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Now Popular Seated Dollars
By R.W. Julian, Coins Magazine
April 03, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Until the past few decades Seated Liberty dollars were not all that popular among collectors. Many of the dates were difficult to find in high-quality condition and the desirability of the early dollars, dated before 1805, far overshadowed the Seated Liberty series.

With more information available, however, the Seated Liberty dollar coinage, which began in 1840 and ended in 1873, has become increasingly popular with collectors. Today there is a strong market in this series, with high-grade coins bringing auction results in line with their rarity.

The beginning of the Seated Liberty dollar can be traced to July 1835 when Dr. Robert Maskell Patterson became Mint director. Patterson had studied at the universities of Paris and London and was well aware of the quality coinage struck by those mints. He felt, and rightfully so, that the designs on American coins were inferior to their European counterparts.

In order to bring our coinage designs to a higher level the director persuaded two talented artists, Thomas Sully and Titian Peale, to prepare sketches as a guide for the Mint engraving staff. For the obverse Patterson asked Sully to execute a figure of a Seated Liberty similar to that of Britannia found on British copper coins.

Although the direct inspiration for the figure of Liberty was Britannia, it is equally true that this motif was used in ancient times. It is found on Greek silver coins dating as early as the fourth century B.C. as well as later Roman coins. Patterson was well-versed in ancient history and aware of the historical background of the design.

Peale, on the other hand, was asked to prepare drawings showing an eagle in flight. Peale’s task proved the more difficult and it was not until well into 1836 that Patterson was satisfied that Sully and Peale had accomplished what he had asked them to do. Mint engraver Christian Gobrecht then executed dies using the drawings.

The first Gobrecht dollars, as they are now called, were struck in December 1836 and were well accepted by the artistic circles of the day. Unfortunately for Patterson’s plans, however, the design proved difficult to strike as the regular coining presses were unable to fully bring up the design. In late 1839 one last try was made with a modified design—the stars having been moved to the obverse—but this also failed and the entire issue was melted in 1840.

By early 1840 it was clear to all concerned that the flying eagle on the reverse of the Gobrecht dollar had to be jettisoned despite its obvious high quality. The director reluctantly ordered Gobrecht to prepare a new reverse design, this time based on the eagle found on the quarter and half dollars then being struck. This particular eagle had originally been designed by assistant engraver John Reich in 1807.

The coinage of silver dollars had been stopped in 1804 because too many of these coins were being exported to China and India, never to return. By 1835, however, this problem had lessened and no longer a serious concern to Mint officials.

Patterson also had in mind, when resuming dollar coinage, the widespread use of half dollars for bank reserves. In the 1830s there were large numbers of bank notes issued by private banks and most of them used half dollars as backing for their currency issues. Patterson thought that the pressure on the Mint for half dollars would ease if the banks used dollars instead.

There was only so much capacity for coinage at the Philadelphia Mint and the coinage of dollars in lieu of half dollars would free up the workmen to prepare more minor silver coins. It was government policy at that time to strike as many minor silver pieces as possible, in order to provide additional coins for the marketplace.

The decision by Patterson to scrap the flying eagle reverse and replace it with the old Reich eagle did not quite end the matter. The Seated Liberty motif used on the obverse was still a bit high in some places, creating difficulties in striking quality pieces. To this end noted sculptor Robert Ball Hughes was hired to lower the relief.

Patterson was now able to order the beginning of Seated Liberty dollar coinage, with the first pieces struck in July 1840. Only 12,500 pieces were actually delivered in that month, however, as the director was uncertain of the demand. In the meantime, of course, he spread the word that deposits of silver would be welcomed for the new dollars.

Newspapers publicized the new dollar coinage during the fall of 1840 and banks began to deposit silver, mostly in the form of foreign coins, for this purpose. Nearly 50,000 silver dollars were struck in the final weeks of 1840, testifying to the popularity of the new coins.

The demand for dollars spilled over into 1841 and by 1843 more than one-half million of the new coins had been struck. Most of these went directly to bank vaults but as time passed and notes were exchanged for coins, the dollars began to appear in the marketplace. Patterson had guessed correctly that the resumption of dollar coinage would prove a success.

Beginning in 1844 the coinage of dollars fell off. This was not a result of the economy having problems but rather the fact that the need for dollars had been temporarily met. Only 20,000 silver dollars were struck in 1844, and barely more than that in 1845, but 1846 would see a renewed demand, with slightly more than 110,000 struck.

The year 1846 is notable for the first branch-mint coinage of dollars, New Orleans producing 59,000 coins. The modern collector interested in coinage of this branch mint will have no trouble obtaining a specimen as the coins are not rare. New Orleans would go on to strike dollars three more times before it closed at the opening of the Civil War in 1861.

Although it is likely that the bulk of the New Orleans dollar coinage went to Southern banks as currency reserves, there has been speculation that some of these coins were exported to Central America where silver and gold coins of the United States were sometimes used by the public, the quality and intrinsic value being higher than that produced by local mints.

The late 1840s saw the same pattern of erratic dollar coinage that had begun in 1844. More than 140,000 were struck in 1847 but only 15,000 in 1848.

At the same time, however, the coinage of dollars as well as silver in general, began to be affected by something over which the Mint had no control. The discovery of gold in California in early 1848 was to have far-reaching ramifications for the economy and monetary system. By the spring of 1849 thousands of men were on the way to the West coast to make their fortunes. Not all that many succeeded, but large quantities of gold were taken from the steams and mines.

Coupled with equally impressive discoveries of gold in Australia it was not long before monetary systems around the world began to show signs of coming apart. Many nations, including the United States, had what is called a bimetallic system of coinage in which the two metals, silver and gold, are of equal importance at a fixed rate.

The influx of gold into the economy upset the delicate balance of the bimetallic system in the United States. Silver became undervalued and large quantities were purchased with gold by bullion dealers, who shipped the silver coins to Europe. By the spring of 1850 there were increasing complaints that there were not enough silver coins for use in the marketplaces of this country.

Because silver dollars were a prime target of the bullion dealers, there was little in the way of coinage at the Philadelphia Mint in 1851 or 1852. Only 2,400 pieces total were produced in these two years, making both dates great rarities in demand by those who collect the Seated Liberty dollar series.

It is one of the mysteries for 1851 that the Mint officials expected a large coinage. Chief engraver James B. Longacre prepared four obverse and 11 reverse dollar dies in anticipation of a demand that never came.

There was one coinage, of 40,000 dollars struck at New Orleans in 1850, that seemed to buck the trend. Why these pieces were struck is not known but may have been simply deposits by bullion dealers wanting an easy way to send silver to Europe. The 1850-O dollar is scarce, but not overly so, and the reasons for this odd coinage will perhaps remain obscure.

In 1851 the mints began striking a debased three-cent piece of silver but in the end this proved ineffective in solving the shortage of silver coins and more drastic measures were considered. The result was the law of February 1853, which reduced the weight of minor silver coins by about 6 percent, just enough to stop the bullion dealers from buying up the silver coins for export.

The law had a joker in it, however. The weight and fineness of the silver dollar were not changed from 412.5 grains, .900 fine. Minor silver coins were now struck strictly on government account (and paid out only for gold) but private individuals and banks could still bring in silver to be made into dollars.

It is likely that the dollar was kept intact to maintain the fiction that we were still on the bimetallic system of coinage whereas in reality we were actually on the single gold standard. This fact was lost sight of and even as late as 1896 a presidential election involved a dispute on whether we should officially go on the gold standard.

From 1853 to 1857 only a few tens of thousands of silver dollars were coined each year, all at the Philadelphia Mint. Today these years are among the more difficult to obtain in choice condition. It is not clear at this late date why these pieces were struck for depositors but the long-held belief that they were meant for the Oriental trade, especially China, is now known to be wrong.

Some of these mid-1850s dollars may have gone to Central America for use in their economies but it seems unlikely that U.S. banks would have used them for reserves. It would have been easier and cheaper to pay out gold or minor silver coins.

The year 1858 would prove a watershed in the dollars struck prior to the Civil War. The rise of coin collecting in the mid-1850s had created a demand for proof coins, especially the silver dollar and Mint Director James Ross Snowden obliged by striking just this kind of coin for numismatists in 1858. None was coined for circulation, making this an instant rarity. There is no documentation on the number of dollars struck but the Red Book figure of 300 is as good as any and cannot be far off.

Beginning in 1859 there was an unexpected increase in the coinage of silver dollars. Well over 1 million pieces were struck in 1859 and the following year at Philadelphia and New Orleans.

Considerable quantities of silver had been discovered in what is now Nevada about this time but not that much silver and the deposits were primarily of imported foreign silver coins.

Even San Francisco joined the parade in 1859 by preparing 20,000 pieces for an expected demand from exporters dealing with the Orient. The demand did not materialize, however, and pieces went into the California marketplaces. It is likely that there was a temporary shortage of the Mexican dollars normally used to buy Oriental goods and the importers wrongly guessed that American dollars could be used instead.

In April 1861 the Civil War erupted and the Treasury, fearing that the public would quickly hoard minor silver coins, ordered the Philadelphia Mint to strike as many of the minor pieces as was possible. There was something of a silver shortage, however, and the government responded by rounding up all the silver dollars that could be readily found and sending them to Philadelphia for recoinage.

From 1862 to 1867 only nominal amounts of silver dollars were struck as silver coins, and dollars in particular, did not circulate east of the Rockies after the summer of 1862. Hoarding had struck and the rule of paper money was supreme in the eastern part of the country.

During this time Congress mandated that the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” appear on those coins with sufficient space to do so. The silver dollar was an obvious candidate for this change and the dollars of 1866 duly carried the motto. This change was artistically carried out by Longacre by means of a scroll above the eagle.

Silver was in short supply during the Civil War as it was often sent abroad to pay for war materiels imported from Europe. This drain of silver continued until well into 1868 when the European creditors made it clear that they preferred gold; silver was no longer welcome.

Because of the sudden decrease in silver shipments to Europe for wartime debts there was an equally sudden increase in the number of silver dollars struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The source of the metal was the ever-increasing amounts taken from the Nevada mines and, in due course, from those of Colorado as well.

In 1871 mintage at Philadelphia passed 1 million pieces and the following year was no different. Even the first quarter of 1873 saw several hundred thousand pieces made.

At the same time the new Carson City Mint struck silver dollars from 1870 to 1873 in small numbers. There was little real demand for such coins but local pride demanded that the new mint provide a range of denominations.

San Francisco also struck a limited number of dollars at the same time but only one of the mintages, for 1872, was released for public use. Those dated 1870, of which perhaps 40 or 50 were made, commemorated the laying of the cornerstone of the new mint.

There were also 700 silver dollars struck at San Francisco in the first quarter of 1873 but none is known today. As the government did not, so far as is known, strike silver dollars on its own account, these must have been made for a private depositor. It is likely that, once paid, the pieces were redeposited as bullion for the new Trade dollars struck in 1873.

The large quantities of silver mined in the late 1860s and early 1870s spelled the doom of the Seated Liberty dollar. Something had to be done to ship the surplus overseas and the answer appeared to be the Trade dollar, whose coinage began in the summer of 1873. The last Seated Liberty dollar was struck in March 1873 and after that only the collector was left to appreciate this very special coinage.

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