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‘O’ means New Orleans Seated dimes

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The Seated Liberty dime’s arrival as a new design type and the first production of coins at the New Orleans Mint came at roughly the same time. That began a long string of years of Seated Liberty dime production at New Orleans and the dimes from that period make an interesting group to study and collect today as they were the first branch mint dimes and they reflect both the denomination and the new facility at New Orleans.

The first emission of Seated Liberty dimes at the New Orleans facility was a big event in that city. It must be remembered that the idea of branch mints was totally new for the United States. The approval of the new facilities made sense in the case of Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., as the two facilities were located in the area where the nation’s first major gold discovery had been made. Rather than shipping that gold all the way to Philadelphia, which was long, costly and dangerous, it was decided to open branch mints to produce only gold coins at Dahlonega and Charlotte. They began production in 1838 as did New Orleans.

From the start, the situation in New Orleans was different. New Orleans wanted a mint and to get one an offer was made of a prime piece of real estate where the facility could be located.

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There was another good reason to consider New Orleans as a site for a Mint, even more important than a gift of land. As a location, it was critical. It was a transportation center located near the mouth of the Mississippi River on the Gulf of Mexico. Much of the nation’s exports  from towns and farms west of the Appalachian Mountains went by river to New Orleans. Imports went up river from New Orleans.

The city could receive gold and silver shipments from all over the world and then send coins out to areas where they were needed with relative ease. A nice piece of land sealed the deal and New Orleans was approved as a facility to produce both gold and silver.

At about the same time officials were in the process of a design change with the dime. With better equipment and progress being made on a national coin shortage there was the luxury of taking time to consider a new design and that design would be the Christian Gobrecht Seated Liberty design.

The first examples of the new Seated Liberty design would be made in Philadelphia and they would have no stars on the obverse. In 1838 the stars would be added to the dimes of Philadelphia.

But in New Orleans where the first production would not take place until 1838, the first dimes would not have the stars. The year-old obverse design already abandoned by Philadelphia was used.  An obverse with stars was used for the issues of 1839. The reason other than possibly the fact that things were running behind schedule at New Orleans, which was just opening, is that the dies for all issues were produced in Philadelphia and then had to be shipped to New Orleans.

The 1838-O Seated Liberty dime started as a ceremonial issue with a mintage of 30 pieces representing the first coins to be produced at the new facility. Of the 30 pieces produced on May 7-8, 1838, it is believed that 10 were placed in the cornerstone of the New American Theatre in New Orleans with the other 20 being given out as souvenirs.

In June and July of 1838 an additional 367,434 examples would be struck with 121,600 more being produced in January of 1839, but with the 1838 date.

The assorted mintage results in a total of over 400,000, which makes the 1838-O an available and certainly historic date with a price of $40 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $3,500 and an MS-65 is $21,000. In fact, the 1838-O is also an important type coin as the following year the design was changed, but realistically for type collectors the choice is usually the 1837 Philadelphia piece, which is more available in all but the lowest grades.

In the case of Mint State examples of the 1838-O a suggestion has been made that any are likely from that first group of 30 coins of which 20 were handed out as souvenirs. In fact, that is not the case as some of the original 30 could have easily been mishandled. Based on the story of 10 being put in a cornerstone, 20 would potentially remain and PCGS alone reports a total of 24 examples of the 1838-O called Mint State. At least some of them were not from the original mintage and as there is no way to tell whether a coin was from the original group or not it would be unwise to pay extra assuming the coin you are buying is one of those first 30 struck. It is, however, fair to pay extra for particularly nice examples as they are elusive with PCGS reporting 7 examples of the 1838-O as MS-65 and none better.

In 1839 the New Orleans Seated Liberty dime would have stars added to the obverse although there would still be no drapery on Liberty’s left elbow as that would come with the mintage of 1841. That means two mintages of the star, no drapery type for New Orleans with the 1839-O having a mintage of 1,323,000 while the 1840-O was at 1,175,000 pieces. The two are available in circulated grades at $18.50 for either. The 1839-O is slightly more in MS-60 at $1,250 while the 1840-O is at $975, but the situation is reversed in MS-65 as there the 1840-O is $6,500 while the 1839-O is $6,000. Realistically in Mint State both are excellent deals. Consider the fact that the Professional Coin Grading Service has seen 23 examples of the 1839-O in Mint State with two being MS-65 or better and only 6 examples of the 1840-O in Mint State with none of them being called MS-65. For the prices today based on such numbers if you find a Mint State example of either offered it’s a great value.

In 1841 the final design change for a decade was made with drapery being added to Liberty’s left elbow. As was true with the other changes, that design change had actually been made to the Philadelphia issues the previous year, but again with the time taken to prepare and ship the dies to New Orleans a delay was natural. It was also natural for a branch mint at the time and in fact for decades that followed to use an old die until it was completely worn out. That was seen in San Francisco in the coins of 1866 as even if the dies arrived reflecting a design change, it was common to continue to produce old designs until those dies were worn out. It was a simple cost cutting measure at facilities that couldn’t produce their own dies and were on very tight budgets so New Orleans for whatever reason waited until 1841 to produce its first Seated Liberty dime with drapery at the elbow.

The mintage of the 1841-O was 2,007,500, which makes it an available date in G-4 at $18.50. In MS-60 the 1841-O lists for $1,500 while an MS-65 is $5,000. There is also an 1841-O which had a large “O” and it is significantly more difficult at $600 in G-4 with no price above VF-20 as they are rarely, if ever seen even in upper circulated grades.

In 1842 the mintage would be an almost identical 2,020,000, resulting in another available date with a G-4 price of $18.50. The 1842-O lists for $2,900 in MS-60 and does not even have a price listing in MS-65. The reasons can be seen in a total of 10 examples called Mint State by PCGS with none of the 10 being better than MS-64.

The 1843-O is a different situation. It had a mintage of just 150,000. This was the first year since 1838 that Philadelphia outproduced New Orleans for dimes. That low mintage translates into a G-4 price of $50 and that is an awfully good deal when you consider the fact that the 1843-O had a mintage of more than 100,000 pieces less than the 1916-D. It was also not likely to be saved by collectors over the years as at the time most collectors were worried only about dates. The collecting of any denomination by date and mint was not becoming even widely recognized until the 1890s. There was also no saving of the 1843-O at the time it was released as there is no price listing in any grade above AU-50 where it currently lists for $2,250. In fact there is good reason for no Mint State listings as PCGS has seen just one, an MS-65, with the next best example seen being an AU-53. That is an enormous spread between the best and second best 1843-O and it should be more than enough to see that MS-65 if ever offered for sale realizes a surprisingly high price.

There would be no New Orleans Seated Liberty dime production in 1844  and the 1845-O while higher than the 1843-O at 230,000 pieces was still a lower mintage date. This results in a G-4 price of $25, although that certainly is not expensive for another date with a lower mintage than the 1916-D, which is close to $800 just in G-4. In Mint State the 1845-O also has no listed price as PCGS has again seen just one and that was an MS-62 with the next best being an AU-55.

It was clear by the low mintages that whatever need there was for dimes in New Orleans, it was being met by the large coinages earlier in the decade. That situation is shown more starkly by the fact that after 1845 the next Seated Liberty dime coinage in New Orleans would not come until 1849 when there would be a mintage of 300,000 pieces. That mintage, while low, does not produce much of a premium in G-4 with the 1849-O being at $21.50, which is just $3 more than an available date of the type. In Mint State the 1849-O has a $2,200 MS-60 price and that appears to be a bargain as PCGS has only seen 8 examples in Mint State with none of them being better than MS-64.

The trend of low mintages would continue in 1850, but at this time there was another reason for the low mintages. By 1850 the price of silver was moving up. The discovery of gold in California had upset the traditional gold to silver ratio. It was rapidly becoming a case where it cost more than their face value to produce a silver coin.

The Congress was slow to act, leaving the Mint in a difficult situation as they could produce coins at a loss and have them hoarded by the public or not produce any coins and leave themselves open to the suggestion they were doing nothing to combat a national coin shortage. A bad compromise of sorts was reached in that mintages until 1853 would be relatively low as there was simply no incentive to make more coins in order to lose more money.

The 1850-O is the first date where such thinking might have played a role as it had a mintage of 510,000, which would be the top total for the period. The 1850-O lists for $21.50 in G-4 today with an MS-60 at $1,250, which is another good deal as PCGS reports just 7 coins in Mint State although 3 of the 7 were MS-65 or better.

The 1851-O would have a mintage of 400,000, although that lower mintage still produces the same $21.50 G-4 price. In MS-60 the 1851-O lists for $1,850 and again it’s an excellent value with PCGS reporting only 4 examples called Mint State and none of the four were MS-65 or better.

The 1852-O would finish the string of low mintages potentially resulting from the silver situation with a mintage of 430,000 although a slightly higher G-4 price of $22.50. In MS-60 the 1852-O lists for $1,800, although in this case there are a few more reported at PCGS with the service having graded a total of 11 examples in Mint State although none was above MS-64.

The Congress finally took action in early 1853 to reduce slightly the amount of silver in the silver coins including the dime. To mark the change, arrows were placed at either side of the date. The arrows would last for two years, making the 1853-O and 1854-O the only years of the type for New Orleans.

The 1853-O mintage was 1,100,000 while the 1854-O was at 1,770,000 and that made both available in circulated grades with a G-4 price of $10 for the 1854-O and $11 for the 1853-O. The Mint State prices are also far lower than the dates prior to the change with the 1854-O at just $600 in MS-60 while the 1853-O is at $900.

The 1853-O does not have large numbers seen in Mint State with PCGS reporting just 7, with one in MS-65 but the 1854-O is a different matter with PCGS reporting 39 including 5 in MS-65. That is a significantly larger total than was seen in the case of earlier dates and is almost high enough to suggest that someone at the time might have set aside a small number as collecting interest did not increase significantly in a few years but our supply of Mint State examples certainly did based on those totals.

In 1856 the arrows were dropped from the date and the 1856-O and 1857-O had mintages just over 1 million pieces each, making both of them readily available at $16 and $14, respectively, in G-4. In Mint State the 1857-O is much less expensive at $375 while the 1856-O is at $625 although prices are well below the levels of Mint State coins from the 1840s. The PCGS totals show higher numbers with the 1856-O having been seen 16 times in Mint State while the 1857-O total in Mint State is very high, topping 70.

The 1858-O mintage would again drop to just 290,000, pushing it to a $19 price in G-4. In MS-60 the 1858-O lists at $800, which is a higher price for dates from the 1850s, but certainly justified as PCGS reports only 9 examples in Mint State.

The 1859-O would have a mintage of 480,000 pieces and that produced a $16 price in G-4 while an MS-60 is at $550 and again we see unusually high totals with PCGS reporting a total of nearly 85 examples called Mint State.

The design would change again in 1860 with the stars on the obverse being replaced by “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” It was an interesting change on the verge of a Civil War. We do not know the reason for the low 40,000 mintage of the 1860-O, but we can almost suspect the impending conflict had something to do with it. There was also a very poor survival rate for the 1860-O. Today just in G-4 the 1860-O lists for $450 and as interesting there is none reported in PCGS in a grade higher than AU-55, so in one year we go from over 80 examples in Mint State for the 1859-O to zero for the 1860-O.

The 1860-O was almost the final New Orleans Seated Liberty dime as the facility would cease coin production after being taken over by the State of Louisiana at the start of the Civil War. There were probably no plans to have the facility begin coin production again once the war was over, but there were a couple factors influencing the situation. One was that there was some movement in New Orleans to take back the facility as the initial agreement with the government had involved a mint that was producing coins and since that was not happening, why shouldn’t the donate land be reclaimed?

The other factor was that legislation was being approved requiring enormous silver dollar mintages. The required mintages saw New Orleans repaired and brought back on line primarily to produce silver dollars. Even so, in 1891 the New Orleans facility produced its final Seated Liberty dime with a mintage of over 4.5 million pieces.

The 1891-O with that mintage is certainly available with an MS-60 at just $175. There is a better 1891-O/horizontal O which starts at $65 in G-4. It’s an interesting coin as for years New Orleans produced Seated Liberty dimes with relatively few errors and varieties but in one year of production over 30 years after the last mintage there was an 1891-O/horizontal O.

With the 1891-O, the days of New Orleans Seated Liberty dimes were over as the design would be changed in 1892 to the new Barber design. The Seated Liberty dimes of New Orleans were certainly an interesting and historic group. They are fun to study, but as seen in case after case they are also great values today and that adds to the enjoyment of collecting the New Orleans Seated Liberty dimes.
New Orleans would go on to produce Barber dimes coins until it closed in 1909.

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