Coin Specifications

Category: Four Dollar Stella (1879-1880)
Mint: Philadelphia
Mintage: 425
Obverse Designer: Charles E. Barber
Reverse Designer: Charles E. Barber
Composition: Gold
Fineness: 0.8600
Weight: 7.0000g
AGW: 0.1935oz
Melt Value: $318.11 (2/22/2020)
Diameter: 22mm
Edge: Reeded
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1879 FLOWING HAIR $4 PF obverse 1879 FLOWING HAIR $4 PF reverse
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Description & Analysis

History of the Four Dollar Gold Stella

Western gold discoveries in the middle 19th century, in California, Colorado, and elsewhere, along with later silver discoveries, changed the national and world economic picture. A decade later, in the United States, the Civil War broke out and hoarding of precious metals rapidly increased. Meanwhile, Europe was plagued by different currencies from one country to the next, with constantly changing exchange rates. During the next two decades, several events took place that attempted to solve the varying international economic issues.

In June 1867, an international monetary meeting was held in Paris, with representatives from various nations agreeing that the French franc would be the logical choice for a European international coinage. In the United States, a coinage proposal was intended as a followup to this meeting, with a new dual-denomination coinage recommendation. Patterns were prepared with denominations of five dollars and 25 francs, and examples were struck in copper and aluminum. Dated 1868, these patterns are now known as Judd-656 through 659. After much discussion, the new coinage proposal was defeated in Congress.

Just seven years later, Dana Bickford was traveling in Europe, and experienced difficulties with international exchange. When he returned home, Bickford sat down and developed a plan to solve the international financial problem. He must have been well-connected to get a pattern coinage produced to illustrate his solution. Patterns for his ten dollar gold coin were produced in various metals, and today these are cataloged as Judd-1373 through 1378. These coins included several international valuations in their inscription. Based on the exchange rate for 10 United States dollars at that time, his coins were inscribed: 10 dollars, 2 pounds, 1 shilling, 1 pence sterling, 41.99 marken, 37.31 kronen, 20.73 gulden, and 51.81 francs. Although the exact weight and fineness were also included on the reverse, changing exchange rates meant the coin would be obsolete almost immediately after it was issued. Like the dual-denomination proposal of 1867, the Bickford international coinage concept was defeated in Congress.

Dana Bickford was a New York businessman, and he was the inventor of automatic knitting machines. A broadside in the New York Public Library shows his picture beneath the heading: 'Bickford's Automatic Knitting Machines Knit Everything.' Below his photo is the caption: 'Inventor of All Reversible or Automatic Family Knitting Machine.' His knitting machine, which sold for $30, was a table top model that was operated by a hand crank. Thousands of these machines were sold worldwide.

We can thank the Honorable John Kasson for the existence of the four dollar coinage. Kasson served as United States Minister to Austria, and he was formerly chairman of the Committee of Coinage, Weights, and Measures. With his connections to the United States and Austrian governments, Kasson was interested in a coin that was valued closely to the Austrian eight florin coinage, valued at a little under four dollars, and very similar in value to several European and world gold coins. The proposal made by Kasson was related to Treasury Secretary John Sherman and Coinage Committee chairman Alexander Stephens, with additional details provided by Dr. Wheeler W. Hubbell. A resident of Pennsylvania, Dr. Hubbell preferred the metric system for coinage, and held patents for his goloid coinage composition.

The new four dollar gold piece was to be called the stella, a name analogous to one eagle, according to Edgar Adams and William Woodin in their 1913 pattern reference, United States Pattern, Trial, and Experimental Pieces. 'In the opinion of the [Coinage] committee all coins should have a specific name. Therefore 'one suitable for the four-dollar coin would be One Stella, in analogy to one eagle, both the star and the eagle being National emblems on our coins.' '

Varieties and Design

Two different designs and two different dates were produced, all having a common reverse design, for a total of four varieties. These varieties are 1879 Flowing Hair, 1879 Coiled Hair, 1880 Flowing Hair, and 1880 Coiled Hair.

Flowing Hair obverse design: Liberty facesleft in profile with long flowing locks of hair, wearing a headband inscribed LIBERTY. Around, the legend * 6 * G * .3 * S * .7 * C * 7 * G * R * A * M * S * and below, the date, 1879 (or 1880). The 1879 obverse has a large date logotype. The letter A and star 12 are both slightly doubled.

Coiled Hair obverse design: Liberty faces left in profile with her hair coiled in a bun atop her head, wearing a headband inscribed LIBERTY. Around, the legend * 6 * G * .3 * S * .7 * C * 7 * G * R * A * M * S * and below, the date, 1879 (or 1880). The 1879 obverse has a large date logotype, apparently the same as the 1879 Flowing Hair obverse. The 1880 obverse has star 5 doubled, recutting in R, and die defects in the second 8.

Common reverse design: The main central device is a large five-pointed star with the four-line inscription ONE STELLA 400 CENTS. Around, an outer legend reads UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, with the denomination expressed as FOUR DOL. below. An inner legend, with words separated by the star points, reads E PLURIBUS UNUM--DEO EST GLORIA. D in UNITED is sharply doubled.

In his Complete Encyclopedia, Walter Breen provided separate entries for 'Original' and 'Restrike' varieties of the 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas. These are numbered in his reference as 6407 and 6408, respectively. For Breen-6407, his 'Original' issue, Breen comments 'Without central striations on either side, often confused with next [Breen-6408, with central striations]. None offered in many years.' It is probably the case that variety 6407 does not exist, thus explaining why none had been offered in many years. The only way to distinguish these different alloys is through compositional analysis, requiring an expensive testing procedure. We are not aware of any examples that have actually been tested for their specific composition.


The Coiled Hair obverse was designed by George Morgan and the Flowing Hair obverse was designed by Charles Barber. At the time, Morgan was the Assistant Engraver, working under the supervision of Chief Engraver Charles Barber. There is little doubt that Morgan felt the roles were backward, and there is also little doubt that Morgan was more talented than Barber.

Charles Barber (1840-1917) was the son of William Barber, and was appointed to the top engraving post at the Mint in 1880 after his father died. Charles Barber served for 10 years as an assistant engraver prior to that time, and he shared the post with Morgan for the last four of those years. Barber was responsible for many important coin designs, including the dimes, quarters, and half dollars beginning in 1892, which are now known as the Barber coinage. He also prepared the Liberty Head nickel design as well as several commemorative issues, medals, and patterns. Morgan (1845-1925) joined the Mint staff as an assistant engraver in 1876 and served that role until he was finally appointed as the Chief Engraver in 1917, after the death of Charles Barber. Today, he is most well known for the silver dollar design that was first produced in 1878, and is now known as the Morgan dollar. Morgan prepared designs for numerous pattern issues, medals, and commemorative coins. Morgan was a life member of the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, and he did private commission work in addition to his government service.

Coinage Production

Total production of these coins is not specifically known, although the 1879 Flowing Hair variety was clearly produced in substantially larger quantities than the others. In his Complete Encyclopedia, Breen reported a mintage of 425 coins, taken from a commentary by R.W. Julian. While this figure has become the commonly accepted mintage total, other quantities have been reportedover the years, ranging from 400 to 600 coins. Most recently, Q. David Bowers suggested a higher total of 800 coins in the eighth edition of the Judd pattern reference.

The other three varieties had extremely limited mintages, generally estimated in the range of 10 to 25 pieces each, although even those figures are suspect. Past issues of the Guide Book have listed various different mintage quantities. The 2004-dated 57th edition listed exact mintages of 10 pieces, 15 pieces, and 10 pieces for the 1879 Coiled Hair, 1880 Flowing Hair, and 1880 Coiled Hair varieties, respectively. The next year, in the 58th edition, these figures were increased to 25, 25, and 20 pieces, and in the 2006-dated 59th edition, mintage figures were completely eliminated, and in their place were estimated current populations of 12 known, 17 known, and 18 known, respectively for each of these varieties.

In addition to the gold-composition coins, others were made in various compositions including copper, aluminum, and white metal (tin). Like the gold composition pieces, mintages of these various other pieces is also unknown.

Differing Alloys

At the time these coins were produced, standard alloy for gold coinage was simply 90% gold and 10% copper, but the inscription on the coins suggests a different and more complicated composition of 85.71% gold, 4.29% silver, and 10.00% copper. This was intended to be a metric alloy, related to other metric pattern issues of the era. There is little doubt that the standard composition was actually used for the production of these pattern issues. Since there was yet to be passed actual legislation approving this denomination and the composition it was to be made of, there was little reason for the Mint to go to such extremes to produce such an alloy.

Production Method

At the time these coins were struck, they were still experimental pieces prior to pending legislation to authorize this denomination (which never occurred). Had the authorization taken place, Mint personnel would have found it necessary to create planchets out of the specified alloy, but such production almost certainly did not take place. These coins are the same diameter as Federal half eagles, thus it is probably the case that strips of half eagle planchet stock were rolled out to the appropriate thickness for a four dollar denomination (essentially 80% of the thickness for half eagles). Planchets of the same half eagle diameter could then be punched from the strip, using the standard planchet cutter that was then in use for half eagles. This process clearly explains the striations seen on both sides of all known stellas.

The four dollar gold denomination was destined to fail from the start. There was certainly no need for this denomination in the United States, as both three dollar and five dollar denominations already existed. In Europe, and elsewhere around the world, this was also a useless coinage. It did not exactly match any of the gold coinage issues of the various world governments, and by this time, the U.S. double eagle was the gold coinage of choice with most or all world governments.

Description and Analysis courtesy of Heritage Auctions and may not be republished without written permission.


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Total Graded: 222
Low Grade: 45
Average Grade: 63
High Grade: 68

The chart showing 45 series, 50 series, 53 series, 55 series, 58 series, 60 series, 61 series, 62 series, 63 series, 64 series, 65 series, 66 series, 67 series, 68 series.
NGC CENSUS DETAIL Last Updated: 2/18/2020 1879 FLOWING HAIR $4 PF

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NGC Registry Score 1879 FLOWING HAIR $4 PF CA
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