USA Coin Album: Uncomfortable Fits — Conclusions

Posted on 1/22/2019

Mintmarks often competed for a place at the table.

We've already seen how legends, mottoes and dates have been wedged into tight spaces on our coins, and now it's time to study the fine art of mintmark placement, as practiced by the United States Mint.

When the Mint was established in 1792, the United States was a collection of small states clinging to the Eastern Seaboard. It was inconceivable at the time that additional minting facilities would be needed in years to come. All coins were struck at the sole mint in Philadelphia, and it alone was accountable for the quality of its product. This changed on March 3, 1835, with the enactment of a law creating branch mints at Charlotte, North Carolina; Dahlonega, Georgia; and New Orleans, Louisiana. The coins made at those facilities would need to be distinguishable in some way for the sake of accountability, should any coins turn up as debased or underweight.

At the same time, the US Mint's new hire, Christian Gobrecht, was in a creative frenzy, redesigning most of the existing coin types. Little provision seems to have been made for the inclusion of mintmarks, needed when the three new mints actually began striking coins in 1838. Initially, their mint letters were placed on the obverse of most pieces, but the new Seated Liberty coinage that debuted in stages between 1837 and 1840 provided no room on that side. Going forward, most coin types would carry their mintmarks on the reverse.

The quarter eagle was the last gold denomination to receive Gobrecht's new Coronet Liberty Head design, and it turned out that reducing the reverse models used successfully on the eagle and half eagle left no room for a mintmark on the tiny quarter eagle. This is clearly seen on the illustrated 1847-C example, its Charlotte mintmark overlapping both the branch stem and the arrow feathers. This problem was not addressed satisfactorily until 1877, when a much smaller mintmark was provided for the San Francisco Mint, the only branch then still coining quarter eagles.

1847-C $2.5

When the mighty double eagle debuted in 1850, its design provided plenty of room for the oversize mintmarks then in vogue. A change made in 1866, however, brought this happy condition to a screeching halt. Addition of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST above the eagle figure required that the latter be pushed downward within the coin's field, leaving just a tiny space for a mintmark. Fortunately, the US Mint had already started moving toward much smaller mintmarks, and this transition is clearly seen by comparing the examples dated 1857-S and 1869-S.

1857-S $20 (left); 1869-S $20 (right)
Click images to enlarge.

The early years of the new double eagle design adopted in 1907 also provided some close calls. The first San Francisco Mint issue, dated 1908-S, featured a tiny mintmark which had not been used before that year, so there was no conflict with the design. The existing Denver mintmark, however, was too large for this and other new coin types, so it was replaced with a much smaller one beginning in 1911. Coins dated 1910-D and 1914-D reveal this dramatic difference in size.

1910-D $20 (left); 1914-D $20 (right)
Click images to enlarge.

The coin which provided the most drama, however, was the Barber quarter dollar, which debuted in 1892. A reduced version of the half dollar design, which had plenty of room below the eagle's tail feathers for a mintmark, the quarter somehow lacked adequate space in that area. The first batch of reverse dies shipped to New Orleans and San Francisco featured centered mintmarks that nearly touched adjacent design elements. Such tight proximity led to chipping of the dies in that area, yet all 1892-O and 1892-S quarters display this position. The 1892-O quarter illustrated also shows some deformation of the tail feathers where the metal displaced by the mintmark punch actually distorted that design element. A revised hub for the reverse of the Barber quarter appeared that same year, and this provided a tiny improvement in spacing, but an alternative mintmark placement was still needed.

1892-O Quarter

In a bit of overreaction, the branch mint reverse dies for 1893's coinage displayed mintmarks that were placed far to the right of center. This looked awkward on the actual coins, so yet another batch was shipped that same year in which the O and S mintmarks were placed only slightly offset to the right and centered above the letters [QUARTE]R D[OLLAR]. This became the default position for the remainder of that coin series, though existing dies having far right mintmarks were used alternately with the replacement ones as late as 1897. This has provided the coin hobby with several collectable varieties. A notable rarity among these is the 1897-S quarter with its mintmark centered above letters R and D.

1893-O Quarter (left); 1893-O Quarter (right)
Click images to enlarge.

Over most of the past 100 years, the US Mint has employed small mintmarks almost exclusively. Only in recent decades, with the mintmark becoming an integral feature of the original models, has the size of this element been increased. It now serves as much as a marketing tool as a safeguard.

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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