The 1918/7-D Buffalo Nickel overdate was actually manufactured during the last three months of 1917 at the main U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On April 6, 1917, the United States had entered into World War I, and the entire nation was gearing up to a war footing. The eventual goal was to provide men and material to support our entry in the struggle against Germany.
Even without our Nation’s entry into World War I, The Mint at Philadelphia at the time was very busy manufacturing and producing dies for not only the current year (1917), but also for the coming year (1918). The changeover in years always overlapped. Dies for both years were produced at the same time.
During this critical time of coin production, new taxes and fees were imposed on the American public to help finance the war effort. An unprecedented demand for minor coinage of One and Five Cent denominations began to tax the Mint to its’ very limits to produce these coins. One can probably envision this activity as being similar to a beehive, with the bees scurrying everywhere to make ends meet.
The die, as they say, had been set. But there was one more ingredient to add to this mix.
Uncle Sam Wants YOU!
Patriotism reached into the sanctums of the United States Mint, and Mint employees, just like their fellow countrymen, enlisted to serve overseas. Experienced and trained labor from all three Mints suddenly left their posts to join the war effort.
In the midst of the critical changeover from coinage of 1917 to 1918, the Mint scrambled to hire replacements. This, when operations on an uninterrupted schedule were crazy enough, let alone without an influx of new, untrained employees. This scenario explains the basic reason why events started to go wrong.
A Cold and Chilly Philly Morning
The winds of war and weather swirled around outside the environs of the Philadelphia Mint sometime near the end of 1917. New hires and seasoned veterans struggled to get the job done. I don’t think that it would be too out of place to state that the “Baptism of Fire” had begun for the replacement employees. Amidst an insurmountable demand for coins and productivity, the new force was trained as best as possible and thrown into the cauldron of coin production.
And what a cauldron it was! The Mint is, in reality no more than a government owned and operated manufacturing plant with a specialized product. The manufacture and minting of coins involves myriad steps, each step creating its’ own unique sound. There would have been the constant clatter from the coining presses as they churned out new coins, the metal clanging of furnace doors opening and closing, the hydraulic hissing of the hubbing machines, the constant ruckus emanating from the blanking machine area, and the whirls and squeaks from the upset mill. Add to that the constant motion of coin bins transporting blanks, planchets, or newly minted coins going everywhere at once, and the side by side hubbing of two different years coinage dies at the same time, with employees removing annealed dies from the furnace and transporting them to the hubbing press for another impression.
There was a whole lot going on...
This hectic pace and frantic rush to produce coins is the cause for what was to happen next.
The Janvier Premiers and Philly Fails
The Mint purchased a new Janvier Reducing Lathe in 1907, but didn’t actually use it successfully until late in 1920! The new machine was capable of reducing in size a model design of approximately 12 to 16 inches in size (what is called a Galvano) to the exact size of a die needed to strike the actual coin.
The Mint first tried the direct reduction in 1907 on Augustus St. Gaudens’ new $20 Double Eagle design. Due to unknown technical problems, they were unable To do it. It seemed the Mint could not get the Janvier to operate properly and correctly and satisfactorily cut on a direct reduction from a larger-size Galvano. They scrapped the direct reduction process and fell back to a compromise position.
As a consequence, Brenner's Lincoln Cent, Frasier’s Buffalo Nickel, Weinman's Winged Liberty Head Dime, and Macneil's Standing Liberty Quarter (to name a few) were all reduced outside the Mint to a more manageable 9 inch size by the Medallic Art Company located in New York, NY
From this point, the Janvier was able to successfully reduce the size to the exact dimension needed to produce dies for coinage.
The first coin that The Mint was able to fully re-produce (without the outside reduction) on the Janvier goes to Anthony De Francisci’s 1921 Peace Dollar. It took the Mint 14 years to master the use of the new Janvier Reducing Machine. One year short of 100, the Janvier is still in use today. It must have been a heck of a complicated piece of equipment!
The Hubbing Process
The Janvier, in a long, slow process sometimes taking up to two full days to complete, produced the Master Hub for production of coinage. The Master Hub is used every year to produce the two (normally) Master Dies that will, in turn, be used to create several Working Hubs, which are positive in relief, just like the finished coin will be.
The Working Hubs form the basis from which all Working Dies will be produced.
Working Hubs are placed into hydraulic presses. The press is then lined up with a piece of metal which will, after several impressions from the Working Hub, be transformed in to a Working Die that will be used to strike coins. This is called a “Hubbing”.
Before the piece of die steel receives its’ first hubbing, it is sent to an annealing furnace and heated till it becomes cherry red in color. This procedure softens the die enough to allow it to be pressed into (squeezed) with the Working Hub to form a partial impression of the coin design.
The technology exists in the present to create a Working Die with only one impression from the Working Hub. This “single squeeze” procedure has been in use since 1997. Back in 1917, each die needed to be impressed several times to completely form the final Working Die. This varied by coin, size, and design.
A Buffalo Nickel required 3 to 5 hubbings to completely transfer the image to the Working Die. In comparison, it could take up to 20 hubbings before a Working Die was finished for a Morgan Dollar!
After the first annealing, the Working Die would be set aside and allowed to cool. Then it would have been transported to a press, locked in, and the Working Hub would , under tons of pressure, be forced into it. An image begins to form, though it is incomplete. As a result of the pressure imposed on it from the Working Hub, the Working Die becomes stress hardened, so after being “hubbed”, it must be sent back to the annealing furnace to be softened again.
This is the initial point where things began to go wrong.
Folly in Philly...the Uncaught Mistake
Amidst the buzz of activity circulating throughout the production floor at Philadelphia, and as a result of of the previously mentioned noise and hectic pace involved with production of much needed minor coinage, the workforce was starting to become stressed to the point of cracking.
It could have happened during a shift change, where a worker who had just started their shift walked in on the ongoing operation and was unaware as to where the 1918 and 1917 Working Dies were being created.
Or, it could also have happened when a worker, who was feverishly trying to keep up with the output of production, became confused with the location of the two separate dates being produced at the same time.
In the confusion of the moment, a 1917 dated die that had been impressed once or twice previously, was retrieved after cooling and installed into a press that was making 1918 dies.
It was impressed, one or more times with a 1918 dated Working Hub and became an Overdate.
Clearly, the die was intended for 1917 coinage, as it can easily be seen with close observation that the1918 date was impressed OVER the 1917 date.
The finished die was then placed into a container, most likely a box, with other completed dies for 1918, awaiting inspection and approval for use. It obviously escaped inspection. Why this is the case, is again open to speculation. I believe that only a cursory look was given to the completed dies. They were all needed for production as fast as they could be produced. The production of the obverse (Overdated) die was complete at this stage. Reverse dies, however, that were ultimately destined for use at the branch mints at Denver, Colorado, and San Francisco, California still needed to have mintmarks impressed into them. Mintmarks for all denominations in 1918 were all hand punched into finished dies that were destined for use at Mint facilities other than Philadelphia.
Denver Bound - The Westward Journey
The Pennsylvania Railroad (called “Standard Railroad of the World” in advertisements by the Railroad itself) began the transportation of the finished dies to the Denver and San Francisco Mints.
After interchange in Chicago, they would have been handed off to a Western Railroad for final delivery. It is unclear whether they were loaded onto a passenger train, and stored in a baggage car, or if they were loaded into a freight car and sent as normal freight. I lean towards them being transported in a freight car, because other coinage parts made in Philadelphia, such as machine parts and die collars also had to be shipped..
Arrival and use....Inspection abuse?
Totally reliant on supply of dies and parts from Philadelphia, the Denver Mint unloaded the shipment, logged the contents, and stored everything in inventory until its’ eventual use.
The reverse die eventually mated with the obverse overdate was of the new, freshly introduced “D” punched mintmark (the device used to impress the mintmark is called a puncheon) which debuted during that latter part of 1917.
The old punch, used from (1913-17) was retired in the middle of 1917 in favor of the new (1917-34) punch. Denver nickels of 1917 can be found with both punches, though no premium exists between either the old or new.
All 1918 Denver produced nickels have the new punch.
So it is known that the Overdate was mated with a fresh, new reverse die, not one used, or unused from previous years. The “D” on the die used on the Overdate is punched almost perfectly centered between the “F” of “Five” and the “C” of “Cents”.
This centering is one of the”diagnostics” to be checked to authenticate the Overdate.
The Overdated obverse sat with its siblings, stored in the die locker at the Denver Mint, awaiting its eventual use. When the time arrived, it was withdrawn from the box it was shipped in, and sent to be basined. This is the second time that the Overdate was not discovered.
“Basining” is a Mint process done to ensure that the proper contour, or radii, of a die is curved correctly to facilitate the proper flow of metal into all areas of the outer die.
This process is unique to the mint of manufacture, Dies are not basined at Philadelphia for the branch mints.....they perform that process themselves. The basining process also did not disclose the overdated die.
The die is then inserted into a press, and again it escaped being discovered before coining by the Coiner himself.
So, after at least three missed inspections, the Overdate rolled off the presses and into history.
The Aftermath...13 year later.
It eventually was left to a coin collector, who, upon inspecting a 1918 dated coin in 1931, discovered the error, and alerted The Numismatist of its existence. Being that the Overdate was not discovered until 13 years later, sufficient time undetected in circulation had worn down many examples to undated status, with most of the remaining ending up in grades below Fine.
This is why the Overdate is so rare. Not a soul even knew of its existence till it was far too late to hoard it -- or to even find individual pieces.
Problems from hurried production of not only minor coins during 1918 led to the creation of the 1917/8-S Standing Liberty Quarter.
That coin, discovered in 1937, is probably ever rarer than the Buffalo overdate, as it also had a vary fragile and exposed date.
Add to that the fact that Bill Fivaz (The Cherrypickers Guide) stated that 1918 Buffs have a proportionally higher share of off-center strikes and defects than normal, and it becomes painfully clear that shoddy production, hurried and harrowed work, and no, or only cursory inspection during an extremely busy period at the U. S. Mint, led to the release of the famous 1918/7-D Overdate.
I hope you all enjoy this. Every coin has a story. I love coin collecting.
(Thanks to Hoot (Mark Hooten) for his help and input to this short story)