USA Coin Album: The Coinage of 1837, Part Two

Posted on 12/8/2009

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

The year 1837 began with much promise, as popular President Andrew Jackson was succeeded by his own party’s Martin Van Buren. A common cent token of the period observed of Van Buren that "I follow in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessor," though this may have been intended more as sarcasm than approval. Within months the federal government’s policy of reigning in reckless speculation in Western land, most of which was funded with bank notes of dubious worth, led to a general suspension of specie payments (gold and silver coin). This, in turn, resulted in a nationwide economic depression that lasted throughout Van Buren’s single term.

The principal numismatic legacy of the "Hard Times" period was a rich assortment of privately minted tokens, such as the type noted above. Most of these were copper pieces similar in size to the United States cents of that time and circulated at that value. There were exceptions, however, including a half-cent token dated 1837 that has become a favorite with collectors. The fact that no federal half cents were coined with this date only adds to the token’s appeal. The lack of 1837-dated half cents was due to a redundancy of such coins in Treasury vaults. Half cents had been coined 1832–35 in numbers that were fairly large in relation to the quite limited demand, and thousands of pieces remained on-hand in 1837.

Cents, however, were another matter. The demand for these seems to have been more or less constant, and the Philadelphia Mint produced some 5 1/2 million pieces that year. Numismatists have identified 16 die marriages for 1837 alone, and the majority of these feature the older style Liberty with plain hair cords, popularly known as the Head of 1836. Its successor, the Head of 1838, is similar in overall style and is most easily recognized by its beaded hair cords. The Head of 1836 cents may be found with either Medium or Small Letters in the reverse legend (the terms Medium and Small are used in a relative sense, as earlier cents featured lettering that was larger than both). The latter style is slightly more scarce, but all three major varieties of 1837 cents are collectable over various grades.

Until 1851, there were no United States coins valued between one and five cents, so the next entry in our 1837 lineup is the silver half dime. Two completely different design types were issued that year. The Capped Bust Liberty type had been in production since 1829, and this represented William Kneass’ interpretation of John Reich’s 1807 concept of a matronly bust of Liberty on the obverse and the familiar "sandwich board" eagle on the reverse. 1837, with its mintage of only 871,000 pieces, has proved to be the scarcest date for this short series, and there are five die marriages known. Four feature the value "5 C." in large figures, while just one has a small declaration of value. This scarce variety carries a notable premium, especially in Mint State grades.

The 1837 Capped Bust dime is also slightly more scarce than earlier dates of this type, but not enough to earn it a premium. This general design had been in production somewhat irregularly since 1809, but the 1837 dimes incorporated modifications made to Reich’s original models by William Kneass beginning in 1828. Four die marriages are known from a mintage of 359,500 pieces. These include just two obverse dies, one of which has a symmetrical "Block 8," while the second has a script or "Fancy 8." Of interest to series specialists only, neither variety carries a premium in the overall market.

The Mint Act of January 18, 1837, specifically excluded the eagle from the reverse of the dime and half dime, and an entirely new set of devices was selected for these two coins. Christian Gobrecht’s seated figure of Liberty, which debuted on the rare silver dollars of 1836, was adapted to the smallest silver pieces the following year. Their common reverse displayed a simple wreath encircling a statement of value, this spelled out in full for the first time on either coin (the 1792 "DISME" and "HALF DISME" are considered patterns, though the latter clearly circulated). Framing the wreath was the national legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

The Seated Liberty dime was first struck on June 30, the half dime following on July 25. Both occasions were accompanied by formal celebrations in which the initial pieces were coined as proofs for presentation to various dignitaries. Walter Breen reported that 30 proof dimes were produced, while just 20 half dimes were struck, and a little more than half of each issue is known today.

These rare proofs are beyond the budget of the typical collector, but this transitional year does include some collectable varieties. The earliest emissions of both the Seated Liberty dime and half dime had the date arranged in a slight arc, while later coins of 1837 display a new style, level date. These are commonly called Large Date and Small Date, respectively, though the size difference is evident only on the dime, which is further distinguished by having a flat top to the 3 for the Large Date variety only. Both varieties of the half dime have round-top 3s, but the Large Date also features a pointed top to the 1. In each instance, only slight premiums are attached to the Small Date varieties.

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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