This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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There is little dispute that some of the toughest Seated Liberty dimes especially in Mint State grades emerged from the San Francisco and Carson City mints. It makes a study of the Seated Liberty dimes of the Western mints an interesting walk back in history as out on the frontier at the time the coins produced at these facilities had a much smaller saving rate and a much greater challenge to survival than did the dimes produced at New Orleans or especially at Philadelphia. It’s fun to trace those coins and even more fun to acquire nice examples for a collection today.
At the time the first Seated Liberty dime was produced in 1837 there were no mints in the West. In fact, it would be that way for a long time as from the time of the first Seated Liberty dime until the first one was produced in San Francisco it would be close to two decades.
Part of the long period before the first Seated Liberty dime was produced in San Francisco can be attributed to delays in getting the San Francisco minting facility ready to produce coins and then priorities at the new facility didn’t emphasize the dime.
It must be remembered that San Francisco back in the late 1840s when gold was discovered in the area was still a very long way from what most Americans saw as civilization. San Francisco to many was simply a sleepy far away port town in a territory newly acquired from Mexico where the locals probably traded pelts and whatever they could grow. The idea of spending money to stick a mint in the middle of that situation would have never been approved by Congress were it not for all that gold that flowed from the back-breaking work of the hardy ’49ers.
It was really too much gold to ignore. There had to be some sort of official U.S. presence in the middle of the rapidly growing region, but the first step was an assay office, which was then followed by a mint. Approving a mint and paying for a top quality mint are two very different things.
The facility, which began coin production in 1854 in San Francisco, was a somewhat sorry affair fashioned out of a former private mint. It was three stories tall, but very small. The noise of the machines was loud. The place was cramped. It lacked adequate ventilation so the acid fumes made the place unpleasant and the employees sick.
Officials began almost immediately to request a new facility. The possibilities were limited in such a place and the only coin mintages in 1854 were gold. In 1855 there would be some silver production, but it was a matter of priorities and in the extravagant economic life of San Francisco at the heart of the Gold Rush it appears that lower denominations were not an especially high priority. The first Seated Liberty dime would not emerge from the San Francisco facility until 1856, at which time it had been in operation a couple of years.
The mintage of the 1856-S was just 70,000 pieces, making it not only historic but also scarce as there were virtually no collectors in the area at the time to save coins. Moreover, it would be years before that changed, so even once an 1856-S reached circulation there was very little chance that it would be pulled from circulation by a collector. That results in a $160 G-4 price today. In AU-50 the 1856-S lists at $1,750 with no higher grade price listings although at the Professional Coin Grading Service they do report a total of five examples called Mint State with one being an MS-65.
As if to prove that officials were not wrong in delaying the first Seated Liberty dime production to 1856, the next dime mintage would not be until 1858 when 60,000 pieces were made. The 1858-S is also tough with a price of $150 in G-4 while an AU-50 is $1,500. Once again PCGS does report three in Mint State so top quality examples are known but very scarce.
The 1859-S had an identical 60,000-piece mintage, which results in a G-4 price of $160, while an AU-50 is placed at $3,000, much higher than the other early dates. The surviving numbers are low with PCGS reporting just two examples in Mint State and another dozen being called AU-50 or better.
The 140,000 mintage 1860-S would be the only 1860 Seated Liberty dime to have stars on the obverse as that year the design was changed. The stars were replaced by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The dies for the new design would arrive late in San Francisco and the facility wanted to save money using every die until it was completely worn out. As a result, they went ahead with the old design and the 1860-S today is $40 in G-4 while an AU-50 is $800, although PCGS has reported 10 examples in Mint State.
Lagging behind the more easterly mints in New Orleans and Philadelphia, San Francisco would produce its first Seated Liberty dime with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around the obverse rim instead of stars in 1861. The mintage being 172,500, which was a new high for San Francisco dimes. The 1861-S can be found at prices of $55 for a G-4 while an MS-60 is $1,400 although PCGS reports only three coins called Mint State.
The 1862-S would follow with a mintage of 180,750, making it another date that can be found at a G-4 price of $45 while an MS-60 is $1,000 with PCGS reporting a total of just two coins which suggests that at today’s price the 1862-S might well be an excellent value in Mint State.
The 1863-S mintage of 157,500 showed that despite the Civil War San Francisco was continuing to produce Seated Liberty dimes at a basically normal pace. That was newsworthy as the mintages in Philadelphia with the suspension of specie payments and the public hoarding of all silver and gold would drop significantly. The situation in San Francisco was, however, different as coins still were in use and that kept mintages at pre-war levels. The 1863-S today is $40 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $1,200 and in the case of the 1863-S PCGS reports five examples in Mint State.
The 1864-S mintage for San Francisco was higher at 230,000 while Philadelphia produced just 11,470, showing clearly that the impact of the war was only on one coast. The 1864-S is available at $35 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $1,200 and in this case there actually are supplies with 14 having been graded by PCGS.
The 1865-S and 1866-S are very similar with mintages of 175,000 and 135,000, respectively, putting G-4 prices at $45 and $50. In MS-60 the 1865-S is not priced while the 1866-S is $1,900 with PCGS reporting two examples of the 1865-S and four of the 1866-S.
The 1867-S is a similar mintage date, but its MS-60 price is $1,200, which is difficult to explain as it has had exactly the same number of coins called Mint State by PCGS as the 1866-S. Why the 1867-S is significantly less expensive in Mint State is hard to explain and it may well be that the date is a sleeper, which is possible as the San Francisco Seated Liberty dimes of the 1860s tend to be one good date after another making it easy for one or two to get overlooked.
There was a solid mintage increase in 1868 with the 1868-S having a mintage of 260,000. That mintage sees a lower G-4 price of $30 and a much lower Mint State-60 listing of $600. It’s an interesting situation as the PCGS total in Mint State is also significantly higher at 15 pieces, suggesting that the lower price is justified.
The 1869-S continued the trend of higher mintages at 450,000 and that naturally produces a low price with a G-4 at $25 while an MS-60 is $400. Once again the lower price appears to be correct as PCGS has seen 27, by far the highest total for any San Francisco date of the decade.
The 1870-S would be the opposite extreme with a mintage of just 50,000. It is hard to point to a specific reason for the low total although San Francisco was busy that year beginning construction on a new facility. Whether that had any influence on the low mintage is unknown but whatever the reason the 1870-S is tough at $300 in G-4 and $2,000 in MS-60, which is a very high price especially when you realize that 14 have been called Mint State by PCGS including 9 in MS-65 or better and that is a very unusual total for a San Francisco Seated Liberty dime of the period.
The 1871-S would see a rebound in mintage with a total of 320,000 pieces being produced, resulting in a G-4 listing of $35 while an MS-60 is $900, which is about right when you see that PCGS reports 11 Mint State examples.
The 1871-S was not, however, the only Seated Liberty dime from a Western mint as 1871 would see the first dime production at the facility in Carson City, which started producing coins the previous year. Like San Francisco back in the 1850s it appears that lower denominations were not an immediate priority for the new facility and when Carson City did produce its first dime in 1871 the mintage of the 1871-CC was just 20,100 pieces, which produces a $2,500 G-4 price today. With virtually no collectors in the area to save them when they were produced, the 1871-CC is not priced as it is virtually impossible with PCGS reporting just two examples.
In 1872 Carson City would have a higher mintage, having a production of 35,480, although that is still certainly not a large total. In G-4 the 1872-CC lists for $950 although it is another date you are not going to find in Mint State. In fact, the 1872-CC appears to be tougher in upper grades than the lower mintage 1871-CC. It’s priced at $6,500 in XF-40, which is $3,500 below the 1871-CC, but PCGS reports only one example in Mint State and only one other above XF. The 1871-CC totals are about twice that, although it fair to suggest that being more important historically the 1871-CC probably deserves it’s higher prices.
These pieces have been moving up in price quite steadily.
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco in 1872 the mintage of dimes would be slightly lower than normal for the period at 190,000. That total produces a $40 G-4 price with an MS-60 at $1,100, which is slightly higher and that is supported by a PCGS Mint State of 10 pieces.
In 1873 there would be two types of dimes as early in the year the Congress would authorize a slight increase in the amount of silver because of the falling price of silver. Prior to the change, Carson City would produce 12,400 dimes of the old standard. It appears that all but one were melted as the one known 1873-CC brought a price of $632,500 in a 1999 Heritage sale. The coin, thought to be one saved for the Assay Commission was graded MS-64 and with the prices now being seen at auction there is little doubt that the 1873-CC with no arrows at the date would justify a price of well over $1 million and probably $2 million or more.
The dimes produced with the new and slightly larger amount of silver would have arrows placed at the date in 1873 and 1874. The San Francisco dates of the type show mintages of 455,000 for the 1873-S and 240,000 for the 1874-S, which produces $20 and $60 G-4 prices although both are $1,500 in MS-60.
In the case of the 1873-CC and 1874-CC we are dealing with a couple very tough dates. The 1873-CC had a mintage of 18,791 and the 1874-CC was at 10,817. Those totals produce G-4 prices of $2,350 and $5,000 and like the earlier Carson City issues examples in any grade above XF are extremely rare although PCGS does report two Mint State 1874-CC coins.
In 1875 the arrows would be removed creating a new type. In the case of the 1875-CC and 1875-S there are varieties as the mintmark in both cases was sometimes within the wreath and sometimes under the wreath. The other significant aspect of the 1875 is that the mintages soared with the 1875-CC having a mintage of over 4.6 million while the 1875-S was over 9 million. That makes these dates available at around $15 in G-4. An MS-60 of the more available mintmark under the wreath 1875-S is just $125 while the less expensive Carson City 1875 with the mintmark in the wreath is just $190.
The large mintages would continue in 1876 and 1877 with even Mint State examples from either year at either mint being sometimes possible for $200 or so. There was an unusual 1876-CC with a doubled obverse and it commands a premium, but even with the doubled obverse it is still just $600 in MS-60.
Everything changed in 1878 with the advent of required Morgan silver dollar production. The mints were suddenly turned into Morgan dollar factories and that saw no 1878 dime mintage in San Francisco while the Carson City mintage for 1878 dropped to 200,000, which puts the 1878-CC at $65 in G-4 and $900 in MS-60. In fact, the 1878-CC is historic as it would be the last dime created at Carson City as after 1878 the facility would concentrate on silver dollars and gold leaving the lower denominations to other facilities.
In fact the required Morgan dollar production would keep San Francisco busy as well as the facility would have no dime production after 1877 until 1884 and even then the 1884-S mintage of 564,969 could not be called large with a G-4 today listing at $30 while an MS-60 is priced at $650, which is explained by the fact that more than 20 have been seen by PCGS.
New dime demand dropped in the United States because after the implementation of the Resumption Act in 1879, the public knew paper money was of equal value to coins. That eliminated the incentive to hoard them. Previously hoarded coins found their way back into circulation.
The 1885-S would be a special date with a mintage of just 43,690 with that low total a likely result of the continuing pressure to produce silver dollars. The 1885-S lists for $450 in G-4 and $5,000 in MS-60 with PCGS reporting just 6 examples in any Mint State grade.
The 1886-S would still be a lower mintage date with a total mintage of 206,524. That is however enough to make it more available at $50 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $600.
Starting in 1887 the San Francisco mintages would again rise to over 1 million and sometimes well over 1 million, making the final San Francisco dates available at $15 or less in G-4. The 1889-S and 1890-S are better at between $400 and $500 in MS-60, but the others can usually be found in MS-60 for around $200 or less.
The 1891-S, which did include an 1891-S/S which brings modest premiums starting at $25 in G-4 with an AU-50 at $250 would be the final Seated Liberty dimes produced at the Western mints as the following year would see the change to the Barber design.
In the period since the first Seated Liberty dime emerged from San Francisco there had been a host of interesting and in some cases truly tough Seated Liberty dimes and that makes a collection quite a challenge today. That said, they are usually very good values on what are very interesting coins.