THE HISTORY OF BALDWIN & COMPANY
Baldwin & Company bought out F. D. Kohler & Co.'s coining operation on March 15, 1850. The first reference to this new firm, however, was not reported until May 1, 1850, when a notice appeared in the Pacific News:
BALDWIN & CO.
Successors to F. D. KOHLER &- CO.
Assayers, refiners, and coiners
Manufacturers of jewelry, etc. George C. Baldwin and Thos. S. Holman.
All kinds of engraving. Our coins redeemable on presentations
The undersigned, having disposed of their stock in trade, machinery, etc., to Messrs. Baldwin & Co., would cheerfully recommend them to the confidence of the public.F. D. Kohler & Co.
Kimball's San Francisco Directory of 1850 lists "Baldwin & Co., jewelers & watchmakers, Clay Street on the Plaza (George C. Baldwin)." Baldwin & Co. initially were jewelers and watchmakers, evidenced by this listing and their advertising logotype or trademark (a watch).
It is not certain from where Baldwin and Holman had come. It is possible that the "G. W. Baldwin" on the passenger list of the steamer Empire City, that sailed from New York July 17, 1849, for Chagres, is an error for G. C. Baldwin.
Baldwin & Co. struck an incredible number of coins in $5, $10, and $20 denominations, whose appearance suggests that they were struck from dies engraved by Albert Kuner. The San Francisco Herald cites figures for January through March 1851 of $600,000 for the Assay Office and $590,000 for Baldwin.
It is possible that Baldwin planned to coin money before he went West, or shortly thereafter, for he ordered equipment sent from the East Coast which later was sold because of his taking over Kohler's equipment prior to the arrival of his order from the East. An ad appeared in the Alta California of April 14, 1850.
GOLD SCALES - a few medium-sized gold scales, with weights, Brownmaker N.Y., just received and for sale; also two counter balances and one spring do., also one superior power lathe, one small do., two heavy screw plates, with set of taps complete, magnets, spyglasses, spectacles, etc.
BALDWIN & CO.
Baldwin was at first applauded for supplying the citizens of San Francisco with low denomination coins - $5, $10, and $20 - which were badly needed to carry on day-to-day transactions. The coins were generally accepted at face value probably as a result of expressed support from financial institutions such as Edward E. Dunbar's Banking and Exchange Office. Evidently Dunbar allowed Baldwin to run a notice for six weeks to the effect that the banker would receive Baldwin's coins. Other merchants such as Tucker & Reeve, jewelers, advertised that they would receive Baldwin's coins at par.
In late March 1851, James King of William, having submitted several specimens of private coins to U. S. Assayer Humbert for valuation, published the assayer's findings in all the local newspapers. The assay showed that Baldwin's $20 pieces were worth only $19.40 (a 3 percent discount). The $ 10 pieces averaged a value of $9.74 (2.6 percent discount); the $5 specimen was slightly better at $4.91 (1.8 percent discount). The plain implication was that the public should not take Baldwin's larger coins. In any event, King's report left a trail of outraged newspapers behind it, as this Pacific News (April 9, 1851) editorial well illustrates:
THE GOLD SWINDLE - It is perhaps a matter of no special wonder that the community feels outraged because of the fact that nearly all the gold coin put in circulation by the private manufacturing establishments is short of weight. A citizen last evening went to BALDWIN'S establishment, and, presenting two of their own Twenty Dollar gold-pieces, asked their redemption in silver. These were taken, and thirty-eight dollars returned.
This is about as cool a piece of direct shaving as has come under our eye, touching upon the short-weight gold swindle. Why should the community suffer this to go on longer? Why not refuse every dollar of Baldwin's coin? . . . The only way to stop this swindle seems to be to refuse the coin altogether, not only that issued from Baldwin's mint, but from every other that proves a short weight and not to be redeemed on presentation.
Private gold coiners usually made their cost (and projected profits of operation) in the discount at which they purchased the dust for minting. Some charged a service fee (seigniorage) in lieu of, or in addition to, discounting the price at which they purchased dust or nuggets, which served the same purpose. Their only motive in issuing lightweight or heavily alloyed (debased) coins was therefore surreptitiously to increase profits.
As a result of continued public denunciations, all confidence in Baldwin coins soon disappeared. Merchants refused the coins except at sizable discounts.
Baldwin’s trash is taken by the merchants at five per cent discount; but when a bill is to pay, they try to shove it off at par. A printer’s bill for instance! (Sacramento Union, April 16, 1851
Baldwin denied Humbert’s assay report, stating it was incorrect and citing a much more favorable report by Assayer Kohler. Baldwin claimed that bankers and the rival coiner Moffat & Co. were deliberately trying to discredit him and his coins.
There was evidently an attempt at a further issue by Baldwin to regain public confidence in his coins, but this new issue never materialized. The same day Baldwin’s reply was published, Tucker & Reeves again announced they would accept coins of Baldwin & Co. at face value. This did little to rekindle public acceptance of Baldwin coins, and on April 17, 1851, Pacific News contained this final article concerning Baldwin:
We hear a story, which is pretty well authenticated, Meyers, Baldwin & Bagley, the manufacturer’s of "Baldwin’s Coin," left in the Steamer Panama on Tuesday (the 15th) for the Atlantic States. This is of course what might have been anticipated as the finale of so magnificent a financial operation as the coinage of one or two millions of circulating medium upon which they have pocketed a profit of from ten to fifteen percent the expense of manufacturing the stuff. Unable longer to impose their false tokens upon the community, an outraged public will now pocket the loss and congratulate themselves that the swindle has been exposed even this early.
The amount of this coin in circulation is not less than $1,000,000 and probably nearer to two million. But suppose that the smaller sum be correct, the profit to the manufacturer is one hundred thousand dollars. Whose swindling false token establishment is next to be chronicled amongst the "departed for Panama?" (Emphasis by author.)
This is the only reference to Bagley who, at some point, must have taken Holman’s place as Baldwin’s partner. Most of the coins were quickly sold at a discount or melted by those who wished to cut their losses and recover what bullion they could. In addition, the merchants were quick to encourage the depreciation of the Baldwin coins, as it allowed them to discount the same 20 percent, thereby giving them a tidy profit when they sent their coins to the mint or assay office to be melted. Many of the Baldwin coins were received by the U.S. Assay Office and melted, and by December there was little Baldwin coinage left in circulation.
If one is to accept the findings of Kohler and Eckfeldt and DuBois over Humbert’s March 26, 1851 report, then the Baldwin coinage was not nearly so debased as James King and others reported. It is important to realize, however, that the merchants and bankers perceived the coins as being fraudulent and as a result the latter, whether justly or not, lost the confidence of the mercantile community.
The excessive notoriety of Baldwin & Co.’s coins, clandestinely cultivated by the merchants for private profit, coupled with the growing feeling of unreliability in all private gold coins, caused the private mints once again to cease issuing coins in 1851. The United States Assay Office was the only California mint which continued to issue coins until the following year, a state of affairs which was the major contributor to a severe economic depression in California that lasted over a year.
--Reprinted with permission of the author from Donald H. Kagin's, "Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States", copyright 1981, Arco Publishing, Inc. of New York, pp 109-112.