The Coinage of 1842: Part Two
Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 1/1/2007
Of all the various denominations bearing Christian Gobrecht's familiar Seated Liberty design, it was the half dollar alone that remained true to his original rendering of the figure. For reasons now lost to history, it did not receive the revised treatment prepared by Robert B. Hughes in 1840. The sole concession was the addition of a shallow, extra bit of drapery at Liberty's elbow during 1839 and a reduction to the size of the rock upon which she sits.
The half dollars of 1842 feature either the Small Date used 1839-41 or the Medium Date seen on coins dated 1843-46. In addition, the size the letters in the reverse legends was increased substantially during midyear. The mixing of these various dies resulted in several popular varieties.
Most commonly seen of the Philadelphia Mint issues is the Medium Date/Large Letters combination, followed in scarcity by the Small Date/Large Letters variety. Both are sufficiently available that examples remain affordable through the lower mint state grades. One reverse die of the SD/LL combination is distinctly doubled, and this variety is quite scarce.
An extreme rarity is the Small Date obverse with Small Letters reverse, just two pieces being known. The first example, a moderately worn coin, was discovered in 1998. An unattributed mint state example then appeared at auction during 2005, with several alert specialists bidding it up to a very high price.
The New Orleans Mint produced two major varieties during 1842. Once again, it is the Medium Date/Large Letters variety that is the most available, while the Small Date/Small Letters variety is scarce enough to be costly across all grades. This is a genuinely rare coin in uncirculated condition.
Mint Director Robert M. Patterson's attempt to reintroduce the silver dollar into circulation after a 35-year suspension commenced in earnest in 1840. The Philadelphia Mint was still coining moderate numbers of these coins in 1842, but its efforts were in vain. This coin remained nearly invisible in domestic circulation, with most examples being lost to the Asian silver market. Only 184,618 silver dollars were coined in 1842, which is just enough to make this coin collectable in circulated grades. Mint state pieces, while not truly rare, are seldom seen without numerous and heavy marks. With such a limited mintage it's not surprising that no significant varieties have been noted for the 1842 silver dollar.
Before 1849 the USA's gold coinage was limited to just the three denominations authorized by Congress in 1792. The quarter eagle, or 2-1/2 dollar gold piece, was still a popular and widely used coin in 1842. Examples were coined at each of the U. S. Mints then active: Philadelphia (2,823 minted), Charlotte (6,729), Dahlonega (4,643) and New Orleans (19,800). All four issues are scarce in circulated grades and genuinely rare at or near the mint state level. Perhaps due to this limited production, the changes incorporated into the other gold issue during 1842 were delayed until the following year for the quarter eagle. There are no major varieties for this date, all pieces having the Small Date typical of 1840-41 coins.
The half eagle was then, and remained for decades afterward, the most widely used gold coin in everyday commerce. Mintages in 1842 were somewhat higher than those for the quarter eagle, though modest when compared to the number of copper and silver coins produced. Both the dates and reverse legends were increased in size during midyear, and several collectable combinations are known. The Philadelphia Mint coins all have a Small Date, but they are known with either Small Letters on the reverse or Large Letters, the latter being noticeably scarcer. 1842-C half eagles all feature the old Small Letters reverse, yet they may be found with either a Small Date (rare) or the new Large Date. The Dahlonega Mint issues made a clean transition, being known as either SD/SL or LD/LL (rare). 1842-O half eagles come in just one flavor, having only the SD/SL combination.
(To digress a bit, it should be noted that the term "Large Date" is a merely relative to earlier issues, as the date size was increased again in 1847. "Medium Date" would be more accurate to describe the 1842-46 logotype. For more musings and rants on the abuse of size descriptions in American numismatics, see my column for November, 2005.)
Coinage of the eagle, or ten-dollar gold piece, had been suspended on presidential order in 1804, but Mint Director Patterson successfully reintroduced it in 1838. The Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints did not produce denominations above the half eagle, so 1842's production was limited to Philadelphia and New Orleans. The former struck examples with either the Small Date of 1840-41 or the "Large Date" of 1843-46 (the same comments apply regarding relative date sizes). Though numismatists have reconstructed mintage figures for Philadelphia that suggest the Small Date (18,623 pieces) should be scarcer than the Large Date (62,884), they have proved to be about equal in rarity. The New Orleans Mint coins are known only with the Large Date variety and are noticeably scarcer across all grades. For whatever reason, the size of the reverse legends was never increased on the eagle, limiting the number of varieties for 1842.
David W. Lange's column, "USA Coin Album," appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association