The Coinage of 1842: Part One

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 12/1/2006

1842 was a distinctive transition year for U.S. coin denominations, as David Lange demonstrates in the following retrospective.

David Lange

The recent discovery of only the second known example of the 1842 Philadelphia Mint half dollar with Small Date and Small Letters prompts me to write about this very distinctive year in United States coinage. 1842 was a year of transition for most USA coin denominations, with major naked-eye varieties abounding.

Though talented engraver Christian Gobrecht had been providing the U.S. Mint with his services as an outside contractor for several years, it was not until 1835 that Mint Director Robert M. Patterson finally received permission to hire him as second engraver under Chief Engraver William Kneass. Gobrecht, as it turned out, was by far the more skilled and imaginative artist, and over the next seven years he transformed the United States coinage. 1842 saw the near completion of this overhaul, though a further modification of the one-cent piece came two years later.

By 1840, all of the new Gobrecht designs had been adopted, and the revisions of 1842 were limited to enlargements of the date and legends. My personal opinion is that the smaller numerals and letters were more attractive and intruded less on the main design elements. The exact reason for enlarging these features has either been lost to history or not yet discovered among surviving Mint correspondence.

Taking the various denominations in ascending order, the half cent will be studied first. There were no half cents made for circulation from 1836 through 1848, and those dated 1842 are all rare, proof-only strikings. Numismatists traditionally have divided these into "originals" and "restrikes," though no evidence exists to prove that any of these were coined during 1842. It's likely that the so-called originals were simply novodels, coins struck a few years later than the date they carry to fill gaps in the series. Those labeled as restrikes were simply later strikings of these novodels, made to supply the growing collector market of the 1850s. Whatever their true history, the half cents of 1842 are very rare and highly desired by series specialists.

The cents of 1842 were coined for general circulation and in much greater numbers. A minority of these have the Small Date used in 1840-41, while most seen feature the Large Date used for the next several years. Both survive in sufficient numbers to be affordable, and a collection of Braided Hair cents is not really complete without an example of each. Proofs are known of the Small Date issue, but these are very rare.

Half dimes were coined at Philadelphia and New Orleans in 1842, the latter pieces bearing an "O" mintmark on their reverses. All 1842 half dimes feature the Small Date logotype, though on these diminutive coins it appears quite prominent. Neither issue is difficult to locate in heavily worn condition, but the 1842-O half dime is quite scarce in the higher circulated grades and genuinely rare uncirculated. In later die states, the 1842-O half dime is known as the "No Drapery" variety, this shallow feature having been lapped off of the obverse die. Proofs of the Philadelphia issue are extremely rare.

The 1842 dime coinage is a bit more interesting. Both the Philadelphia and New Orleans issues are plentiful in lower grades, but once again the "O" Mint coins are rare in the higher circulated grades and in mint state. The latter are known with both Small O and Medium O reverses (there is no Large O for this date, and the term "Medium" is used to describe its relative size with respect to all of the known sizes for this series). The 1842-O Small O variety is scarce in all grades and may not exist uncirculated. The Small Date logotype was used for both mints, and it appears proportionally smaller on the dime than it does on the half dime. The Philadelphia Mint coined an unknown number of proofs, and these remain extremely rare.

Quarter dollars of this time period are generally scarce to rare for most dates, since this denomination was coined in relatively small numbers. It seems that the supply of Spanish Colonial two-reales pieces (two bits) in American circulation was sufficient to limit the demand for USA coins of this value (bear in mind that the Spanish coins were legal tender in the United States as late as 1857).

The 1842 quarter dollars offer a rare instance in which the Philadelphia Mint coinage was smaller and the coins thus more rare than the New Orleans Mint issues. Both mints coined quarters having either a Small Date or Large Date, and these varieties do make a big difference in rarity. The Small Date logotype appears to be the same one described above for several denominations, but the Large Date, though similar in size to the Large Date of the cent, is clearly from a different puncheon. The cents have a crosslet on numeral 4, while the quarter dollars do not. The 1842(P) Small Date quarter is known only in proof, with a mere six examples reported. The 1842-O Small Date issue is also very scarce in all grades and extremely rare uncirculated. The Large Date varieties of either mint are collectable, though the Philadelphia Mint edition is decidedly more rare in all grades.

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

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