USA Coin Album: The Coinage of 1837, Part Three

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 1/14/2010

This month, David W. Lange continues recalling a pivotal year in the history of United States coinage, with part three in his series.

The Mint Act of January 18, 1837, increased the fineness of the quarter dollar from its formerly awkward fraction to a more workable 90% silver and 10% copper. This also had the incidental effect of lowering its weight just 0.06 grams. Though of little consequence, this reduction was a step in the right direction, as the 1834 legislation that lowered the weight of gold coins had given a slight intrinsic edge to silver coins. This created a small threat of the latter being hoarded for their bullion value.

Only one type of quarter dollar was produced in 1837. Nevertheless, some six die marriages are known of the Capped Bust quarter. These utilized three obverse dies and four reverses in various combinations. Quarter dollars are attributed by Browning varieties, a collector with the unusual name of Ard W. Browning having published his reference in 1925. The original edition went out of print quite quickly, leaving numismatists with just reprints that were nearly useless due to their murky illustrations. A recent book by Steve M. Tompkins has made the attribution of Browning varieties much easier by utilizing unambiguous text and superb new photos.

Of the six known die marriages, only B-5 and B-6 carry a notable premium among specialists. Since all 1837 varieties are distinguished mostly by quite minor features, they are overlooked by more casual collectors. Browning-6 was not discovered until 2000, and it was then submitted to NGC for attribution and grading. It was thus my pleasure to confirm that this was a marriage of a known obverse die with a previously unknown reverse, and I wrote an article documenting its features for the John Reich Journal.

Considered a common date, the 1837 quarter dollar is easily obtained in any grade up through the lower levels of Mint State. It carries a modified version of the design originally prepared in 1807 for half dollars and half eagles by John Reich. This was updated and simplified by William Kneass in 1831 for use with a close collar. This gave the resulting coins a distinctly raised rim, while also rendering them thicker and gave them a smaller and more uniform diameter. Omitted from this revised edition was the legend E PLURIBUS UNUM, which Mint Director Samuel Moore considered to be redundant with the more appropriate legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. This style of quarter dollar was coined one more time in 1838, during which year the Seated Liberty type was introduced as its successor.

The half dollars of 1837 were also of a single type and reflected upgrades made to existing designs. Though John Reich’s Capped Bust half dollar had received minor revisions since its introduction in 1807, the most radical of these were made by Christian Gobrecht in 1836. Since its inception, the half dollar had carried an edge device consisting of the text FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR. This was replaced late in 1836 with a reeded edge, a device still utilized today for coins of this value. While the edge lettering had been applied in a separate procedure performed prior to coining, the reeded edge was now imparted at the moment of striking through use of the close collar.

This is actually a two-year-only coin type, as its statement of value, spelled as 50 CENTS in 1836-37, was revised to read HALF DOL. for the coins of otherwise similar design dated 1838-39. The Capped Bust Reeded Edge half dollars of 1836 are rare coins that are beyond the budgets of most collectors, but it’s fortunate that this same type was issued in large numbers with the date 1837. More than 3-1/2 million were struck.

The 1837 half dollar is common in all grades through the lower levels of Mint State, though it tends to suffer from weakness of strike, particularly in its border details. The US Mint evidently recognized this deficiency, as it experimented with at least three different collar diameters that year in an apparent attempt to fully strike up the border denticles. Collectors should take their time in locating a sharply struck specimen of this fairly common coin.

Unlike the lettered edge half dollars, the short series of Capped Bust Reeded Edge halves is not widely collected by die marriages. The late Jules Reiver did study these and published them in a scarce monograph, but few other collectors have taken up his challenge. Mr. Reiver identified some 27 die marriages for the 1837 half dollar, but the distinctions are simply too minor to be compelling. They consist mostly of different date placements, random die markers and various patterns of die cracks and clash marks. I’ve owned his monograph for 20 years, but I can’t say that I’ve ever had the occasion to use it. The value of this publication lies more in its lasting tribute to a remarkable collector who studied even the minutest of details.

For most hobbyists, both the quarter dollar and half dollar of 1837 are simply type coins, acquired for their designs rather than their dates. They are nevertheless souvenirs of a truly remarkable year in United States numismatics. Fortunately, both may easily be added to one’s collection. Next month, I’ll conclude this study with a look at the gold coinage of 1837.

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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