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All Posts Tagged With: "coin history"

Through the Numismatic Glass: The 1792 Half Disme

By Dr. Thomas F. Fitzgerald – The California Numismatist Spring 2010

The need of a national system for the coinage of the United States was dealt with by the Congress. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton favored the adoption of the decimal system for the young nation’s monetary system. These leaders adopted ideas from Europe. The French referred to this system as “La Disme.” It was from these European roots that the concept of “tenths” or “La Disme,” anglicized later to “dime,” came to our coinage.

A Congressional resolution on July 6, 1785 adopted the dollar as the monetary unit of the United States. Subsequent resolutions, in 1786 and 1787, specified each of the coins that were authorized by the Congress. The adoption of the Constitution of the United States on September 17, 1787 reserved the authority to coin money and regulate its value to the Congress.

The United States in 1791

In 1791, Vermont had joined the original 13 states. The army, consisting of about 5,000 men, was fully engaged fighting the Indians in the Northwest Territory. However, there was no navy and an annual tribute was paid to the Barbary Pirates. The nation’s settlers had begun their migration westward. There was an obvious need to establish the financial system that had been authorized by the Congressional Acts of 1786 and 1787.

The Mint Act of April 2, 1792

Apparently Washington, for international reasons, wanted silver coinage struck as soon as possible; he believed this would establish the authority of the new nation among the nations of the world.

The 1792 Mint Act, that had specified the details of the nation’s monetary system, was followed by President Washington’s actions to establish the mint. On April 14, 1792, he appointed David Rittenhouse of Philadelphia, the most renowned scientist in America, director of the Mint.

On June 1st, clock maker Henry Voight was appointed acting chief coiner. A little over a month later, on July 9, 1792, President Washington authorized the coinage of half dismes. Just four days later, on July 13, 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson recorded the following in his household account book: “rec’d from the mint 1500 half dismes of the new coinage.” It should be noted that the “new mint” did not begin to strike U.S. coins for circulation until 1793.

The Dies Are Prepared For The Half Disme

British medalist William Russell Birch designed and engraved a single set of dies. He probably used letter punches supplied by Jacob Bay, a Germantown, Pennsylvania, maker of printing types. The obverse of the 1792 half disme portrays the head of “Liberty” facing left, with the date 1792 below. The motto LIB.PAR. OF SCIENCE & INDUSTRY (Liberty parent of science and industry) around the border. The reverse bears an eagle flying left with the denomination HALF DISME in two lines, with a five-pointed star in the exergue below. The legend UNI. STATES OF AMERICA encircles the eagle.

The coinage machinery was in the cellar of saw-maker John Harper while the new mint was being prepared. It was here, at the corner of Cherry and Fifth Streets, where these pieces were struck. They used a private coin press owned by John Harper.

In 1844 John McAllister interviewed Adam Eckfeldt about the minting of these coins. Eckfeldt was the only surviving member of the mint who was presented when these coins were struck. He stated:

“These coins were struck expressly for Gen. Washington, in the extent of One Hundred Dollars, which sum he deposited in bullion or coin, for the purpose Mr. E. things that Gen. W. distributed them as presents. Some were sent to Europe but the greater number, he believes, were given to friends of Gen. W. in Virginia. No more of them were coined. They were never designated as currency. The Mint was not, at the time, fully ready to being put into operation.”

The striking of these coins was noted by President Washington in his fourth annual address on November 6th, 1792. He stated, “There has been a small beginning of the coinage of the half dismes: the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them.”

Although Washington used the coins as presentation pieces, most, if not all, surviving pieces bear evidence they were circulated. (more…)

Finding Numismatic History in Unlikely Places

By Dan Duncan – Pinnacle-Rarities

Ezra Meeker – Champion of the Oregon Trail

Over the summer months our numismatic travels took us to great historical cities like Boston and Philadelphia. And this week we travel to Baltimore, another city rich in early Americana. Of course, across the nation there are local historical sites and, more specifically, sites of numismatic interest. Over the last 200 plus years, our mints have aided the extraction from a number of precious metal lodes. Now many of the once thriving businesses are gone, with a few remaining as mint and mining museums or historical landmarks.

Each place chronicles a rich history founded in capturing natural resources and refining them into tangible representations of our history. Living in the Northwest, we are thousands of miles from any of these sites. While some old mines exist in the state, the real history of Washington State lies in the old growth forests. The “American” history of the region is for all intent and purpose quite young. But, sometimes you don’t have to look far to find a piece of numismatic lore right in your own back yard.

Recently we took the family to a large state fair located in the city of Puyallup (pyoo-al-uh p). One of the town’s principal founders was a pioneer who travelled to the Oregon Territory in the mid-nineteenth century. He eventually settled in the foothills of Mt. Rainier. This man was Ezra Meeker. His contributions to the northwest are many, but he is best remembered nationally for his extensive work on having the Oregon Trail marked.

According to the Meeker Mansion website, “Ezra Meeker became the self-appointed champion of the Oregon Trail in 1906, when at the age of 76, accompanied by two oxen, a wagon, a driver and a dog, he made his way from his front yard to Washington D.C., by way of New York City.”

Meeker first took the Oregon Trail as a young man in 1852. A true pioneer, Ezra was lured by the promise of the new territories. Finally settling in a valley below Mt. Rainier, Meeker cleared his own land and eventually became an internationally successful hops farmer. His travels included a stint in Europe and a couple forays into the Alaskan territories.

Meeker was obviously impacted by his early trip out west. He had a connection to the Oregon Trail. He recognized it as a part of American history and felt it should be cherished and preserved. In his mid-seventies, he harnessed his oxen and retraced his steps from some 50 odd years ago in a Conestoga wagon. He deemed this trip the Oregon Trail Monument Expedition Trip. During this trip he promoted the trail awareness, lectured, handed out pamphlets and eventually gained a lot of publicity. Meeker met with Teddy Roosevelt, who agreed in principle to in some way recognize the Oregon Trail, but the bill died in Congress.

After returning to his home, Meeker wrote an acclaimed book on the subject entitled The Lost Trail, Meeker again braved the 2,000 mile trail with an ox drawn wagon in 1910. He was again to promote its preservation, but this time he intended to map the route. He was in favor of a transcontinental railroad along a similiar course, which he also intended to lobby for. Despite completing the trail, and the map, his second trip was somewhat of a failure. When he arrived out East he was contacted by the Senate and told not to come to D.C. After some other tribulations, he found his way back to Washington State. He continued to campaign, worked on a movie, lectured and published another book – Ox Team Days. Eventually he’s instrumental in the formation of the Oregon Trail Memorial Association. Through that organization he petitioned Congress getting final approval for the Oregon Trail Commemorative in 1926. The proceeds from the distrubution were used to mark the trail. (more…)

Coins With Shady Pasts

The U.S. Treasury’s high-handed seizure of a 1933 St. Gaudens Double Eagle from a British dealer lured to America under false pretenses by a Secret Service Agent posing as a buyer for the coin is outrageous to me, and should be highly disturbing to you, the collector. The arrest of this dealer, Stephen Fenton, and of his American agent, Jay Parrino, on charges of allegedly possessing stolen U.S. government property is frightening to all of us.

Popular legend has long held that no 1933 Double Eagles were ever “officially” released by the U.S. Treasury, and that somehow this made them illegal to possess (other than the two specimens “officially” given by the Treasury to the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution). This is despite the fact that several 1933 $20s were publicly advertised and sold in the numismatic market between 1933 and 1944, at which point the Treasury suddenly and arbitrarily decided that they could not be sold after all, and began seizing them and destroying them!

Although most common gold coins were required to be surrendered to the U.S. Treasury at face value by the Gold Surrender Act of 1933 and the Gold Reserve Act of 1934, the laws specifically exempted “gold coins having a recognized special value to collectors of rare and unusual coins” from the requirement, and the 1933 Double Eagle certainly qualified as a rare and unusual coin. These laws were ultimately nullified by Public Law 93-373, which made all forms of gold legal for Americans to own again and was signed into law by President Gerald Ford on August 14, 1974, and again by Executive Order 11825, promulgated by Ford on December 31, 1974.

This would appear to make the 1933 $20s legal to own now, a point arguably subject to debate and interpretation when the Treasury began seizing them in 1944. However, the Treasury now claims, without substantiation, that the 1933 $20s are actually stolen government property, a charge significantly not raised by the Treasury when two earlier victims of government seizure in the late 1940s and early 1950s sued the government for the return of their property.

Those lawsuits were conducted at a time when the Gold Surrender Act was in effect to support the Treasury’s otherwise weak position. In both cases the litigants abandoned their efforts in the face of the endless legal fees incurred in challenging Uncle Sam’s deep pockets. However, neither litigant was ever faced with the threat of criminal prosecution.
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Unique Plain Edge 1907 $10 pattern – believed the only Saint-Gaudens coin actually seen by the artist – at Boston ANA auction

Historic pattern struck just before the artist’s death for his approval

The only known Plain Edge 1907 ten dollar coin with Wire Rim, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens – and likely the only example of his coinage that he ever saw – is among the most historically important pieces in Heritage’s upcoming U.S. Coin auction. It will be offered on Aug. 11, as part of the Official Auction of the American Numismatic Association’s World’s Fair of Money in Boston, MA.

“At the turn of the 20th century, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was one of America’s most prominent artists,” said Greg Rohan, President of Heritage. “In 1905, during Theodore Roosevelt’s second term, Roosevelt convinced Saint-Gaudens to redesign the two largest American gold coins: the ten dollar, or eagle, and the twenty dollar, or double eagle. The results made Saint-Gaudens one of the most famous American coinage artists and secured his lasting fame.”

The coinage designs would be the artist’s final masterpieces. In July 1907, when Saint-Gaudens was going through the last stage of his terminal cancer, two early examples of the ten dollar coin were struck. The edges of these two coins were plain; later Wire Rim 1907 ten dollar coins have an edge design of 46 stars.

“The two Plain Edge coins were patterns, made to see how the coins looked,” said Rohan. “They were the coinage equivalent of an artist’s proof. After the two Plain Edge coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, they were split up.”

One was sent to Treasury Secretary George B. Cortelyou, who forwarded it to the President, while the other was sent to Saint-Gaudens at his studio in New Hampshire. This was the only time Saint-Gaudens would see his work in coin form. He died on August 3, 1907, before further work could be done on either denomination.

Archived letters show that the coin Roosevelt saw was eventually sent back to the Mint, while the Saint-Gaudens coin disappears from the record. This coin’s history is largely unknown, and it is impossible to say with certainty whether it was sent to Roosevelt or Saint-Gaudens, but it is a coin of tremendous importance regardless of the answer. Either it was sent to President Roosevelt, whose dedication to coinage redesign had been vital to the whole project; or it went to Saint-Gaudens, the artist who had spent more than two years bringing the President’s ambition to life. (more…)

The Coin That Proves When 1838 Gobrecht Dollars Were Restruck

Our August 11-15 Boston ANA Signature Auction will feature a fascinating example of a 1838 Gobrecht dollar struck over a 1859 seated dollar. This coin was apparently first noticed by Louis Werner in the Earl Bostic Collection (Stack’s, 12/1956). Walter Breen thought it noteworthy enough to comment on it in the May 1957 Numismatist in an article entitled “Some Unpublished Gobrecht Rarities”:

“In a recent New York auction Louis Werner observed that the 1838 brilliant proof Gobrecht dollar (a typical restrike, with two minute rust spots on the obverse die which should have been mentioned in my description of restrikes on page 17 of the monograph) showed a faint but unmistakable date 1859 to the right of the real date 1838. When I first saw the coin I recognized that this could have come about only through the fact that it was actually overstruck on an 1859 silver dollar. …I will simply say that I have looked at over twenty 1838s all told-originals and restrikes alike-and have never seen any other example of the kind.”

While unprecedented among Gobrecht dollars, there are parallels to two other famous coins, the 1851 dollar overstruck on an 1859-O or 1860-O dollar, and the unique Class II 1804 dollar was overstruck on an 1857 Bern Shooting taler. It is conjecture, but certainly possible that the 1851-O dollar, the Class II 1804 dollar, and this piece were all struck within a few months of each other. It is also most likely that all three were struck by the same person, Theodore Eckfeldt.

Theodore’s family had been employed in the Mint since 1792 (when Adam was first employed to do blacksmith work). In a case of poor judgment on the Mint’s part, after firing young Theodore for theft, he was later rehired as a night watchman. Eckfeldt then proceeded to work with employees in the Coiner’s Department to strike various rarities, including 1804 dollars, which he then sold to Dr. Montroville Dickeson.

Much of the Seated dollar undertype is apparent. The 859 is clearly discernible (see closeup), and most of the 1 shows except top of serif, which was struck out by the 8. Under a microscope, all obverse stars are visible (star 9 is faintest), and several of the letters in the reverse legend can be detected. (more…)

Ten Most Significant U.S. Commemoratives Coins

By Thomas K. DeLorey – Copyright – Reprinted with permission. Harlan J Berk

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

When asked to write an article on the ten most significant U.S. commemorative coins for this issue, I chortled and thought to myself what an easy assignment this was going to be! I had just that day finished reading galleys for the commemorative coin section of the Coin World “Comprehensive Catalogue and Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins” edited by David T. Alexander and myself, and all of the material was fresh in my mind.

However, when I went back over the listings with a consideration in mind of their national importance rather than a straightforward documentation of them, I suddenly realized how hard it was going to be to find ten pieces that were truly significant! After weeding out the 14 state commemoratives and most of the town, county, island, mountain, trail, bridge and music center commemoratives, there were scarcely ten pieces left that were both national and significant. Here’s what I came up with, though you might disagree.

Number one on my list is the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar of 1892 and 1893, in part because the fact that Columbus landed in what we now call “the Americas” in 1492 was one of the major historical events of the last millennium, and in part because it was the first U.S. commemorative and set the stage for all that followed, good or bad.
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