Mint Director Robert M. Patterson couldn’t wait until 1838 to debut Christian Gobrecht’s handsome seated figure of Liberty as adapted from England’s traditional image of Britannia.
His Seated Liberty had been tried out on a short run of silver dollars in 1836 and early 1837 (all dated 1836), but the dollar was not ready for mass production. Instead, the Seated Liberty design debuted on the dime, which was first coined June 30, 1837 following an issue of 359,500 coins of the old Capped Bust type. Two major varieties were issued, the Large Date dimes being followed by the Small Date pieces. The latter are slightly more scarce, but both are readily obtainable through the lower Mint State grades, due to their being saved as souvenirs of the novel design.
Collectors will find it a bit more challenging to locate an attractive example of the Capped Bust type. Examples grading up through MS 63 are not truly rare, but they are more elusive than the Seated Liberty type. Because the 1837 Seated Liberty dimes are the only readily collectable coins of the subtype lacking stars, their prices are higher than those for the scarcer Capped Bust type, examples of which are spread over numerous dates. This is a good example of type collectors driving the market, as relatively few numismatists collect either coin series by date.
The story of the Seated Liberty half dime is nearly the same as for its big brother, except that the first coinage took place nearly a month later on July 25. As with the dime, there are two major date varieties which have been labeled Large Date and Small Date for the sake of convenience. In reality the dates are about the same size, with the earlier issue having a peaked 1, while the so-called Small Date has a flat-topped 1. Once again, the Large Date variety was the first issued and thus the more widely saved in Mint State. Both are common in circulated grades, with the Large Date readily available unworn. Also like the dimes, there is tremendous type collector pressure on their values, as the 1838-O Half Dime, the only other date lacking stars, is too scarce for someone seeking a high grade piece. 1837 Seated Liberty half dimes are more common than the Capped Bust issue dated 1837, but the latter are less expensive, as any date from 1829-37 will serve to illustrate its type.
Some 366,000 quarter dollars of the old Capped Bust type were coined in 1838. Only a single pair of dies was used, an unusual situation for coins of that period. This is one of the more readily available dates from the 1831-38 series and is thus a darling of type collectors. The fact that its replacement design, the Seated Liberty type, also enjoyed a fairly large production later that same year makes for a splendid collectable pair. Production of the Seated Liberty quarter dollar did not commence until September 29, yet some 466,000 pieces were struck by year’s end. Though less widely saved than the dimes and half dimes, the 1838 issue is more common than subsequent dates through the early 1850s. Both the Capped Bust and Seated Liberty quarters of 1838 are readily available in all circulated grades and in the lower Mint State grades.
The 15-year period that began in 1828 witnessed frequent and numerous evolutionary changes to United States coinage, due mostly to improved technology that permitted greater uniformity. It is thus ironic that this quest for standardization resulted in so many variations in the humble cent from 1834 through 1844. Most of these changes were too gradual to provide clear transitional pairs, but the year 1839 stands out for its obvious diversity. Though the 1839 cents featuring the Head of 1838, the Silly Head and the Booby Head are similar enough to be labeled as varieties rather than types, the Petite Head which debuted that year is distinctive enough to be called a new design and thus part of a transitional pair with any of the others. Fortunately for collectors, all four major varieties of 1839 cents are affordable in circulated grades and the lower Mint State grades.
Also transitional during 1839 was the half dollar. Gobrecht’s handsome Capped Bust type with reeded edge had succeeded the earlier John Reich lettered edge version in 1836 (these being transitional in that year), but its career was cut short in midyear by the latest entry in the Seated Liberty takeover. Nearly 1.4 million Capped Bust halves were struck at Philadelphia and a mere 116,000 at New Orleans before the changeover occurred. The P-Mint issue is quite common in circulated grades, the O-Mint halves being scarce in any grade. It’s not known when the first Seated Liberty halves were minted, but nearly two million were produced at Philadelphia before the end of 1839. Despite this high mintage, both the first variety with no drapery at Liberty’s elbow and its successor with the extra drapery are moderately scarce. Mint State coins of either variety are genuinely elusive, with gems being great rarities. The No Drapery variety is under tremendous price pressure from type coin collectors seeking completeness and is perhaps more expensive than its proven scarcity actually warrants.
David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.