Because numismatics first became a national hobby more than 150 years ago, there has been a sufficient amount of time for myths and legends to grow about the coinage of the United States. Some of these stories are of course quite true, but others are not and it is the aim of this article and two prior ones in the Oct. 11 and Oct. 25 issues to correct some of the misinformation which occurs from time to time.
The King of Siam proof set
At the 1962 American Numismatic Association convention in Atlanta, Ga., English coin dealer David Spink revealed, for the first time, the existence of the original proof set of American coins presented to the King of Siam in 1835. This was one of the diplomatic gifts carried by the American special envoy, Edmund Roberts. The set had been prepared by Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt in December 1834 and all of the coins carried that date except for the silver dollar and gold eagle, both dated 1804.
When found it was missing the half dime and quarter eagle. Since that time the opinion has arisen, for uncertain reasons, that the quarter eagle with motto was not missing because it had never been there. Instead it was argued that a dime-sized gold medal of President Andrew Jackson was originally in the set. The set as now displayed contains the Jackson medal in question.
The original invoice for this set – as well as the one for the Imam of Muscat, also struck in December 1834 – has been found and states that four quarter eagles were made for the two sets. This does not prove that the other quarter eagle was the type with motto but no other logical conclusion can be drawn from the Mint records.
The original opinion, as stated in 1962 by David Spink, that the 1834 quarter eagle with motto was one of the two missing coins, should therefore be considered as correct.
The 1840 proof half cent
In the first edition of Roger Cohen’s fine work on half cents (American Half Cents, the “Little Half Sisters”), published in 1971, he remarks on Page 101 that he was not convinced that the proof-only half cents dated 1840 through 1842 were actually struck in those years. Cohen noted that the design in question was not used on the large cent until 1843.
In his second edition, dated 1981, Cohen noted again that the design was not adopted on the large cent until 1843 but softens his view that the earlier half cents were not struck in the years on the coins. Walter Breen, in his half cent book published in 1983, did not mention this apparent dichotomy in designs and was content to describe the various issues.
The Mint archives contain a letter which settles the question once and for all. On Aug. 7, 1840, Mint Director Robert M. Patterson forwarded a set of 1840 coins to an unnamed collector. Patterson stated that it was a complete set of the 1840 coins but, for whatever reason, the half eagle was not mentioned. Otherwise all coins were there, from the half cent to the gold eagle. That Patterson specifically mentioned the half cent clearly proves that that proof-only half cents were struck during this year and not later, as Cohen thought might be possible.
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Considering that the 1840 half cent was struck only in proof, it seems possible that this letter actually covers a full set of 1840 proof coins except for the half eagle, which may have been sent earlier. It is therefore one of the earliest Mint letters dealing with proof coins.
Restrikes of the 1875 $3 gold pieces
It was long ago discovered that too many $3 gold pieces were in existence for the 1875 coinage, of which only 20 pieces were officially struck, all for the gold proof sets. This has led to speculation by researchers that somehow the dies were kept on hand and not destroyed as required by law. According to this theory, this in turn allowed dishonest Mint employees to restrike – in later years – the 1875 $3 pieces for sale to interested collectors.
Although the above scenario has a nice ring to it, there is a more logical explanation for the extra pieces for 1875 and other years in this era. (The dies were destroyed in the presence of several witnesses, who jointly signed a statement listing the dies so treated. Failure to destroy all the dies, against the list which would have been furnished by the engraving department, is so unlikely that it can be dismissed out of hand.)
When proof coins were struck, there was always an extra supply made at the same time to take care of any unexpected demand. If 20 coins were delivered for the gold sets, for example, the coiner might actually have produced 35 or 40 coins and then simply picked the best for the first 20 sets.
If all the extras made did not sell, the coiner simply melted them at year’s end and reported this action in his bullion accounts, which still exist. Those persons with access to the extra coins merely switched full-weight coins for the proofs so that the account would balance as to weight. The proof coins were then removed from the Mint and sold to those wanting such coins. In some cases, of course, it would have been necessary to lay the coins aside for a reasonable number of years so the Mint officials would not learn of what had been done.
There seems little doubt that this method of obtaining extra proof gold coins, or even silver and minor proofs, was carried on to a certain extent in the 1870s. In 1880, however, the Mint began selling individual gold proof coins again – for the first time since 1861 – and the market for the extra proof gold coins would have essentially collapsed. The number of silver and minor proofs removed from the Mint in this way was probably relatively low, however.
Hard Times tokens
Hard Times tokens are well collected today, but there seems to be a belief that such pieces were struck well before the Hard Times actually began in 1837. The term ‘Hard Times’ simply meant in the 1830s that a serious recession or depression was ongoing.
We find Hard Times tokens dated well before 1837, but these are merely tokens that were issued by various companies with a date that refers to when the firm was founded or won an important prize at a major exhibition. The actual economic downturn began on May 10, 1837, when banks abruptly refused to pay specie (gold or silver) in exchange for their bank notes.
As a result of the economic problems and the lack of gold or silver coins in the marketplace, someone came up with the idea of striking copper tokens the size of a cent. These were sold to merchants for 62½ cents per 100 coins, producing a good profit when paid out to the public in lieu of the real cent struck by the Mint.
By early September 1837, according to one newspaper account, “there are in circulation immense quantities of spurious coin in the shape of manufacturers’ cards, &c. which pass current as cents.” These soon came to the attention of Mint Director Robert M. Patterson, who was considerably less than pleased at the unexpected competition. The Mint was partly funded by the profit on copper coinage and the tokens being issued in great numbers seriously cut into this source of income.
Patterson not only wrote various federal district attorneys – in particular at Boston, Baltimore and New York – to crack down on these tokens but even saw to it that a grand jury was convened in November 1837 at Philadelphia. He testified before this official body, which resulted in a very stern public warning against anyone issuing or striking these tokens. Patterson also encouraged the prosecution of a prominent Baltimore businessman, E.H. Merrill, for his role in such matters.
One of the more humorous remarks that appeared in connection with the Merrill conviction appeared in the New York Gazette: “We hope that this just decision will teach Mr. Merrill to keep good cents about him and never again to palm upon the public any more of his non cents.”
The quick action by Patterson and the United States Treasury soon put an end to the plethora of tokens in the marketplace though no doubt a diminishing number of them continued in use in the outlying areas throughout the 1840s. In the major cities, such as Baltimore their circulation had, according to one newspaper, “disappeared as if by magic” as early as the middle of December 1837.
Not all of the tokens were passed out with business motifs and many were highly political in nature. Both enemies and friends of the Van Buren Administration managed to issue quite a few satirical tokens among the numerous business pieces. In addition former President Andrew Jackson, who many blamed for the economic ills, was the subject of several tokens with less than flattering comments.
To summarize, the true period when the Hard Times tokens circulated extensively may be characterized as roughly August through December 1837. Other dates are pure speculation not based on the true facts of the matter.
The Gobrecht Dollars of 1836-1839
There has been published, almost without a doubt, more incorrect information about the famous Gobrecht silver dollars than any other series of United States coins. Two of the issues, in particular, are widely misunderstood by both researchers and collectors. The first is the 600 pieces struck in 1837 on the new standard of .900 fineness and 412.5 grains weight. (The Gobrecht dollars struck in 1836 had used the requirements from the 1792 law, .8924 and 416 grains.)
The 1837 coins were struck with the 1836 date and, in order to distinguish these coins from those struck in 1836, the dies were inverted, medal fashion. (Coin alignment means that the piece is turned end over end to have the reverse appear upright. Medal turn, on the other hand, requires the coins to be turned horizontally for the same purpose.)
The 600 Gobrecht silver dollars of March 1837 were struck on a new steam coining press as a test of that press with this design. The pieces were of normal uncirculated finish and not proof; they also had a reeded edge. Unfortunately Mint Director Robert M. Patterson, after consulting with Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt, declared the test run a failure and the coins were later melted and not released to the public.
A small number of the “1837” pieces do exist, however. These were struck on the largest screw press as proofs for collectors and have a plain edge. These are in the correct medal turn and the eagle is flying upward at about a 30 degree angle when properly rotated. If the eagle is flying flat, or nearly so, it is a restrike from the late 1850s.
The other issue, 1839, has had even more incorrect information published about it. The 300 pieces struck in December of that year were also a test run on an improved steam press. The design had been changed by putting the stars on the obverse; this was done so that the reverse would strike up better, but the attempt failed once more and the entire issue was melted in the spring of 1840 by order of Dr. Patterson.
One would think, however, that at least one or two 1839 proof coins with plain edges would have survived. At present, however, not a single original 1839 Gobrecht dollar is known in any collection though it is hoped that one will be found in due course. For an 1839 Gobrecht to be an original it must have been struck in coin turn, with the eagle flying upwards when correctly rotated. All other pieces are restrikes of the late 1850s.
It should be mentioned that the 300 pieces struck on the steam coining press in December 1839 were business strikes, not proofs. The proofs would have been coined on the screw press.
There is little doubt that when an original 1839 silver dollar appears it will command more than a million dollars at auction. The person who obtains such a coin will have acquired one of the great prizes in American numismatics.
The belief in some quarters that Gobrecht dollars were restruck into the 1870s is not supported by a single document and is merely speculation by researchers who have not examined the original Mint records. In point of fact, documents show clearly that the last possible date for restriking was 1869, but that virtually all of the restrikes were made before February 1860.