By Ron Drzewucki for CoinWeek …..
There’s been quite a surge of interest in the pre-Saint-Gaudens gold Liberty Head type of $10 eagles and $20 double eagles as of late, with several outstanding pieces (including one of the most complete collections of Liberty Head types in recent memory) hitting the auction block.
Personally, I’m happy to see the hobby move in this direction (Barber coinage is another recent beneficiary). But when it comes to pre-Saint eagle denominations, I’m especially interested in the gold quarter eagle.
What’s an “eagle”?
I know some of you might be asking some version of the same question right now. If so, I applaud your curiosity and eagerness to learn. People like you remind old industry fogeys like myself why they love coins in the first place.
Simply put, an eagle is like a dollar, except 10 times bigger.
Everyday commerce doesn’t really require us to think outside of the dollar box. Buying a cup of coffee and a newspaper might make you spend a fiver. We’re perfectly comfortable using 10- and 20-dollar bills for larger purchases… and that’s if we use cash at all. Credit and debit cards–and electronic payment systems like PayPal–have eliminated the need to count money in units other than a “dollar”.
But at the end of the 18th century, things were different.
The Coinage Act of 1792 not only established the United States Mint in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but also authorized the first denominations of federal currency. These included the dollar (or “unit”), the half dollar, the quarter dollar, the disme (dime), the half disme (the “nickel”… sort of), the cent and the half cent. Clearly, post-revolutionary America had different economic needs. Since then, some of the names have changed. Other denominations became obsolete long ago. But this is, essentially, OUR money.
However, before the Act even mentions the dollar, it discusses the eagle and its fractions: the half eagle and the quarter eagle. Yes, this is because the Act lists the denominations from largest to smallest, but the “eagle” and the “dollar” are treated as the same thing–that is, a basic unit of the U.S. decimal system of money.
One eagle was worth $10, the half eagle was equivalent to $5, and the quarter eagle was the same as $2.50. They still are, though we don’t officially mint coins in these denominations anymore. You might occasionally hear someone refer to a gold $5 coin like you find in most modern commemorative programs as a “half eagle”. This is what they mean.
$2.50? That’s a weird denomination.
In a way. We’re definitely not used to it any more. Then again, a lot of people didn’t handle a silver dollar on a regular basis back then.
Still, the eagle family of coins served a purpose. Remember, there were no greenbacks or federal reserve notes in the beginning. Coins were what money was. When credit wasn’t available or wasn’t ideal, and a merchant, trader, bank or business needed to deal in large amounts of hard, cold cash, eagles–and later double eagles–came in handy.
But how weird is it, really? Wouldn’t a $2.50 coin be mighty convenient in today’s fast-paced world? If you weren’t using plastic, that’s two bills and two quarters. Or a combination of bills, quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies in change.
Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t like changing it’s money very much, despite any benefits that might accrue. Which relegates potentially helpful ideas like quarter eagle coins to the rubbish pile of history and the safety deposit boxes of many a collector.
Speaking of collecting, how do I collect them?
Maybe you’ve heard this before, but “buy the book before the coin”.
Then read it.
What this means is you should always know something about your collectible of choice before you spend money on it. There are a lot of good books out there (a lot of bad ones, too), but the Internet didn’t exist when that famous phrase was first uttered by Aaron Feldman.
(I forget who added the “read it” part. Might’ve been the “Professor” himself, Q. David Bowers, but I’m not sure.)
Anyway, the Internet’s quality-to-crap ratio isn’t much different than the print world’s, to be honest–and I’m not just saying that because I write a blog. Even though the amount of content online seems infinite and can feel overwhelming at times (and vice versa), you can potentially read a great deal of it. That means ALL the good stuff is accessible. The local library or bookstore might, and probably does, have worthwhile reference materials available, but you can’t buy or borrow what they don’t have.
And what are the odds the librarian in charge of acquisitions, or the store buyer for a chain retailer, is a coin collector?
At any rate, you’re already here (thank you–really, I mean it), and the topic is quarter eagles, so let’s dive into the nitty-gritty!
The first gold quarter eagles were minted in Philadelphia, four years after the denomination was authorized in the Coinage Act of 1792. These are called Capped Bust or Turban Head quarter eagles, and the first design (with Liberty facing to the right) was used from 1796-1807. They were designed by the first Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, Robert Scot.
The coin weighed approximately 4.5 grams and consisted of almost 92% pure gold. It had a diameter of about 20 mm and a reeded edge. These numbers are important later.
Back when many details on a coin’s surfaced were punched separately, smaller design elements tended to differ between issues (the Mint was always adjusting its dies to maximize die life or improve a coin’s strike). Naturally, this produces many varieties that the obsessed and eagle-eyed among us are still discovering to this day. Whitman Publishing’s famous “Red Book” (buy it!) lists a few varieties for these dates:
- ● The 1796 issue started out with no stars on the obverse but was quickly replace by a version with stars on it. Subsequent issues all have stars on the obverse.
● The 1804 quarter eagle has a 13-star and a 14-star reverse.
● Well, it gets wilder. The 1806 strike features two notable overstrikes: the “6 over 4” and the “6 over 5”. To make things more interesting, the 6/4 has eight stars to the left of Liberty and five to the right, while the 6/5 has seven stars to the left and six to the right.
In 1808, Assistant Engraver John Reich created a new design for Liberty that’s commonly called the Capped Bust, Large Size quarter eagle due to the overly pillowy freedom cap she wears. He also turned her around so that she’s looking to the left. The weight and other specs remained the same.
This design lasted for one year, as the quarter eagle denomination was discontinued due to lack of demand. This one is, to use a term of art, pretty darn rare.
A Rottweiler named “Tiny”
Then suddenly, there was huge demand for the quarter eagle coin, catching the Mint flat-footed. So in 1821, Robert Scot adapted his 1818 half eagle design for the quarter eagle. I’m not really a fan of the representation of Liberty on this issue, but it was a rush job.
The 1821 quarter eagle’s diameter was shrunk down to around 18.5 mm, yet somehow this issue, the Capped Head quarter eagle, is referred to as the Large Diameter type. It was produced between 1821-1827.
1824 mintages include a “4 over 1” overstrike, and 1826 includes a “6 over 6”.
But back to that “Large Diameter” title – is it like naming a chihuahua “Killer” or a rottweiler “Tiny”? Not really; it’s a retroactive way to distinguish these issues from the ones dated 1829-834 called…
…which I don’t really have a lot to add to, except to say that it had a diameter closer to 18 mm than 18.5, and the 1834 issue includes a “with motto” variety.
Classic Head, No Motto
As if on cue, the U.S. Mint reversed itself yet again, removing the motto from the reverse. Also, Scot’s hasty design was replaced by one from William Kneass, Scot’s successor as Chief Engraver. Kneass replaced the liberty cap with a ribbon that says LIBERTY and slimmed her neck down somewhat.
Here’s where the original specs become important.
The Mint also reduced the purity of the gold, going from 92% to not quite 90%. Weight was reduced as well, with this issue weighing about 4 grams. The public was well aware of the “debasement” of the coins, so older issues were hoarded and melted. This is why the pre-1834 issues are all so scarce.
1836 strikes offer a “script 8” and a “block 8” variety, but starting in 1838, quarter eagles were produced at the Charlotte, North Carolina (with a “C” mintmark) and New Orleans (“O”) branch mints, so mintmarks are yet another way of collecting the later pre-Saint-Gaudens quarter eagle.
Finally, we get to the esteemed Liberty Head series of quarter eagle. The Liberty Head design lasted from 1840-1907, being replaced by Bela Lyon Pratt’s innovative Indian Head design that saw the denomination through to its demise in 1929.
I’ll talk about Pratt’s design another day, but the Liberty Head was created by the no-less innovative third Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, Christian Gobrecht. His craftsmanship was superb; I highly recommend you check out his Seated Liberty coinage of the same era.
The weight and diameter were the same as the Classic Head, but the Mint increased the purity (another word for it is “fineness”) of the gold content to 90%, a standard we often see in special gold releases today.
A few varieties are commonly attributed. 1843 Charlotte, New Orleans and Dahlonega, Georgia (the original “D” mintmark) issues feature small dates and “crosslet 4’s”, while other C- and O-mint issues have large dates and “plain 4’s”.
The 1840s also featured an interesting footnote to the Liberty Head quarter eagle’s story. In 1848, gold from the California Gold Rush made its way to the Philadelphia Mint, where it became a special issue of quarter eagle. The CAL. Gold quarter eagle is distinguished by the inscription CAL. over the eagle on the reverse.
I hope I gave you some useful information when it comes to collecting pre-1907 quarter eagles. There’s a lot of material out there, so if you’re new to the series by all means don’t rest on your laurels now. Get out there, whether it’s the Internet or the local coin shop. Talk to other collectors. Join a club. Go to shows. Complain about the Mint in online forums (the “national pastime” of coin collecting). The hobby’s as fun and as enriching as you care to make it.
Learning about the way things used to be is just one tiny aspect of it.