The gold British sovereigns that James Smithson bequeathed to the United States were melted down and re-struck as American coins. Some of the gold went into the reissue of the ten-dollar piece, or eagle. There were other factors at work, of course, including two Acts of Congress that reduced the weight and fineness of all United States gold coins, in an effort to keep them in circulation.
The resumption of eagle coinage was ordered in July 1838, and between seven and eight thousand of the coins, the first eagles struck since 1804, were minted at the beginning of December. Smithson's legacy played a role: the knowledge that a massive amount of bullion was on its way across the Atlantic fostered the decision to resume the eagle, the largest existing American denomination.
Christian Gobrecht was responsible for the designs on the resumed eagle coinage. His left-facing Liberty sported a coronet (there is a copper cent, also by Gobrecht, with a nearly identical arrangement), while the rounded tip of the truncation points to the "1" in the date.
A simple eagle with shield appears on the reverse. The obverse design was modified slightly in 1839, the truncation now being centered above the date. A handful of proofs, specimen coins of record or for VIPs, was also struck. Three have been reliably reported, and a fourth is rumored.
This twenty dollar Liberty Head golden double eagle coin was minted in 1855 at the newly established U.S. Mint in San Francisco. James Marshall’s 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill kicked off the California gold rush and changed the wealth and reach of the nation as suddenly gold was in plentiful supply and the population was shifting westward. An Act of Congress on March 3, 1849, authorized the coinage of gold dollars and double eagles by the U.S. Mint, and in 1852 Congress authorized President Millard Fillmore’s plan to establish a mint in San Francisco to remove the need to send the gold back to Philadelphia for minting. The mint opened in 1854, and immediately began producing gold dollars and double eagles. The newly approved double eagle coin was designed by James B. Longacre in 1850 and produced at the mints in Philadelphia and New Orleans. On the obverse, or front, of the coin is the head of Liberty facing left wearing a coronet, inscribed "Liberty." She is surrounded by thirteen stars, representative of the original states, with the engraver’s initials “JBL” at the base of the neck. The date “1885” is below the head. The reverse features a design similar to the Great Seal of the United States. A heraldic eagle holds a scroll which reads "E Pluribus Unum." The eagle protects a shield, which represents the nation, and holds an olive branch and arrows in its talons. The letter “S” denoting the San Francisco mint is below the eagle. Above the eagle are thirteen stars in a halo, together with an arc of rays. The reverse rim reads “United States of America/Twenty D.”
The Continental Dollar was the first pattern struck for the United States of America. Most specimens were minted in pewter, but also known are three in silver and a dozen or so in brass. It is thought that the distinctive designs were suggested by Benjamin Franklin. The reverse design, featuring linked rings, was a plea for insurgent unity, something that the philosopher-scientist constantly brought to people's attention.
The obverse sundial motif with its Latin motto ("Fugio") is also characteristic of Franklin. The design is a rebus, and its component parts may be read as "time flies, so mind your business." This and other pewter specimens were apparently struck for the inspection of members of Congress, who would have to pass enabling legislation before the coinage could proceed.
Elisha Gallaudet, a New York engraver, was the person responsible for translating Franklin's concepts into metal. It is thought that he struck the coins at a makeshift private mint in Freehold, New Jersey. Earlier issues of Continental currency had included a bill worth a dollar. This practice was suspended in the spring of 1776, apparently because the Congress intended for a new, one-dollar coin to take its place.
Based on the Spanish-American piece of eight, the new Continental dollar was to serve as the linchpin of the entire monetary arrangement. The plan failed. The patriots were unable to obtain sufficient silver for the coinage, and by the time the enabling legislation had been passed, the value of Continental currency had begun its descent, emerging as almost worthless only a few years later. Tying a bullion coin to a depreciating currency was obviously a mistake.
Some twenty years after the private sector had abandoned the idea of a fifty-dollar gold piece in the mid-1850s, the Philadelphia Mint considered the possibility of a federal coin of this denomination. There was even talk of a "union," or hundred-dollar coin, and a drawing or two has survived to suggest what the Mint had in mind. But in the end, no such coin was ever produced.
The project went a bit farther in the case of the "half-union." Dies were prepared, the work of William Barber (father of the eventual Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber).
Barber's obverse and reverse designs look vaguely akin to Longacre's work for the double eagle. A few patterns were struck in copper and two in gold; the latter share a reverse die but each has a slightly different obverse die. The project was abandoned soon afterwards, as it became apparent that the new coin simply wasn't needed.
Some rarities are accidental, like the 1927 Denver double eagle. Others are contrived, beginning their lives as scams. The 1913 Liberty head five-cent piece, or nickel, falls into this category. Were it not for that date, even an advanced collector would hardly give it a second thought. But the date is different, and a very clever set of circumstances ensured that the coins bearing it became memorable, twentieth-century legends.
The first Liberty head nickels were struck in 1883, their designer the prolific if uninspired Charles E. Barber. Millions were made over the next three decades. The design was to be retired at the end of 1912, and that is when things began to become interesting. Despite orders to the contrary, five new Liberty head nickels were struck clandestinely, presumably at the beginning of 1913.
Spirited out of the Mint, they came into the possession of one Samuel W. Brown, of North Tonawanda, New York. He eventually became the town's mayor, but earlier had served as Storekeeper of the Mint. At the end of 1919, he placed an advertisement in the Numismatist, offering to pay $500 each for 1913 Liberty head nickels. Later he raised the offer to $600.
He already had all the coins, so what was he up to? He was making a legend, preparatory to making a profit! He displayed the coins at the following ANA convention (August 1920), finally selling the pieces to a Philadelphia dealer a few years later.
At this point, San Antonio coin dealer B. Max Mehl entered the picture, also making offers to buy any 1913 Liberty nickels. That did it: everyone from ten-year-old boys to sophisticated collectors began checking their change, hoping to come across another 1913. No one ever did, but the coin's legendary status was assured.
A decade or so after the California Gold Rush began in the late 1840s, gold was discovered on the South Platte River, near the future city of Denver. As with the earlier strike, this one occasioned disputes over the value and purity of gold dust, as well as great difficulties in getting the precious metal all the way to Philadelphia to be coined there, and shipped back again.
Matters would be greatly simplified if a coiner, either private or public, could set up shop near the gold fields. A good candidate existed-Clark, Gruber & Co. Up to now, the firm had acted as brokers, bankers, and assayers. But if a coinage was wanted, Austin and Milton Clark and Emmanuel Gruber were up to the challenge and had the resources to do it right.
Milton Clark went back East to get the necessary machinery, three lots were purchased in Denver, and a two-story brick building soon went up on the property. Trial strikes of the four denominations to be coined ($2.50, $5, $10, and $20) were ready for inspection by mid-July 1860, and formal coinage began about a week after that.
One of the firm's most famous products showed a marvelous, if unrealistic, image of Pikes Peak, beneath which Denver-and the Clark, Gruber enterprise-sat. The facility remained in operation through 1862, although all of its coins were dated 1860 and 1861. It was elbowed out of the coining business in April 1863. It turned first into a federal assay office, then 43 years later, into another branch of the United States Mint.
Employees at the Mint continued to strike 1804 dollars illegally through the late 1870s. It is thought that around half a dozen were created, some for sale, perhaps in European auctions, to give them an air of plausibility; others for trade, to acquire rare coins that the Mint Cabinet lacked. Six of these coins, called "class three" dollars, to distinguish them from the 1834 "class two" dollars, have been traced.
The Smithsonian's class three 1804 dollar has a checkered history. It was initially the property of Mint Director H. R. Linderman and was probably struck to his order. However, when it appeared in his estate, his widow came up with the story that he bought it on time payments from a coin dealer.
Eventually this coin was purchased by Willis DuPont. It was stolen in the 1967 armed robbery of the DuPont Collection and retrieved early in 1982. It came to the Smithsonian Institution in 1994. It exhibits the weak strike on the central devices shared by the other members of class three.
As early as 1650, the colony of Massachusetts Bay was a commercial success. But an inadequate supply of money put its future development in jeopardy. England was not inclined to send gold and silver coins to the colonies, for they were in short supply in the mother country.
Taking matters into their own hands, Boston authorities allowed two settlers, John Hull and Robert Sanderson, to set up a mint in the capital in 1652. The two were soon striking silver coinage-shillings, sixpences, and threepences. Nearly all of the new coins bore the same date: 1652.
This was the origin of America's most famous colonial coin, the pine tree shilling. The name comes from the tree found on the obverse. It may symbolize one of the Bay Colony's prime exports, pine trees for ships' masts. Massachusetts coinage not only circulated within that colony, but was generally accepted throughout the Northeast, becoming a monetary standard in its own right.
Why the 1652 date? Some believe that it was intended to commemorate the founding of the Massachusetts mint, which did occur in 1652. Others believe the choice was a reflection of larger political events. Coinage was a prerogative of the King. In theory, these colonists had no right to strike their own coins, no matter how great their need.
But in 1652, there was no king. King Charles had been beheaded three years previously, and England was a republic. The people in Massachusetts may have cleverly decided to put that date on their coinage so that they could deny any illegality when and if the monarchy were reestablished.
This "1652" shilling is likely to have been minted around 1670. In 1682, the Hull/Sanderson mint closed after closer royal scrutiny of the operation.
In 1848, the largest single gold rush in history was just getting under way in California. This event soon triggered a mass migration of fortune hunters from around the world. At the outset, much of the California gold was converted to coins by private minters in the San Francisco area. However, supplies of gold were also sent to Philadelphia where the metal was turned into ordinary federal coins.
Smaller quantities of gold made it to various locations including Oregon. Between March and September, 1849, an entity calling itself the Oregon Exchange Company struck $10 and $5 coins, by hand, in Oregon City. Both denominations bore simple designs. Their obverses depicted a beaver, the fur-bearing mammal that had spurred the first interest in the region. Above the animal, there were initials standing for the last names of the principal players in the operation.
The initials O.T. or T.O. (both for Oregon Territory) and the date rounded out the obverse design. For the reverse, the name of the issuing authority and the denomination sufficed. Scholars believe that around 2,850 of the $10 coins were made. Dies for them can still be seen at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland.
But the life of the Oregon mint was brief. The coiners set their products' weight above federal norms, and most of the Oregon coinage was melted down for profit. The mint ceased operation early in September 1849.
This one-cent piece from 1974 is perfectly normal-except for one thing. It was struck in aluminum rather than bronze. Lincoln's bust graces the obverse, just as it has done for over ninety-five years.
And the Lincoln Memorial appears on the reverse, just as it has since the closing years of the Eisenhower Administration. The choice of aluminum over bronze is what makes this coin legendary. How did it happen, and why?
The cause was a rise in the price of copper. By the early 1970s, it cost nearly as much to mint a cent as the coin was worth. While mints are not, ostensibly, set up as profit-making enterprises, the people who run them would rather not lose money. The United States Mint is no exception.
The U. S. Mint began testing other, cheaper metals for the cent, just in case the price of copper kept rising. Aluminum was an obvious candidate. It's easy on coin dies and takes a lovely, silvery impression. It's also a handsome metal, and virtually tarnish-free.
So the Mint struck a batch of aluminum cent patterns, the Mint Director gave many to VIP's as samples of the proposed new cent-and then failed to get many of them back! That being said, this piece is the only one that hobbyists are ever likely to see. Ironically, the Mint finally did switch to a cheaper metal for cents in the early 1980s, but it chose copper-plated zinc, not aluminum.
As early as 1850, agitation began in Congress for the establishment of a San Francisco branch of the United States Mint. This action was blocked by people from New York-who wanted a branch in their own state-and from Georgia and Louisiana-who argued that any California operation would represent unfair competition to the branch mints in Dahlonega and New Orleans.
The opposition won, and San Francisco would go without a mint for another four years. But it did get an odd sort of hybrid, the United States Assay Office of Gold, striking an odd sort of money-a gigantic, fifty-dollar ingot that would also do duty as a coin. The arrangement was made by the Treasury Department under a contract with Moffat & Company, private assayers and gold coiners in San Francisco.
Augustus Humbert came west to oversee the operation, which got under way at the end of January 1851. For most of the next two years, Humbert's fifty-dollar "slugs" were the principal accepted currency in California. He was eventually allowed to turn his attentions to the production of smaller, and altogether more useful, coins, ten- and twenty-dollar pieces. And his operation finally laid the framework for a formal, normal branch Mint, which began the production of ordinary federal coinage in the spring of 1854.
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt initiated a project to redesign American coinage and commissioned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create the new designs. While the two had admirable goals, they committed the unpardonable bureaucratic sin--they had not "gone through channels." The Mint already had an artist, Charles E. Barber, and it would have been his job to redesign coinage if that was what the president wanted. Barber was unhappy with the president's new project, complained to anyone who'd listen, and finally decided to do something about it. He would design his own double eagle, and he would get it done before Saint-Gaudens completed his.
Barber was in an unusual hurry. His single surviving pattern double eagle, shown here, is unusual in American numismatics, and one of the least successful artistically. For the obverse, Barber featured a Liberty head with a Phrygian cap and a laurel wreath, inspired by contemporary French artists. For his reverse, he recycled some of his own earlier work. Back in 1891, he had created a pattern half dollar, the obverse of which had featured Liberty with a sword and a Liberty cap on a pole. Liberty was guarding an eagle, the symbol of America. Now, this old design appeared on the reverse of the new coin. Thus Barber's proposal had two Liberties, one on each side. Roosevelt was unimpressed. Saint-Gaudens went on with his work, and Barber continued to fume.
Once a new national government had been established under a new Constitution, attention naturally turned to ways of proclaiming national identity. A new, national coinage was one way of doing so, especially if it featured patriotic new images, rather than the endless sequence of crowned monarchs and coats of arms adorning the coinage of Old Europe.
A U. S Mint Act was passed in 1792, and work was quickly underway. Designs were chosen-a depiction of Liberty for obverses, an eagle, or the value within a wreath, for reverses. The first of the new coins, copper cents and half cents, appeared early the following year. By 1794, mint designers were working to create a silver dollar, the flagship of the new denominations. But they first made a trial piece, in copper.
Robert Scot created the dies for this design, a Liberty head with flowing hair for the dollar's obverse; an eagle within a simple wreath for the reverse. The new dies to be used in producing silver dollars were tested with a striking in copper. Copper would took a good impression, and would allow Scot and his associates to see whether the dies were cut deeply enough and would therefore be capable of producing the detail wanted on the final silver product.
Only one piece, this coin, was struck in copper, and it is a unique national treasure.
Coins, Currency and Medals
Sewer, Andy; Allison, David; Liebhold, Peter; Davis, Nancy; Franz, Kathleen G.. American Enterprise: A History of Business in America
Before the famous California gold rush, several important strikes were made in the East: in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The earliest took place in Mecklenburg County, N.C., in 1799, where a nugget weighing several pounds was discovered. Its finder used it as a doorstop until someone recognized it for what it was! Discoveries multiplied, and a federal branch Mint was eventually set up in Charlotte to process the metal into coinage.
Discoveries in Georgia and North Carolina in the 1820s received wide publicity, and a "gold fever" resulted. Thousands of people began trekking to the areas in search of instant wealth. Most returned home empty-handed, but successful prospectors found millions of dollars' worth of precious metal.
What should they do with their new wealth? Many felt the Philadelphia Mint was too far away for safe travel, and the government wasn't ready to create other coining facilities. A jack-of-all-trades named Templeton Reid had an answer: strike private gold coins, at a private mint. Reid had extensive experience as a watchmaker, gunsmith, and metalworker. In July 1830, he set up shop in the Georgia hamlet of Milledgeville and began his brief career as private moneyer-the first since Ephraim Brasher.
He later moved to Gainesville, which was closer to the gold mining district. His coins came in three denominations: ten dollars, five dollars, and two and one-half dollars, in recognition of "official" denominations. And he put slightly more gold into his products than the federal government did into its coins, just to be on the safe side.
Although historians believe that Templeton Reid conducted business fairly, an unknown adversary, signing himself simply "no assayer," published several notices in newspapers complaining that the coins were not as represented.
Rumors spread and before long Reid was forced to close up the business.
The early dollars from the United States Mint were not instantly embraced by the public, which had become accustomed to the dollar's predecessor, the Spanish-American Piece of Eight. That coin contained slightly more silver than its new competitor.
Then some entrepreneurs made an interesting discovery. They could buy American dollars, send them to the West Indies, and exchange them there at par for Spanish-American Pieces of Eight. Then they could bring the pesos home, turn them in to the Mint for melting, and make a profit by getting paid back in shiny new dollars.
When the scheme was uncovered, it resulted in a thirty-year halt in dollar production, beginning in 1805. Some 19,570 dollars were coined in 1804, before the halt began. Interestingly, they weren't dated 1804, but 1803, thus avoiding the production of new dies. Although a common, cost-cutting policy at the early United States Mint, this act led to confusion years later, and to three legendary coins included in this exhibition.
By the 1830s, American officials were actively exploring commercial opportunities elsewhere in the world. Seeking to influence foreign dignitaries, the Jackson administration instructed the Mint to create complete sets of specimen coins as gifts.
The Philadelphia coiners did so for most other denominations without difficulty. But what to do about the silver dollar? They knew that 1804 dollars had been struck, but there didn't seem to be any survivors. So in November 1834, they created eight new 1804-dated dollars for the gift sets (later termed "class one" 1804 dollars).
One of the eight became part of the set given to the Imam of Muscat, and another was sent to the King of Siam. And the other six? Within a few years, they escaped into private hands or entered circulation. And they became numismatic legends very quickly, for they had it all: mystery, intrigue, and tremendous rarity.
The California gold rush quickly gave the United States not one new gold coin, but two: a tiny gold dollar at the lower end of the monetary spectrum, and a large double eagle, or twenty-dollar coin, at the upper end. Why did Americans need more gold denominations?
So much gold was now coming out of California that it was actually lowering the value of that metal against silver. Bullion dealers began buying up silver dollars and half dollars for melting and export, for they were now worth more than face value as bullion. A Congressman from North Carolina had an idea: If gold dollars were struck, to pass at par with the silver ones, it might ease some of the pressure on silver coinage.
His bill was introduced late in January 1849. At the last minute, a provision was added for an entirely new coin, a double eagle. Thus amended, the bill became law on March 3, 1849. The production of gold dollars swung into action fairly quickly, and coinage had gotten under way by early May.
But the double eagles took longer. James B. Longacre, the artist selected to design the new large coin, encountered initial opposition from Mint officials, and it was late December before the first two pattern double eagles could be struck. One disappeared long ago, leaving this as the only surviving gold pattern from 1849.