USA Coin Album: Transitional Pairs, Part Three

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 5/14/2013

Though the Seated Liberty coinage that began in 1837 underwent several revisions before being retired after 1891, these changes do not constitute true transitional pairs.

The Gobrecht-designed gold coinage, quite innovative when adopted during 1838-40, likewise stagnated for decades, with only minor revisions effected before 1907. James B. Longacre’s mighty double eagle, introduced to circulation in 1850, was refined a bit on two occasions, but there was no overlap of these subtypes. Among 19th Century gold issued, the tiny dollar alone provides collectors with the opportunity to own two distinctive designs bearing the same date.

The first issues were dated 1849, and this coin was quite satisfactory in all respects but one—it was simply too small for convenient handling. Experiments with a central hole to enlarge its overall size were deemed a failure, and the solution was found midway through 1854 in a new gold dollar whose greater diameter was offset with a thinner planchet. The Philadelphia Mint produced nearly equal mintages of the old type with a diademed Liberty and the new style in which Liberty was adorned with a Native American headdress. The small numbers coined at the branch mints meant that new dies were not needed before 1855, but enough of the 1854(P) gold dollars survive of both types that collectors may easily acquire nice examples.

This Type 2 gold dollar, however, failed to strike up well, and yet another version debuted in 1856. This was of the same dimensions, and its design was simply a reduction of the hubs created for the three-dollar piece two years earlier. Type 3 gold dollars alone were struck at the Philadelphia and Dahlonega Mints during 1856, but distant San Francisco could not wait the several months it would take to receive dies of the new design (the transcontinental railroad was not even in the planning stages in 1856). As a result, San Francisco used Type 2 dies, providing collectors with a somewhat scarce, but still collectable, counterpart to the Type 3 Philadelphia issue (the 1854-D coins are prohibitively rare for most hobbyists).

The 1850s was a decade of rising copper prices and, for the final years of their production, half cents and large cents were coined at a slight loss to the Mint. It was generally conceded that the half cent was obsolete and would not be missed, but finding a suitable replacement for the current cent was essential. In 1854-55 the Mint struck various patterns on smaller, thinner copper planchets, most having a very handsome adaptation of the Flying Eagle last seen on the silver patterns of 1836-39. Ultimately, however, the Mint went with an entirely new concept in which the cent became a small, thick coin comprised of 88% copper and 12% nickel. This was an immediate hit with the public when introduced midway through 1857.

Patterns were coined of the new cent dated 1856, and these became so highly sought by collectors and speculators that hundreds more were restruck over the next few years. Because of their rarity and the fact that they were not intended for circulation, collectors may exclude them from a display of transitional pairs. Fortunately, both the old copper large cents and the new copper-nickel small cents were coined in large numbers for circulation during 1857, and setting these two side by side makes for a very interesting exhibit. The large cents are actually a bit scarce in comparison to preceding dates of the same type, but not enough to make them cost-prohibitive in most grades.

Though the copper-nickel cent made a suitable substitute for the old coppers, the Flying Eagle design did not strike up well, and a replacement was quickly sought. Mint Engraver Longacre once again placed an Indian headdress upon Liberty’s head, and thus was born the Indian Head cent of 1859-1909.

In a replay of 1856, numerous patterns were struck (and restruck) of the new Indian design dated 1858. Though extremely popular, these pattern cents are not so scarce as to be beyond the budget of a determined collector, and one could put together a transitional pair of 1858 Eagle and Indian cents. Also of interest would be the 1864-dated Indian Head cents, which are readily available in both the copper-nickel alloy of 1857-64 and its replacement French bronze alloy (economic uncertainty during the Civil War led to the “white cents” being hoarded, and the new alloy of copper, tin and zinc was low enough in value to keep the coins in circulation). Though of the same design, these two issues are strikingly dissimilar in color and heft, the bronze cents being merely half the thickness of the copper-nickel pieces.

The copper-nickel five-cent piece was introduced in 1866 as a replacement for the despised five-cent paper notes, which were themselves replacements for the widely-hoarded silver half dimes. The same basic design was used for the nickel until 1883, during which year the Shield/Stars motifs of 1866 transitioned to Charles Barber’s Liberty Head type. The latter was coined both without and with the word CENTS, making for two distinct subtypes. Collectors will want to own all three issues dated 1883. Fortunately, these were made in large numbers and are readily available in Mint State or lightly circulated grades.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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