US Mint Liberty Head Gold Dollars
(Designed by James B. Longacre, Reeded Edge, 13-15mm, 1.672g, 900 Fine)
The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 prompted Congress to demand that U.S. gold coinage be expanded. The March 3, 1849 Act authorized not only the first and well-known $20 gold pieces but also the first gold dollars, thereby creating the nation’s smallest and largest regular-issue gold coins in one fell swoop. The designer of both new coins was U.S. Mint Chief Engraver, James Barton Longacre. Both had a similar obverse design of a left-facing portrait of Miss Liberty with a coronet crown in her hair. The Dollar Liberty head is encircled by 13 stars, symbolizing the 13 original colonies, as does the twenty, but the famed Double Eagle features the date on the obverse.
In light of its small 13mm size, the reverse bears the denomination “1 DOLLAR” and the date within a simple wreath, which is encircled by the inscription, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The initial design remained in use until 1854, when a feather headdress replaced the coronet, which type is generally referred to as the Indian Head or Princess. In 1856 the type was changed slightly by enlarging the size of the head. Thus, there are three distinct types of gold dollars, but they are generally collected as one 81-coin series, including major varieties.
Throughout U.S. history, people have grumbled that silver dollars were too large and heavy to carry around. Gold dollars posed a dramatically different problem, because being smaller than a half dime or even 3-cent silver pieces, they could easily be mishandled and lost. The tiny coins had strong use for some time, when their purchasing power was akin to a full day’s wages or more for many Americans in the day. With the series historic era of birth and their striking gold beauty and historical significance, they enjoy enormous respect and market support from collectors today, for while they may be tinny in size, their value and unquestionable collector appeal is huge, especially recognizing that gold dollars were struck at the five most historied mints: Philadelphia (no mint mark), Charlotte (C), Dahlonega (D), New Orleans (O) and San Francisco
The earlier Type-1 dollars are scarce but available in grades up through Mint State-64, but they get scarce above that level. However, later dates in the series offer ample greatly-appealing gems at generally affordable price levels. Although the series can be collected by the entire circulating date and mintmark, the general rarity of high grade pieces limits collectors ability to secure well-struck and nicely-preserved specimens. One very appealing way to get started is with a specialized collection of the 5-piece mintmark collection. Alternatively, a large number of the low mintage coins made from 1880s were saved in superb condition, and many collectors assemble them into what is that decade’s spectacular, ten-piece short set.
One of the few complete collections of gold dollars amassed was that of the late Louis Eliasberg, Sr. Acquiring the collection of the Clapp Family intact, the Baltimore financier added whatever pieces were missing or warranted upgrading. This fabulous collection was sold at auction in 1982, and the famed Eliasberg pedigree is still highly sought by collectors today.
In 1854, the Mint took steps to remedy the size problem, but without changing the gold dollar’s weight. It increased the coin’s diameter from 13 to 15 millimeters. This Type-2 issue produce a coin that was noticeably larger, considerably thinner and, hopefully, less likely to get lost. Initially, gold dollars had a head of Miss Liberty much like the one on the Double Eagle. When US Mint Director, James R. Snowden, ordered changes for the larger coin, Longacre had a new model available, drawing from the one he had just designed for the three-dollar gold piece. He patterned the new gold dollar after it, where its obverse features a left-facing portrait of a female figure wearing a fancy headdress. Though this female figure is frequently described as being an “Indian Princess” or “Indian Head” type, Longacre’s figure is clearly Miss Liberty, with a fancy headdress, and certainly not your standard American Indian garb. The obverse also replaced the 13 stars to take the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA then no longer on the reverse. The Type-2 reverse design shows the date and denomination within a wreath of corn, cotton, wheat and tobacco.
Being 15% larger in diameter, this Type-2 gold dollar was easier to keep track of — and less likely to get lost — than its predecessor had been. However, the new Type-2 dollar had another shortcoming and serious deficiency of its own, because Longacre had made the relief too high on the obverse. As a consequence, very few examples were fully struck and virtually all the coins wore down quickly in circulation, deteriorating rapidly into all-but-dateless disks with fading features. Very few Type-2 examples exhibit sharp details in the hair along with the word DOLLAR and the date and, even the designer’s initial L, located on the truncation of the bust, is often barely visible. It seems that branch-mint issues are particularly weak.
Because of the striking difficulties, Longacre had to remedy the problem and the Type-2 dollar lasted only until 1856 before giving way to the third type. During its brief existence, barely 1.6 million Type-2 examples were produced, with the Philadelphia issues of 1854 and 1855 accounting for the vast majority. The three southern branch mints all made the coin in 1855, but outputs were extremely small at Dahlonega and Charlotte, where mintages totaled just 1,811 and 9,803 coins, respectively. The New Orleans mint produced 55,000 coins that year. The new branch mint in San Francisco was the only mint to produce this type in 1856. Given its relief problems and its small total population, the Type-2 is exceptionally elusive in mint condition. It is rare in Mint State-65, and extremely rare above that level. It has been estimated that less than 1% of the Type-2 dollar mintage still exists in any grade. Unfortunately, the beautiful little coins wore down so quickly when exposed to circulation that within a few years, much of the total output had been rendered almost illegible.
In 1856, a new Longacre design, which is the Type-3 (issued through 1889) rectified the wear problem. While reducing the relief, he made the portrait larger. Although the size and configuration of the portrait and other elements differ on the Type-2 and Type-3 gold dollars, both have essentially the same Indian Princess design. Besides enlarging the portrait’s size and reducing its three-dimensional depth, Longacre also moved the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA closer to the border on the obverse, where it encircles the “Indian Head.” Type-3 gold dollars are far more plentiful in choice mint condition than the two earlier types.
Type one, two . . .three’s a charm, indeed, because from then on, the gold dollar’s size and durability both proved satisfactory, and production continued without interruption for more than three decades until the denomination was discontinued in 1889. This final type had a 33-year lifespan and coincided with one of the most turbulent periods in American history, when just a third of a century saw the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era and the Indian Wars in the West, which all left indelible marks on the nation’s consciousness. The small dollar gold coin served American commerce well from the eve of the California Gold Rush, through the Civil War and up to the Gay Nineties.
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