The discovery of gold in California and other places in the late 1840s and early 1850s resulted in an abundance of that metal flowing into the realm of commerce. A consequence of this was that the price of gold fell relative to the price of silver. By 1853 the bullion content of silver coins whose face value totaled one dollar could be exchanged for $1.06 in gold. The predictable result was that silver coins were withdrawn from circulation, hoarded or often melted. For all practical purposes the only silver coins circulating were the silver three cent pieces introduced in 1851. The silver content of the “trimes” had been deliberately set to be below that of face value to prevent what was now happening to other silver coins.
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Mint Director George Eckert proposed reducing the silver content of the other silver coins to also be below their respective face values, which was made law by the Act of February 21, 1853. But passage of the Act was not without controversy. Three cent coins notwithstanding, some in Congress believed reducing the amount of silver in other silver coins would effectively debase silver coinage, which by default would put the nation on a gold standard. Bimetallism, having both silver and gold as the bases for the monetary system, had a long and colorful history in the United States, with advocates on both sides frequently clashing in the political arena. This time, as a compromise, the weight and fineness of the silver dollar was left unchanged (appeasing the silver interests), but the silver content of fractional silver coins (half dime, dime, quarter, and half dollar) was reduced so that bullion value was below face value.
The weight of the quarter dollar was reduced from 6.68 grams to 6.22 grams, and to make the new lower weight quarters easily identified, an arrowhead was added to each side of the obverse date, and rays extending outward from the eagle were added to the reverse. Quarters without Arrows and Rays and with those design features were both minted in 1853. The change had the desired effect, and though the heavier-weight older coins continue to disappear from circulation, the new lower-weight silver coins circulated freely, ending the coin shortage. Over fifteen million Seated Arrows and Rays quarters were minted in 1853, more than the combined total of all quarters minted from 1838 through early 1853.
On the obverse is a full-length representation of Liberty wearing long, flowing robes, seated on a rock, and head turned back to her right. Her left arm is bent and holds a pole topped by a Liberty cap. The right arm extends down at her side, hand supporting a Union shield across which is a slightly curved banner displaying LIBERTY. The date is centered at the bottom, below the rock upon which Liberty rests, and is flanked on each side by a short arrowhead. Inside dentils along the raised rim 13 six-point stars form a partial circle, seven to the left of Liberty, one between Liberty’s head and the Liberty cap, and five to the right of the cap.
The reverse has a centered left-facing eagle, with extended but partly folded wings. The eagle clutches three arrows in the left claw and an olive branch in the right. A Union shield is placed over the chest, and many radiating lines extend from behind the eagle on all sides nearly to the surrounding legends. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA forms a concentric arc around the top two-thirds of the surface, inside of the dentils circling the rim, but beyond the ends of the rays. The denomination of QUAR. DOL. is at the bottom visually completing the circle of text. Liberty Seated Arrows and Rays quarters were minted at Philadelphia and New Orleans, and the O mintmark is located above QUAR. DOL., just below the crossed ends of the branch and the arrows, and on top of the ends of some rays.
Nearly two thousand business strike Seated Arrows and Rays quarters have been certified, though fewer than 150 of those are New Orleans Mint issues. Prices are modest to MS60 for Philadelphia pieces, and to AU55 for New Orleans examples and the 1853, 3 Over 4, variety; then rise to expensive to very expensive, particularly as Gem and finer. Only five proof examples are known to have been minted, originally in sets along with half dimes, dimes, and half dollars, but since broken apart. Population/ census reports show a total of eight proof examples (indicating one or more resubmissions) including a couple of Cameo pieces, and the coins are very expensive to extremely expensive (Choice Proof and finer).
Designer: Christian Gobrecht, from Thomas Sully sketches; reverse after John Reich and William Kneass, Rays by James Barton Longacre.
Circulation Mintage: high 15,210,000 (1853), low 1,332,000 (1853-O)
Proof Mintage: 5 (1853 only)
Denomination: Twenty-five cents (25/100)
Diameter: 24.3 mm; reeded edge
Metal Content: 90% silver, 10% copper
Weight: 6.22 grams
Varieties: Very few known, including the 1853, 3 Over 4, and a couple of minor die variations.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
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The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing.
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