USA Coin Album: Favorite Numismatic Anomalies, Part Two
Posted on 8/23/2010
Continuing the theme of curious irregularities in our coinage, one of the most popular devices on United States coins is the star. For most coin types there are exactly 13 stars, and this same constellation is sometimes found on both obverse and reverse. Good examples are the quarter dollar and half dollar, designed by Charles Barber and introduced in 1892. Thirteen stars are arranged in an arc around the obverse periphery of each coin, while a cluster of 13 appears above the eagle as part of the Great Seal depicted on the reverse. Just to mix things up, however, Barber used six-pointed stars for the obverse and five-pointed ones for the reverse. The latter are more formally known as mullets in the language of heraldry, but stars they be to you and me.
Stars had long been a stumbling block for the US Mint and its engravers. The first federal silver and gold coins debuted with 15 stars in an arc around their obverses, this being the number of states at the time. Though a bit crowded on the smaller coins, it remained manageable until the admission of Tennessee in 1796 raised the number to 16. This count resulted in quite awkward intrusions into the date area and Liberty’s hair. Since the union was still growing, a decision was made to standardize the number of stars at 13, representing the original American states. It was the Mint’s practice at the time to create multiple dies in advance of need, only adding the date when they were about to be used. This led to some amazing varieties, such as the half dimes dated 1797. These are known with 15 stars, 16 stars and 13 stars, respectively, depending on when the dies were initially prepared.
The Seated Liberty coinage likewise underwent a form of star wars. On the half dime, dime and quarter, the stars are positioned so that their rays point toward one another. On the 20-cent piece, half dollar and silver dollar, they point toward the border denticles. Oddly enough, the pattern silver dollars of 1838-39 show the stars pointed toward one another, but this feature was changed when the coins went into mass production in 1840.
Another important but little publicized aspect of more recent USA coinage concerns the replacement of hubs within a single year. A hub is the relief die from which working dies, with their incuse cavities, are derived. When a hub is revised, all the dies sunk from it will share its distinctive features, but these dies may be used interchangeably with ones taken from a slightly different hub. An obvious and recent example concerns the two reverses used for the 2000-P Sacagawea dollars. The first, which is rare, has sharply detailed feathers on the eagle’s tail, while the second, used for all subsequent coins, has simplified feathers. Two important but far lesser known transitions occurred with the Mercury dimes dated 1917 and the Lincoln cents dated 1974. Both are favorites of mine and were treated in detail within my books on those two series.
The 1917 dimes of all three mints are known from obverse dies taken from two different hubs, resulting in a total of six collectible varieties for that date. The dies used early in the year are identical to the obverse of 1916 dimes, these being in faintly higher relief and with less distinctive wing feathers. A new obverse hub introduced in 1917 featured lower relief in an attempt to get the bands of the fasces on the reverse to strike up more fully. At the same time, the Mint sharpened the feathers in Liberty’s wing, providing clear separations between each feather. Though a couple of the six varieties are somewhat scarce, they have not been added to standard catalogs or promoted by dealers.
The same may be said of the transitional cents of 1974. The first cents produced that year at all three mints were derived from a very sharply detailed obverse hub, the same one created the previous year for testing the proposed aluminum cents dated 1974. The 1974-S proof cents were all coined from dies of this hub type, but the circulating cents are known from both this hub and the one that appeared later in the same year. This second hub had all features drawn very slightly toward the coin’s center, providing greater clearance from the rim for greater die life. Because the date is further from the rim on the latter type, it has been dubbed the Small Date variety, while the earlier version is known by default as the Large Date. Since the distinctions are rather subtle, the six cent varieties of 1974 have drawn little notice from collectors, and none are especially rare.
I’ve saved the best for last. Perhaps the most intriguing of my own discoveries concerns the silver dollars dated 1926. All are from a modified obverse master die, unique to that date, in which the word GOD in the motto has been hand-engraved to be in sharper and higher relief. There are no varieties, as all 1926 dollars from the three mints are alike in this respect, but it remains a mystery why this obviously deliberate action was taken.
David W. Lange's column, "USA Coin Album," appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.