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More coin myths analyzed by author

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 a prior one in the Oct. 11 issue to correct some of the misinformation which occurs from time to time.

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 a prior one in the Oct. 11 issue to correct some of the misinformation which occurs from time to time.


1858 Indian Head cent

During 1857 and 1858 and new Flying Eagle cents were something of a problem for the Philadelphia coining department. The coins did not strike up well and frequently the wing feathers on the eagle would not be well defined. The dies were revised in 1858, but this did not seem to help all that much.

In 1858 Chief Engraver James B. Longacre prepared several pattern dies with a new design, that of an Indian chief on the obverse and a simple wreath on the reverse. By November 1858 Director Snowden had decided which of the patterns he preferred and so informed the Treasury. Quite a few of the 1858 Indian Head cents were in fact struck, leading to a belief in later years that these had been issued as coinage.

The Treasury examined the new design and authorized Snowden to begin coinage. The director then informed Washington that he would begin using the Indian Head design with the beginning of the new year in January 1859. The 1858 pieces, therefore, are patterns and not regular coinage.

1836 reeded-edge half dollar

Due to errors made by researchers for more than a hundred years, the 1836 reeded-edge half dollars are often wrongly attributed. One school of thought is that they are patterns, clearly not true, while another says that they were struck with the wrong fineness, again not true.

Fascinating Facts, Mysteries & Myths About U.S. Coins

This compilation of intriguing tales is based some on fact and some on fiction, but either way the stories make for interesting reading.

Until 1836 United States half dollars carried a lettered edge, as one of the protections against counterfeiting. The year 1836 marked the beginning of steam coinage at the Mint, allowing the institution the luxury of getting rid of the old screw presses, which had been used for coinage since 1792. The new presses, however, were not used for lettered edges, Mint Director Robert M. Patterson deciding that a reeded edge would henceforth be used for all silver and gold coins.

The change to a reeded edge for the half dollar in 1836 meant that a special collar would have be devised for this denomination. The reeded edge would then be made at the same time that the coin was struck. When the dies came together against the planchet, the latter would expand into the collar and the reeding would then be forced onto the edge of the coin.

In March 1836 the new steam coining press was first used to strike cent pieces and, as the year progressed, other denominations were added to the roster. By the fall of 1836 only the half dollar was left as the prime candidate for the new technology. Accordingly, Engraver Christian Gobrecht prepared new half dollar dies that were slightly smaller than the old version. At the same time the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM was removed as Director Patterson considered this superfluous.

The new reeded-edge half dollar coinage had originally been scheduled to begin during the first week of October but technical difficulties, perhaps the ejection of the struck coin from the collar, had prevented this from happening. Director Patterson then set a new date of early November 1836 and this was in fact carried out. On Nov. 8 Patterson sent 20 business-strike specimens of the new coinage to Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury for inspection, but it was understood that President Andrew Jackson was also to offer his opinion. Both men approved.

Technical difficulties once more intervened and within a few days Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt reported that the problems were serious enough that he would be forced to return to the screw press and lettered-edge half dollars. The director reluctantly agreed, but also stipulated that the reeded-edge pieces were to be coined as often as possible.

Unfortunately the existing Mint records do not give a breakdown of reeded edge versus lettered edge for November and December 1836. At that time deliveries of silver coin were made on a monthly basis and for December 1836 the coiner delivered 1,034,200 half dollars. This figure was the basis for Walter Breen’s estimate that 1,200 reeded-edge half dollars had been made.

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We do not, and perhaps never will, know the true amount of coinage for the reeded-edge pieces but 1,200 is clearly too low, considering that several auctions have been seen that offer more than one piece. In the opinion of this writer a figure of 5,000 may be much closer to the mark.

Walter Breen, in his early work on this coin, also misunderstood how the law worked and thought that the reeded-edge coins of 1836 were actually coined under the provisions of a new law passed in January 1837. Until January 1837 the legal standard for the half dollar, under the original law of April 1792, was 208 grains, .8924 fineness. In early 1837 this was changed to 206.25 grains, .900 fine.

All 1836 half dollars were struck under the 1792 law and this included the reeded-edge coins. This does not seem to be well understood.

The 1836 reeded-edge half dollar is therefore in a special class of its own. It is the only half dollar struck under the 1792 law with the new edge and legal fineness. The 1837 half dollars of the same design, on the other hand, were coined under the 1837 law and are .900 fine.

The result is an 1836 half dollar that can be called an important variety or even a type coin, depending on one’s viewpoint. Whatever the case, the 1836 reeded-edge half dollar is certainly necessary for any complete set of half dollars by variety and type.

Trade Dollars of 1884–1885

Although Trade dollars were last coined for circulation in 1878, until 1883 collectors could order proof specimens from the Philadelphia Mint; in late 1883, however, the decision was made to end this special arrangement. We sometimes read that the 1884 and 1885 Trade dollars were offered to the public but only under careful circumstances and are therefore legal coins.

In reality, the Trade dollars of these two years were struck clandestinely, almost certainly under the direct eye of Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden. He was an avid collector of patterns and other special pieces and his position allowed him to have delicacies struck that otherwise would not have been made.

Trade dollar dies were prepared in both years but destroyed at year’s end and no record was made of any being struck officially. This leaves only the clandestine production, which was a well-kept secret for many years among the handful of collectors that obtained a specimen from Snowden. It was not until 1908 that the numismatic world learned of these pieces. The generally accepted numbers are 10 made in 1884 and 5 in 1885, though these are merely best guesses based on the specimens that have appeared at auction.

How many stellas were struck?

The 1879 Flowing Hair stella, or $4 gold piece, has long been the subject of incorrect information. (The 1879 Coiled Hair and 1880 stellas are another matter.) We frequently see the statement that 15 pieces were struck in 1879, and are therefore originals, while the remaining pieces are restrikes and worth less money at auction. This information is, however, wrong.

The Goloid coinage of 1878-1880, of which the stella formed a part, was the brainchild of Dr. William Wheeler Hubbell, an eccentric inventor. Some of his inventions were useful but the goloid idea was a waste of everyone’s time. He believed that an alloy of gold and silver in the coinage would solve the age-old rivalry between the two metals. Because the value of silver kept dropping, Dr. Hubbell was forced to alter his alloys, making the entire matter virtually meaningless.

John A. Kasson, then American minister to the Austrian government, is usually credited with the idea of a $4 gold piece, but it is more likely that he was used by Hubbell as a convenient straw man with good credentials. Kasson had been involved in coinage matters when he was in Congress some years earlier and theoretically had a working knowledge of the subject.

According to a letter Kasson wrote to the appropriate congressional committee, the $4 gold piece was a good choice for tourists to carry to Europe as it was close in value to the Austrian 8 florin gold coin. Unfortunately “close” doesn’t count in foreign exchange and the idea was of little value. Hubbell, using Kasson’s endorsement, however, persuaded Committee Chairman Alexander Stephens (then the former Confederate vice president) to have the stellas struck. And they were.

Both Charles E. Barber and George Morgan prepared stella dies in 1879 but it was Barber’s that got the official nod to be used for pattern coins. The dies were done by late November 1879 but then nothing happened. Finally, in early January 1880 Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden wrote Mint Director Horatio Burchard asking if the congressional committee still wanted the coins, which included some goloid dollars. None had been struck until that time, unless one includes the few specimens struck in copper for examination. The often-seen figure of 15 Flowing Hair pieces struck in 1879 is not correct.

Burchard answered that 25 sets were to be made and sent to him for distribution. This was soon done and the sets mailed to Washington. Burchard kept two sets for his office and the rest delivered to Rep. Stephens. The sets went over so well with the committee that there were soon fresh orders for additional sets. In all, there were 425 sets officially struck in 1880 and delivered to the proper people.

Were extra pieces struck? This is likely, as there were collectors within the Mint walls, but there would have been very few as $4 was a significant sum of money in 1880. It is therefore doubtful that more than a dozen pieces were made. How many of the other stella varieties were struck is unknown as records do not exist on this point. Most of the extra pieces were likely of copper, which were later gilt.

One other long-standing rumor about the goloid coinage needs correcting as well. It is sometimes seen that the several varieties of goloid dollars were actually struck in standard silver (.900 fine) rather than the esoteric gold and silver alloys stipulated by Dr. Hubbell. It may be stated, however, that the Mint faithfully used the correct alloys even though the whole project was considered a waste of time. (One piece in standard silver was struck by order of Mint Director H.R. Linderman in 1878, but this was to derail the idea by showing that no one could tell the difference between the goloid alloy and standard silver.)

How many cents were struck in 1864?

Sometimes we think we know a correct mintage figure for a given coin, but this does not always prove to be true. The figures usually seen for 1864, and which have been used for many years, are 13,740,000 copper-nickel cents and 39,233,714 bronze cents. The total amounts to 52,973,714 coins, excluding proofs for collectors.

There has been found, however, a document (under date of Dec. 31, 1864) in the Mint archives which reports the total number of cents for 1864 at 51,795,000, which is 1,178,714 less than the currently accepted total. In addition, this same document reports the 2-cent coinage at 19,822,500 for 1864, or exactly 25,000 pieces less than the currently published figure.

How did these errors arise? It is not certain but it is likely that the mistake was made in 1886. Prior to that time (since 1857) mintage figures had been reported only on a fiscal-year basis – July 1 to June 30 – so that it was virtually impossible to determine the true calendar-year number. In 1886 Mint Director James P. Kimball ordered each mint to determine the calendar-year data beginning with 1857 and the results were published in the 1887 Mint report. It therefore seems likely that the clerk doing this research work at Philadelphia was somewhat careless when using the records from 1864.

Although we now know that the 1864 coinage totals for the cent and 2-cent piece are not correct, available records do not allow us to find the actual breakdown for the copper-nickel and bronze cents made that year. The monthly records are known for most of 1864 but, unfortunately, that for May – when the changeover was made from copper-nickel to bronze – does not distinguish between the two metals and only gives a total coinage for the month.

How many minor proof sets in 1877?

Beginning in 1865 the collector wishing to purchase only the minor proof coins was offered the option of buying just the cent, 2 cent and 3-cent copper-nickel pieces. The 5-cent copper-nickel coin was added in 1866. In 1877, except for the 2-cent piece, the collector could still purchase the three minor coins for 15 cents, a bargain even in those days.

The Red Book reports that 900 proofs were made for the cent but only “510+” for the 3- and 5-cent copper-nickel coins, an odd difference. In point of fact one could not buy any of these proof denomination separately, so the three minor coins of 1877 must have the same proof mintage.

In the early 1970s the present writer examined the records for minor proof coinage and found that approximately 900 proof sets had been made. The precise number could not be determined but the proof mintage was determined by the number contained in the silver sets (510), the number sold by mail (260), and the estimated number sold over the counter (130) to local Philadelphia collectors and dealers. The figure of 900 was checked against the accounts of nickel planchets on hand, which showed that 962 blanks had been withdrawn for use that year. (The planchet records cannot be used precisely as they do not indicate the number of misstruck coins that never made it to collectors.)

It therefore may safely be stated that the true proof mintage for the 1877 minor coins was 900 for each denomination, give or take a few pieces. The “510+” figure has sometimes been used to make it look like the 3 and 5-cent pieces are rarer than the mintage allows them to be.

In 1878 the system was changed and henceforth the minor proof coins were delivered according to law. Prior to that time the minor proofs had been struck and sold to collectors, but no accounting of them was made in the annual Mint report.

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