This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The Seated Liberty dime was a design that lasted for well over half a century. It was an important time in American history spanning the period from the war with Mexico to the Civil War and to the settling of the West. All of those events and more figure into the Seated Liberty dime story. The one facility that throughout the entire period was a regular when it came to Seated Liberty dime production was the main mint in Philadelphia. That makes a collection of the Philadelphia Seated Liberty dime a great one as it is really a road trip through American history.
The story of the Philadelphia Seated Liberty dime began in the 1830s with improvements at the Mint making greater production possible. There were also plans for new branch mints in Dahlonega, Ga., Charlotte, N.C., and New Orleans, La., which would help Philadelphia share the burden in terms of coin production and which would enable the United States to finally get to a point where national coin shortage and the use of foreign issues was a thing of the past.
In that vastly improved atmosphere it was decided there was time to consider a new design and that became the Seated Liberty design of Christian Gobrecht. It was decided to try the new design on lower denominations, which saw the first Seated Liberty dime released in 1837. It was still a design that would see changes as the 1837 Seated design would have no stars on the obverse. That gave top quality examples something of a cameo appearance, but with a mintage of just over 1 million pieces split between the old and new designs, there would not be that many top quality examples saved. That makes the 1837, which came with either a small or large date a $40 coin in G-4 today. In MS-60 both are $1,100 with an MS-65 of either at $6,500. In fact, there are not that many MS-65 examples available with the Professional Coin Grading Service reporting a total of 28 examples of the large date in MS-65 or better while the small date total stands at just 4 coins, suggesting if you can get a small date for the same price as a large date you are potentially getting a very good deal.
The Philadelphia 1838 would have stars added to the obverse although showing the state of evolution of the design at the time some had small stars, others large and some had partial drapery, which was a change that would ultimately see drapery added to Liberty’s left elbow with some of the 1840 mintage. The assorted possibilities all came from a mintage of 1,992,500 dimes and of the possibilities the least expensive in circulated grades is the large stars which is $17.50 in G-4 with a price of $280 in MS-60. The 1839, which had a mintage of 1,053,115 is similar in availability with a price also at $280 in MS-60 while a G-4 is just $16. The third date of the type, the 1840 is slightly more at $300 in MS-60, probably because its mintage was divided between the no drapery type and the new design of the third type, which would feature drapery at Liberty’s left elbow.
So in a brief span of years, 1837-1840, the Mint created three designs for the Seated Liberty dime.
It would appear that most of the 1840 was the type without drapery as the 1840 with drapery is twice as costly at $35 in G-4 while there is no price in Mint State. The reason can be found in the grading service totals which show that PCGS has only graded three examples in Mint State.
The 1841-1843 are all similar with mintages in a range from 1-2 million. That makes them all available with G-4 prices about $15 while an MS-60 is roughly $260. There is an 1843/1843 overdate which is tougher at least in Mint State, but not dramatically so with a current price of $295.
The situation in 1844 was dramatically different as the 1844 had a mintage of just 72,500 pieces. We cannot be certain of the reason for the low mintages although it was a year when Philadelphia totals generally speaking were low. With such a low mintage the 1844 was going to be a tougher date under any circumstances but over the years it has become a famous date as well.
At the root of the fame of the 1844 is its nickname “Orphan Annie,” which it received decades ago when it was called “Orphan Annie” by someone at the time who just happened to have a small hoard of the 1844. With its low mintage small accumulations have been known from time to time and calling it “Orphan Annie” at helped it appeal to collectors who read the comic strip. Otherwise, there was no particular reason for the name.
To say the 1844 has been promoted over the years would be putting it mildly. One of the most repeated stories is that a number of the already low mintage were given to troops who were invading Mexico. (War was declared in 1846.) The troops then allegedly would give out dimes to young ladies they would meet who in turn would use them for bracelets. There is no evidence of such a thing ever happening, but it made for a good story and in the process suggested the 1844 would be even tougher than its already low mintage would suggest. As it turned out over the years there were many other stories for this date with none really having any facts to back them up, but whether destroyed in natural disasters or having numbers disappear because of robberies or other events, the message was always the same that the 1844 was especially tough.
Today we find the 1844 is about as tough as might be expected although probably not as some wanted us to believe. It lists for $275 in G-4, which is actually higher than the 1846, which had an even lower mintage, but no special name and no stories about most of its mintage vanishing.
In Mint State the 1844 definitely deserves its $3,000 MS-60 listing as it has been graded by PCGS just 4 times in Mint State although two of them were MS-65.
The 1845 marked a return to normal with a mintage of 1,755,000 and available date prices of $16 in G-4 and $260 in MS-60. The 1846, however, was even more extreme than the 1844 with a mintage of just 31,300. That mintage puts the 1846 at $250 in G-4 although in reality it should probably be equal to or even higher than the 1844, but that’s the power of a name and some stories when it comes to influencing prices. In MS-60, however, the 1846 sits at $5,500, which is higher than the 1844. There is good reason as PCGS reports only one Mint State 1846 and that was an MS-63, so it deserves to be more expensive than the more famous 1844.
The 1847-1849 dates would all have mintages of fewer than 1 million with the top being the 839,000 mintage 1849 while the low was the 245,000 mintage 1847. The totals seem to put the group at similar prices with all being just under $20 in G-4 and that is certainly a good deal when you consider their mintages. In MS-60 the 1847 is the most expensive at $950 while the 1848 is $750 and the 1849 just $500, although even that price is almost double the listing of an available date. The 1849 Mint State total at PCGS is the highest of the three at 16 coins, but certainly for a $500 price in MS-60 that total is not high so all can safely be called good values in any grade.
The 1850-1852 Philadelphia dates all had mintages of at least one million, with the 1851 being the low at 1,026,500. In all cases, however, they are available dates at $17.50 or less in G-4 with an MS-60 at $260 in the case of the 1850 to $325 for the 1851 with an MS-65 starting at $2,550. In the case of the 1851 there may be a problem finding an MS-65 as the PCGS total for the 1851 in MS-65 or better is currently just 2 coins.
The 1853 mintage dropped to just 95,000 and there is a real story there. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 had upset the traditional gold-to-silver ratio causing the cost of producing silver coins to actually rise above their face value. The public realized the situation and began to hoard silver issues causing a national coin shortage. The Congress needed to act but did not except to authorize a 75 percent silver three-cent piece. While the situation dragged on, in some cases the mintages began to drop as the Mint was producing coins at a loss and they were only being hoarded anyway. Finally in early 1853 the Congress took the step of slightly reducing the amount of silver in the silver issues. Before that happened, however, Philadelphia produced a total of 95,000 Seated Liberty dimes.
The 95,000 mintage of the 1853 might not have been totally released. At the time if still in the vaults, it was natural to melt any of the older coins because they contained more silver than the newly authorized ones. We frankly do not know but the 1853 with its lower mintage would be a better date with or without melting. The 1853 today is $95 in G-4 while an MS-60 lists at $800, well above the price of an average date although PCGS does report a total of 56 examples called Mint State.
The rest of the 1853 mintage would be of the new and lower silver content. To mark these changes, arrows were put alongside the date with the type lasting for just three years. All Philadelphia dates are available with the prices starting at just $8 for the 1853 in G-4 with an MS-60 of all three Philly dates starting at about $330.
Starting with the 1856 dime issue, the arrows would be removed and this type would be produced through 1859. All the mintages were above the one million mark, with the exception of the 1859 that had a mintage of just 430,000. That makes the 1859 slightly more at $16 in G-4 as opposed to $14 for the others while an MS-60 is $350, which is about $100 than the most available of the other dates although even the 1859 shows strong numbers at PCGS in Mint State.
In 1860 the stars on the obverse were replaced by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, creating the next type of Seated Liberty dime. The first three mintages were 607,000 for the 1860, then 1,884,000 for the 1861 and 847,550 for the 1862. While very different, the three mintages would be the last mintages of any size until 1868 as the suspension of specie payments, widespread hoarding and pressure of the Civil War would see a period of very low mintages after 1862. The first three dates of the new type are available with the 1860 and 1862 being around $15-$16 in G-4. In MS-60 it is the 1860 that is the most costly at $275 with the 1862 listing at $165, although once again there are over 80 Mint State examples report by PCGS for any of the dates.
The bottom simply fell out of the mintages in 1863 when Philadelphia produced a total of just 14,460 pieces. The totals would remain low through 1867, which saw a mintage of just 6,625 and would be the lowest total of the period while the 1863 was the high. The mintages naturally make for premium prices with the least expensive dates being the 1863 and 1864 which are $425 in G-4 while the 1867 is the most expensive at $600. In MS-60 the dates are all at least $1,200, with the 1866 and 1867 at $1,800 being the most expensive. In fact for those two dates a Proof-65 is actually slightly less expensive at $1,750 and sometimes much more available as the few proofs of the period tend to have better survival rates and what we see at the grading services are sometimes much better proof totals although usually in grades below Proof-65, but they are still a sometimes more available and lower priced option than the sometimes tougher Mint State examples. The 1867 is a good example as PCGS has seen about 34 examples in Mint State but the proof total of the 1867 is well over 100.
The 1868 Philadelphia dime would see a much higher mintage of 464,000 although that still was historically low. The mintage puts the 1868 at $18 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $300. In fact, the 1868 appears to be an overlooked date as realistically its total in Mint State at PCGS is just17 pieces and that is well below some other more expensive dates.
The 1869 would have an even lower mintage of 256,600, putting it at $25 in G-4 while an MS-60 is at $600. It is interesting as the 1869 Mint State total at PCGS is virtually identical to the 1868 with PCGS reporting 18 pieces. Of course, before leaping to conclusions that the 1868 is a real bargain it must be remembered that there are still supplies of proofs that will help keep a ceiling on any upward movement and in addition there are not many collectors who want either one, so the supply while limited in Mint State, might prove to be enough to meet the low current demand. In future, naturally, things could change.
The 1870 would have a mintage of 471,000, but that only makes it slightly better at $18 in G-4 and $150 in MS-60 where PCGS has seen about 26 examples. That too would seem to be a low total for the current price, but again, there are other factors influencing prices today such as the number of available proofs and the current demand.
The 1871 would have a mintage of 907,710, indicating a clear trend to high totals. That means a low $16 G-4 price although an MS-60 is at $300. The following year would see a large mintage of 2,396,450, which makes the 1872 an available date at just $12 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $175 and there are similar prices for the 1873 with a closed “3.” The 1873 with an open “3” is tougher as it was produced later in the year as a result of officials deciding that they did not like the closed “3,” and by the time the change was made the mintages would be lower putting the 1873 with an open “3” at $28 in G-4 and $650 in MS-60 where PCGS reports just 11 examples.
There was good reason for the increasing mintage as the Mint was under pressure to use more silver as the price of silver was declining because of the enormous supply emerging from the Comstock Lode. That produced a decision in 1873 to slightly increase the amount of silver in silver issues and that saw the new issues again have arrows put at the date in 1873 and 1874 to indicate the weight increase. The mintages were large. After all, the idea was to use silver so both dates had mintages over 2 million, which makes them available at $15 or less in G-4 while an MS-60 is $500, which reflects type demand as both the 1873 and 1874 with arrows dimes have been seen over 80 times in Mint State alone and there are also proofs.
In 1875 the arrows were removed, creating the final type of Seated Liberty dime. It would, however, be wrong to assume that all the dates after 1874 are routinely available. Certainly some are. Prices of just $12.50 in G-4, $125 in MS-60 and $1,100 in MS-65 can be found.
The issues of the 1870s also provide fertile ground for variety and error collectors.
Most of the dates from 1875 on are available, but the Philadelphia Seated Liberty dime mintages tended to reflect the situation at Philadelphia and for the few years after 1878 would see the Philadelphia dime mintages drop to 15,100 in 1879, 37,335 in 1880 and 24,975 in 1881.
Those totals would mean premium prices with a G-4 1879 at $275 while the 1880 is $250 and the 1881 at $265. In MS-60 the 1880 would be the lowest of the three at $550 while the 1879 would be the most expensive at $675 while all are at least $1,750 in MS-65, although interestingly enough the 1881 with just 10 seen in MS-65 or better by PCGS appears to be by far the most difficult, but once again the presence of proofs must be considered as a factor influencing the availability and possibly price of these better dates as well as the more available ones.
Another factor that cause silver coin mintages to fall in the late 1870s was the resumption of specie payments by the government in 1879. For the first time since the beginning of the Civil War, $1 in paper equaled $1 in gold or $1 in silver.
When the public was satisfied that this was true, hoarding ceased and demand for coins actually fell as many silver coins that had been sent to Canada at the peak of Civil War hoarding began returning to the United States.
Certainly with so many stories having an impact during its years of production the Seated Liberty dime is a fascinating collection as it is one that closely reflects a long period of American history. With many dates being excellent values today the Philadelphia Seated Liberty dimes are a collection that can be a lot of fun and potentially a good investment as well.