While Nellie Tayloe Ross is often remembered for being Wyoming’s first and only female governor, it is lesser known that she spent most of her career as the Director of the U.S. Mint. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her to the position in 1933.
Ross had been the Vice Chairman of the Women’s Division of the National Democratic Committee. As such, she had led the campaign for the women’s vote for F.D.R., demonstrating both her organizational skills and her loyalty to the President-elect. A lobbying effort had been launched by women all across the U.S. to get Roosevelt to consider a woman for his cabinet, and Ross’ name was put forward for the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. A supporter pointed out that “Governor Ross has shown her ability to meet new situations masterfully, and I am convinced that she could cut this new path for women with distinction and without any fuss.”
Roosevelt took note but decided to nominate Frances Perkins as the first ever woman on a Presidential cabinet. He had another role in mind for Ross – Director of the U.S. Mint.
At first, some of the 500 mostly male Mint employees rebelled at the idea of a female director. But Ross brooked no nonsense and quickly got to work proving her competence.
The responsibilities of the Mint Director were enormous. In addition to overseeing the Bureau of the Mint in Washington D.C., she managed the operations of three far flung Mints in Denver, San Francisco and Philadelphia and two U.S. Assay Offices in Seattle and New York City. The U.S. Bullion Depositories also fell under her domain. It was there that billions of dollars of the Government’s gold and silver stocks were held. The gold was kept at the famous Fort Knox, in Kentucky, while the silver was secured in New York at West Point.
Managing all of these various sites meant that Ross travelled frequently at first by train, and then later by plane, checking in with her many employees. By all accounts she was both a personable and effective manager. As the country emerged from the Great Depression, increased demand for coinage put pressure on the Mint to expand operations. Ross oversaw the construction of new Mint buildings in San Francisco, West Point and Fort Knox. She became the first woman in U.S. history to have her name engraved on not one, but three cornerstones of Government Mint buildings.
During World War II, Ross spearheaded a Mint campaign to encourage Americans who had been saving pennies in jars and piggy banks to return those coins to circulation by buying War Stamps and Bonds. The country was experiencing a shortage of pennies and the copper usually used by the Mint to manufacture the coins was in scarce supply. Copper, which was needed for tanks, planes and ammunition, had become more valuable than diamonds, as far as winning the war was concerned.
In addition to minting coins and managing gold and silver stocks, the Mint produced Congressional commemorative medallions, millions of military combat award medals and billions of foreign coins.
Ross modernized Mint processes, equipment and hiring practices. She encouraged employee innovation. At the peak of operations, her staff grew to 4,000 employees, with the three Mints producing billions of coins 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. She became conversant with the technologies and processes of minting and spoke with pride of her many dedicated and efficient employees. They, in turn, praised her as the best Director who had ever served. One said, Mrs. Ross “never misses a thing” and others thanked her for her dedication to her “Mint Family.” Politicians appreciated Ross for her fiscally responsible approach to managing the money the government appropriated for Mint operations.
Nellie Tayloe Ross was so accomplished in her role as Director of the Mint, that she served for twenty years under three Presidents, both Democrat and Republican. When she retired in 1953, she was a spry seventy-six years old. To this day, no other Mint Director has had such a long and distinguished tenure. Her capable service opened the doors wider for other women seeking high level policy-making posts in Government.
You can learn more about Nellie Tayloe Ross by viewing some of her papers and photographs in the Nellie Tayloe Ross digital collection at the American Heritage Center or visit the AHC to see the complete collection of the Nellie Tayloe Ross papers.
Post submitted by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.