USA Coin Album: Those Shifty Mintmarks

Posted on 7/12/2011

David focuses this month on the wandering mintmark positions of San Francisco Mint quarter dollars during the years 1892-97.

While The Numismatist provides readers with an excellent selection of articles and columns over a broad range of subjects, collectors and dealers will also benefit from membership in the many specialized organizations that have their own journals. For example, I’m a founding member of the Barber Coin Collectors Society and have received its journal ever since the first issue in 1989.

Recent issues included a fascinating series of articles by Rich Dula detailing the wandering mintmark positions of San Francisco Mint quarter dollars during the years 1892-97. Collectors of this coin series are undoubtedly aware of the three mintmark locations for both ‘O’ and ‘S’ quarters during its early years. For the New Orleans coins there are no variations seen after 1895, and it is the S-Mint quarters that seem more compelling. From 1892 through 1897 the ‘S’ mintmark is found in three different positions—centered directly below the eagle’s tail, far to the right above letter D in DOLLAR and, finally, equidistant from the eagle’s tail, letter [QUARTE]R and letter D[OLLAR]. This final location ultimately became the series standard from 1898 through the end of coining in 1916.

All 1892-S quarters have a single mintmark location, this being centered directly below the eagle’s tail. That was the obvious choice for the engravers, and all of the reverse dies prepared for the branch mints at the onset of the series received this centered mintmark. While it worked out just fine for the halves, which had plenty of space between the tail and lettering, it was soon evident that this same location was too tight for the quarter. The mintmark was simply too close to adjacent features, and the inevitable result was chipping of the die (when die cavities are too close to one another, the steel is not thick enough to resist failure, and coins struck from these chipped dies will show raised metal between the design features).

This mintmark location was quickly abandoned, and the relatively small mintage of 1892-S quarters meant that no additional dies were used that year. In fact, these first dies having the mintmark positioned directly below the eagle’s tail were never used again. When the next batch was shipped west (all dies were manufactured and mintmarked at the Philadelphia Mint), it was first used for the 1893-S quarters. These dies had the mintmark in the far right position over letter D of DOLLAR, which relieved the problem of die chipping. When this location proved to have an awkward appearance, yet another batch of dies was prepared having the mintmark offset to the right just slightly, more or less centered between the tail and lettering as described above. Both positions were used for the 1893-S quarters, the latter one being the scarcer of the two that year.

Over the next several years, both the second and third batches of dies were used interchangeably at the New Orleans and San Francisco Mints. 1894-S and 1895-S quarters are most often seen with the far right position, and coins having the mintmark centered between the tail and lettering bring a modest premium among specialists. The scarce 1896-S quarters were all minted with two reverse dies having the centered position, and this is a big break for authenticators. The underappreciated 1897-S quarters, which are nearly as scarce as those dated 1896-S, revert to the pattern of 1893-95. The far right mintmark is the norm for these coins, and those having the mintmark centered between the tail and lettering are quite rare. Because this issue is already scarce and a bit expensive, there is seldom any premium applied for the rare mintmark position. This would be a great “cherrypick” for the astute collector.

Writing in the Journal of the Barber Coin Collectors Society, author Rich Dula documented the number of appearances of each mintmark position on San Francisco Mint quarters 1892-97 and speculated as to why the Philadelphia Mint’s Engraving Department would vary the position of mintmarks from year to year. In so doing, however, he missed the key point that the engravers did not alternate mintmark positions annually. Each of the three positions noted for 1892-97 quarters resulted from a single period of die making, and the first two positions were not repeated once they had proved undesirable.

The solution to these wandering mintmarks lies in the fact that reverse dies, which did not carry dates, were used randomly year after year until they were no longer fit for service. Each branch mint, upon receiving its dies, placed them in its die locker, and they were then retrieved randomly whenever another press run of that denomination was required. The far right mintmark dies, made in late 1892 or early 1893, became mixed in with the succeeding dies having mintmarks centered between the tail and lettering, these being made sometime later in 1893. When a reverse die was needed, the coiner grabbed the first one he saw and placed it in the press without any regard to the mintmark position. Only when the die was no longer fit was it retired. Thus, the far right mintmark dies lasted as late as 1897 at the San Francisco Mint, because the depression years of the mid-1890s resulted in relatively low mintages that used them up slowly.

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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