USA Coin Album: Short and Sweet, Part Two

Posted on 12/13/2011

This month David continues his discussion of coins that were mass produced for just a short period of time.

Last month I began a survey of United States coin types that are particularly appealing yet were terminated all too quickly in favor of lesser replacements. Christian Gobrecht’s handsome Seated Liberty silver dollar of 1836 lacked stars on its obverse, and this furnished it with a charming cameo appearance. Not content to leave well enough alone, the Mint added 13 stars to the 1838-39 issues to conform with earlier coin types dating back to the 1790s. The Seated Liberty dime and half dime debuted in 1837 sans stars, but these coins were likewise retrofitted with an arc of obverse stars early in 1838. Only the 1837 and 1838-O issues were produced in the original format, and these coins are especially prized by type collectors.

Gobrecht’s coins were further altered midway through 1840, when artist Robert Ball Hughes was contracted to produce a highly modified interpretation of the Seated Liberty. The most obvious change was the addition of a fold of drapery at Liberty’s left elbow, but a close comparison of both subtypes reveals a nearly complete redesign. In addition to rendering Liberty fat and lumpy, the new obverse model led to decades of poor strikes in which Liberty’s head was indistinct and portions of the reverse wreath were likewise incomplete. This revised obverse was applied in 1840 to all of the Seated Liberty denominations aside from the half dollar (for some reason this latter coin, though having drapery added at Liberty’s elbow midway through 1839, remained largely as Gobrecht modeled it right through the end of production in 1891). The half dime and dime received a heavier style of wreath concurrent with the obverse changes. This, too, was far from an improvement, only adding to the striking deficiencies described above.

One of the most unfortunate alterations to United States coinage was the Mint’s bungling of Hermon MacNeil’s quarter dollar design of 1916. The coin as it debuted that year was actually the Mint’s own interpretation of the design and not the models submitted by MacNeil. The 1916 issue was struck from a master hub not properly reproduced through mechanical reduction, with the result that several features were indistinct on the coins. The Mint’s engraving department sharpened these features with 1917’s coinage, but the artist still objected. Corrective action was taken midway through 1917, resulting in an extremely modified version of the Standing Liberty quarter dollar which was closer to the MacNeil’s models but which also struck up quite poorly. In addition, the new dies wore out more quickly than those of the original issue, leaving most Type 2 coins rather blurry. In retrospect, it’s clear that the 1917 Type 1 quarters were quite handsome and should have been left as they were.

Among the most familiar and readily collectable of early United States coins are the charming Capped Bust half dollars of 1807-36, of which millions were coined annually. Perhaps because of its high production and importance, this denomination was the last to be upgraded with a reeded edge applied through use of a close collar, a technology adapted to the other silver coins several years earlier. Christian Gobrecht used this transition to also create a new interpretation of the old John Reich design, and the result was one of the most appealing of United States issues. The reeded edge version of the Capped Bust half dollar was in production for just a few years, 1836-39, before being replaced by the same artist’s Seated Liberty type. In its brief lifetime, however, it was the epitome of this design at its finest.

This coin’s replacement, as noted above, was the Seated Liberty half dollar. The early issues of 1839-42 featured small lettering on the reverse that did not detract from the main device of a shield-bearing eagle. Early in 1842, however, the legends were made large and quite heavy, a move mimicked on the copper and gold issues, as well. Whatever the reason for doing this, it gave the coins a somewhat crowded appearance and was in no way an aesthetic improvement. The heaviness of this lettering was reduced a bit in stages, starting in 1858 and continuing with the 1866 debut of halves bearing the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, but the damage had already been done.

Though the Walking Liberty half dollar was left relatively untouched by the Mint’s engraving department, it too suffered from some minor tinkering. All three of the new silver coins debuting in 1916 were modeled by their submitting artists with rough, textured fields, a style then in vogue among sculptors. Even in the pattern stage, however, engraver Charles Barber polished out these fields to make them smooth, a move which alarmed dime and half dollar artist Adolph Weinman in particular. The 1916 coins as issued did have their textured fields restored, but it was not long before these were replaced with the more conventional treatment. During the course of 1917’s production, the Mint made subtle changes to the dime and half dollar which, among other things, furnished them with smooth, reflective fields. The same thing happened to MacNeil’s quarter dollar in its transition from Type 1 to Type 2, but the overall changes were so obvious that the smoothing of the fields went barely noticed.

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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