Border Incidents, Part Two

Posted on 7/1/2007

David Lange continues his retrospective of the border changes that have occurred throughout the history of U.S. coinage.

The application of close collars to United States coins was phased in between the 1820s and 1836, numismatists being uncertain as to their exact date of debut. Since close collar coins typically were well-centered and had distinct, fully raised rims, the long, broad denticles used previously were no longer necessary. The half dimes and dimes of 1829 feature two kinds of border elements. A few dies reveal a series of round beads just inside the rim, while others have denticles which are of conventional shape but which are much shorter than in earlier years. The denticulated border ultimately won out, being used through the remainder of the Capped Bust series, including the quarter dollar.

It’s likely that, in use, the beaded borders were drawn toward the rim through erosion of the dies, and this was considered undesirable. Close examination reveals that the denticles were likely prepared with the same tools used to apply the beads. By setting the beads directly against the rim instead of slightly inset from it the resulting effect was of very short, rounded denticles.

This same style of border was used for the Capped Bust and Classic Head gold coins of 1829-39. As the Classic Head series progressed, however, the raised rims were gradually broadened and the beads extended into true denticles. This was almost certainly done in an effort to improve stacking. This became increasingly important after the weight reduction of 1834 made these issues the first USA gold coins to circulate freely in commerce.

A similar broadening of the rims and extension of the denticles occurred with the silver coins during the 1830s, though the half dollar did not benefit from these improvements until the open collar, lettered edge type was replaced with the close collar, reeded-edge half dollar late in 1836. The half dollar actually became a test bed for different border widths in 1837, as collars of three different diameters were used that year. By the time that the Seated Liberty design was adopted for the various silver denominations during 1837-40, the U.S. Mint had made a commitment to very broad, flat rims with long, deep denticles.

The copper coins lagged behind in these developments, the first improvement not appearing in the cent until 1834. The broad denticles typical of earlier years were phased out in favor of narrower denticles of greater number. It was not until 1836, however, that a distinct separation appears between the denticles and the rims. This development likely corresponds to the introduction of the steam-driven press to the coining of cents in that year. The new dies feature short denticles set against the rim in a manner that could be mistaken for beads, but they are not truly round where they meet the rim. This same kind of border appears on the half cents of 1831-36. As with the gold and silver issues, the cents received gradually broadened borders and extended denticles beginning in 1838.

Though the U.S. Mint experimented with slightly differing diameters and border widths during the late 1830s and early 1840s (i.e. the “broad mill” and “narrow mill” half eagles of 1840), it finally settled on very broad, heavy rims and prominent denticles as the standard across all denominations. This is most evident on the cents dated 1843 (Mature Head) through 1857 and on half cents dated 1840-57, but it is true also of the silver and gold issues.

The raised rim with denticulated border was applied to each new coin introduced through the end of the 19th century, though the broadness of the rim was reduced for these subsequent issues. This is particularly noticeable in the minor coins. These were not typically stacked for counting like the silver and gold pieces, so the primary purpose of the rim was to protect the design from wear.

The addition of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to most of the silver and gold coins in 1866 furnished the occasion for reducing the broadness of the rim on these coins, though the change is so subtle that few collectors notice it. Evidently, the Mint recognized that the coins would still stack properly with slightly narrower rims, and the useful lifespan of the dies also would be extended. For this same reason the Barber silver coins introduced in 1892 received a border revision in 1900-01 when their rims were reduced in thickness, exposing more length to the denticles while keeping the overall width of the entire border the same for stacking purposes.

Among the new USA coins introduced between 1840 and 1900, the sole exception to the denticulated border is found in the diminutive silver three-cent piece. A novel coin in several respects, it was the first subsidiary silver piece in United States coinage, meaning that its bullion value intentionally fell below the standard employed for other silver issues. Perhaps in recognition of its substandard silver content, it was denied the protections of a reeded edge and denticulated borders afforded the other silver denominations. In any case, it portended a future in which border designs in United States coinage would be abandoned altogether as quaint and obsolete. These later coin types will be examined in next month’s column.

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