One of the most interesting aspects of numismatics is collecting type coins. In this endeavor, collectors naturally strive for the best coin that can be obtained. This also means, however, that such coins as the 1808 Quarter Eagle, a distinct type that was struck in just that one year, bring strong prices at public auction even when not in the highest grades.
There is sometimes debate on just what characterizes a type coin as opposed to a variety. It is one that will perhaps never be answered, and individual collectors often have differing opinions on just what criteria are required for a true type coin as opposed to a mere variety.
The best type sets, however, are those that include all important types as well as varieties of distinction. It is the aim of this article to discuss the types and varieties of silver coins struck in 1836 and 1837 with an eye towards pointing out differences that are not normally thought of as important.
The 1830s were years of change for the Philadelphia Mint. Beginning in 1828, Mint Director Samuel Moore had introduced key mechanical changes to the system of coinage and these were accelerated under his successor, Dr. Robert M. Patterson, who assumed office in July 1835.
Both Patterson and Moore thought very little of the current designs on all three coinage metals then being struck by the Mint – gold, silver and copper – and introduced improvements to the artwork whenever possible. In 1834, with the change in weight and fineness for the gold coinage, Chief Engraver William Kneass executed new heads of Liberty. And in 1835 Kneass remodeled the Liberty head found on the cent, the old one long a thorn in the side of those who wanted a more artistic copper coinage.
The most interesting changes, however, came to the silver. With the advent of steam coinage in March 1836, it was the intention of Dr. Patterson to strike every coin at the Mint the new way and do away with the old screw presses that had served the Mint since 1792. The first coinage on the new press was of cents, and the event was considered so important in the minds of mint officials that a special medal was struck the same day, March 23, that this occurred.
In terms of marketplace and other commercial uses, the most important silver coin struck in 1836 was the half dollar, but in March 1836 this denomination was still being struck on the old screw presses. Patterson ordered Engraver Christian Gobrecht to prepare dies for a new coinage of half dollars by steam. The work was delayed for several reasons, but by the fall of 1836 the new dies were ready for use.
The Gobrecht half dollar dies used similar artwork to the old Reich design of 1807 but more neatly executed, both for the eagle and the Liberty head. There was another difference, one that is more readily noticed by modern collectors: the edges of the new coin would be reeded rather than having the old lettered edge, which read FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR.
The new half dollars also omitted the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM (one [nation] out of many [states]). As early as 1825, Mint Director Samuel Moore had planned to eliminate this motto from the coinage on the grounds that it was simply another way of saying “United States,” and he thought once was perhaps enough. Moore and Patterson agreed fully on this point, and the motto last appeared on the dime and half dime of 1837.
The motto did not appear again until 1850 with the new Double Eagle, but here it was properly used as part of the Great Seal of the United States. Congress restored the motto in 1873 under the mistaken belief that it belonged on the coinage. By then Robert Patterson and Samuel Moore were long dead and no longer able to point out to Congress why the motto had been dropped.
Patterson had planned to begin the new 50-cent pieces in October 1836 and in fact had stopped the old lettered-edge half dollar mintage at the end of September. (As early as Sept. 6 the director had written a correspondent that the Mint would begin coining half dollars by steam within a few weeks.) However, something went wrong with the new steam press and the ceremony marking these new half dollars was pushed back to early November.
On Nov. 8 the director wrote Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury, enclosing 10 specimens of the new half dollar coinage struck that day. Some numismatic writers have speculated that these were proof coins (primarily because the word “specimen” was sometimes used in the early Mint to mean a proof coin), but this cannot be the case. Proofs were struck on screw presses, and would be until the 1890s, but Patterson is clearly speaking of the new steam press coinage of half dollars, meant for general use.
Some kind of mechanical problem, probably ejection from the reeded collar, caused a sudden halt in the new coinage. It did resume in early December, but again apparently only for a short period before the same or perhaps some new mechanical problem stopped the striking. Whatever the nature of the impediment, it is clear that the 1836 reeded-edge half dollars were struck in limited numbers unlike the millions of lettered-edge pieces struck during the past few years.
How many of the new half dollars were struck in 1836? The answer is that we simply do not know, as the Mint registers of coinage do not distinguish between the two kinds of half dollars. In 1836 silver coins were officially delivered by director’s warrant on the last day of each month. For the half dollar this meant 738,000 pieces in November and 1,034,200 in December. In the 1950s Walter Breen speculated that the reeded-edge mintage was 1,200 pieces, based on the December delivery; it could just as easily have been 4,200 or 3,200 by this kind of reckoning.
The 1836 reeded-edge half dollar is a scarce coin but can hardly be considered rare, as it is often true that more than one specimen will appear in a given auction. One recent auction, for example, had four of these coins. It is the opinion of this writer that the true mintage of 1836 reeded-edge half dollars might well exceed 5,000 pieces and perhaps even double that.
The problem with determining mintage for the 1836 reeded-edge half dollar is also tied up with Mint policies of the period. It is known, for example, that specimens of the new Gobrecht dollar of December 1836 were kept on hand at the Mint for at least two years so that interested citizens and collectors could obtain a new coin at face value. If this was done for the 1836 half dollar, the mintage estimates would be skewed because of this. On the other hand the same design was struck in 1837, which might well mean that the 1836s were not kept on hand.
Not only is the accepted mintage of 1,200 seriously in doubt, but the very status of these coins is as well. For some uncertain reason Breen also believed that the planchets for the reeded-edge half dollar coinage in 1836 were prepared in anticipation of the coinage law that was signed by President Andrew Jackson on January 18, 1837. The new law reduced the planchet weight slightly but also increased the fineness from .8924 to .900.
Unfortunately for this curious theory about striking coins in deference to a law not yet passed by Congress, it could not have happened. The bullion and coinage ledgers clearly show that all half dollars in 1836 were struck on planchets made according to the law passed in April 1792: 208 grains of silver, .8924 fine. The 1837 law mandated a weight of 206.25 grains, .900 fine. (The amount of pure silver did not change, however.)
For many years, due to a misunderstanding, the 1836 reeded-edge half dollars were also thought of as patterns and not regular coinage. They are, however, legal coins in every sense of the word and were struck according to the law of April 1792, which was in force until January 18, 1837.
The point to be made here is that the 1836 reeded-edge half dollar is a very special coin. The same design was certainly used in 1837, but the issues of that latter year were on the new weight standard. This means, beyond any doubt, that the 1836 reeded-edge half dollar is a one-year type coin necessary to complete any collection. It is equally true that the 1837 reeded-edge half dollar, because of the change in weight and fineness, is also a single year type coin for this denomination. (The reverse was changed slightly in 1838 when HALF DOL replaced the 50 CENTS used on the reeded-edge pieces of 1836-1837.)
Unlike the 1836 reeded-edge half dollar, however, the 1837 half dollar is relatively easy to find because the mintage in that year was a strong 3.6 million pieces. The only problem here for the type collector is the best quality piece that can be obtained for the funds available.
Although the half dollars of 1836 and 1837 are very clearly key coins, there are other denominations that merit close attention because of changes made to them and not generally recognized by type collectors. In particular, the January 1837 law changed the weights and finenesses for the half dime, dime and quarter dollar as well.
The designs for the three minor silver coins below the half dollar in value remained the same when coinage resumed under the law of January 1837. The dies were not changed even though the law called for a new kind of reverse for the dime and half dime, the Eagle being dropped and the denomination placed inside of a wreath. That the design of 1836 continued in use during the early months of 1837 for the two smaller coins meant only, however, that the reverse designs would be changed as soon as Engraver Christian Gobrecht could find the time to do so.
Once the new Mint law had taken effect in January 1837, the Mint resumed production of silver coins using the new date of 1837. For the half dollar this meant the revised design, using a reeded edge, introduced in November 1836.
The quarter dollar continued to be struck throughout 1837 with the old Bust design, and it was not until mid-1838 that the Seated Liberty motif was placed on this denomination. However, it is important to note that the Bust quarter dollars of 1837-1838 were struck on the new weight standard of 1837 and not that of 1792 as had been the case for coins struck prior to 1837. This means that a complete type set of quarter dollars should include a Bust coin of 1837 or 1838, either of which is obtained with relative ease.
For dimes and half dimes, the situation was similar to the quarter dollar but here the only date of concern is 1837. In both cases the summer of 1837 saw the new Liberty Seated design placed on the obverse while the eagle vanished from the reverse.
As with the quarter dollars of 1837-1837, the 1837 date for the Bust dime and half dime is a must for a complete type set. The 1837 coinage of these two coins used the new weight and fineness mandated by the January law. It is perhaps a small change by modern standards but in 1837 it meant a critical difference to the officials at the Mint, who had lobbied for many year to rid themselves of the difficult .8924 fineness.
Even though the 1837 Bust dime and half dime are thus important for a type set, neither is in the scarce or rare category. High grade coins of course are always difficult to find at low prices, and again it is merely a matter of how much the collector is willing to spend that will determine the quality of a type set.