USA Coin Album: Transitional Pairs - Part One

Posted on 3/12/2013

In recent decades, it has been the US Mint’s practice to make a clean break between coin designs for each denomination.

By that I mean that the new type is not introduced mid-year after an initial striking of the old type. Of course, this statement excludes the numerous commemorative quarter dollars coined 1999-date, the Westward Journey nickels of 2004-05 and the Presidential dollars minted since 2007. When semi-permanent designs are introduced, it has been Mint practice to not make them transitional with the previous design.

This was not the case in the Mint’s early years, when new designs were put into production just as soon as the dies were ready. Witness the cent coinage of 1793, in which no less than three distinctive types were employed in rapid succession. The Mint was learning to crawl, and unsuccessful designs were rejected almost immediately without waiting for a turn of the calendar.

There were mid-year transitions for the silver dollar in 1795, for the cent in 1796 and for the eagle in 1797. The half eagle also transitioned from the Small Eagle type to the Heraldic Eagle type in 1797, but there was some overlap of the dates 1795 and 1798. This was due to the Mint’s thriftiness in not discarding dies until they were unusable. The 1795-dated coins with Heraldic Eagle reverse are believed to have been struck during 1797, while the Small Eagle coins dated 1798 resulted from the use that year of an obsolete reverse die.

History repeated itself during 1807, when both the half dollar and half eagle were coined with two highly distinctive designs. With less popular denominations the Mint could afford to wait until a new year before making such a transition, but these two coins represented the most useful and highly produced coins in their respective metals of silver and gold. There was simply no option but to use up all old dies and put into the press any new ones that were ready. It’s remarkable only that the cent, as popular as it was in 1807, did not experience a similar mid-year changeover. Perhaps the enormous cent production of 1798-1803 created enough of a redundancy that employment of John Reich’s new Classic Head design was not necessary until 1808.

Reich’s left-facing bust of Liberty or some modification of it so dominated United States coinage over the next 30 years that there were no further transitions before 1834. It was not until that year that Congress finally dealt with a problem that had been festering for some time. United States gold coins were undervalued in relation to their actual gold content, with the result that most of the production after 1814 had been almost immediately exported and melted for its bullion value. In 1834 the weight of our gold coins was reduced by law, the new standard becoming effective August 1. This led to a new series of quarter eagles and half eagles that bore only a superficial resemblance to their predecessors. They were distinctive enough in design to be clearly identifiable and were thus spared the destruction wrought on earlier issues. These coins were struck in large numbers and actually circulated at face value for many years.

The gold coins dated 1834 highlight a problem associated with the collecting of transitional pairs. The new, lighter weight coins, known as the Classic Head type, are common and affordable in all circulated grades, but the heavier Capped Head coins made earlier in the year are extremely rare, with fewer than 100 known of each denomination. This is, of course, an extreme example of the problem, but to some extent it applies to all of the pre-1837 transitional coinage. Only the dollars of 1795, the cents of 1796 and the half dollars of 1807 are truly affordable in pairs, the other coins being beyond the reach of most hobbyists.

The Mint Act of 1837 heralded a new attitude regarding the importance of the US Mint and its output. The obsolete standards for our coinage were simplified to an easier figure of nine parts silver or gold to one part alloy. The Mint also was provided with a fund for the purchase of bullion ahead of actual deposits, and this permitted depositors of precious metals to be paid in full just as soon as an assay could be performed on their bullion.

The 1837 law did not call for revised coinage designs, but the opening of a new mint facility four years earlier and the adoption of vastly improved technology shortly afterward coincided with the hiring of three very forward-thinking individuals. Chief Coiner Franklin Peale had been at the Mint for several years when Robert M. Patterson became its director in 1835, and superb engraver and die-sinker Christian Gobrecht was hired that same year. Between them they elevated United States coinage to a much higher level that rivaled the finest issues of Europe. An entirely new series of silver and gold issues debuted between 1837 and 1840, with the years 1837 and 1838 in particular providing collectors with their first instances of universally collectable transitional pieces. I’ll take a look at these and subsequent pairs in next month’s column.

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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