US Coins

Bringing United States gold coins public

The Joys of Collecting column from July 6 Monthly issue of Coin World:

The first federal gold coins struck were $5 half eagles, made in July 1795, the subject of last week’s column. The $10 eagle coinage followed soon thereafter.

Director Henry William de Saussure presented the first $10 coin to President George Washington, who had appointed de Saussure as the second director of the Mint (following the resignation of Dr. David Rittenhouse).

Washington lived not far away, as Philadelphia was the seat of the federal government at the time.

The design of the first eagle issue is similar to that of the contemporary half eagle and is also by Robert Scot, the Mint engraver. On the obverse Miss Liberty is shown wearing a conical cloth cap, facing right, with stars to the left and right.

Although this is sometimes called the Capped Bust design it is entirely different from the Capped Bust or Capped Draped Bust design introduced by John Reich in 1807 on the half eagle.

The reverse of the 1795 eagle, copied from the design of an ancient cameo, depicts an eagle perched on a palm branch holding a wreath aloft in its beak. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounds. The reverse bears no indication of the coin’s denomination or value.

During this era, gold coins of many nations circulated in American commerce, and their value was determined by a combination of weight and fineness (purity), various conversion charts being published from time to time in newspapers and journals. 

The eagles made their first appearance in circulation toward the end of 1795. From then until 1797, the last year of the type, close to 19,000 were coined. 

Mintage quantities of federal gold coins were not at the whim or pleasure of the Treasury Department, but were dictated by specific requests made by depositors of gold bullion. At the time, most incoming gold was in the form of foreign coins, as domestic deposits would not become important until the discoveries in Georgia and North Carolina in the 1820s.

The third of the three gold denominations authorized under the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, the $2.50 quarter eagle, made its debut in 1796. The inaugural design is of the Capped Bust style as used on the half eagle and eagle, but is distinguished from those by having no stars on the obverse. Stars were added soon afterward, giving two motifs for the year. The engraver is believed to have been Scot. The reverse is of the Heraldic Eagle design adapted from the Great Seal of the United States, this being its first appearance in federal coinage. Only about 19,000 quarter eagles were made from 1796 to 1807, after which the design was changed.

Today, all quarter eagles, half eagles, and eagles from the mid-1790s are rare. Typical grades are Very Fine to Extremely Fine, with offerings punctuated by an occasional About Uncirculated coin and rarely a Mint State example.

Although numismatics was a very popular pastime in England, France, and other European countries at the time, there is no known record of even a single person being interested in the systematic collecting of federal United States coins in the 1790s. Accordingly, coins that are in high grades today were saved by random chance. Several museums exhibited coins, but most if not all of the coins on exhibit were foreign or ancient issues, with the exception of certain colonial pieces such as Pine Tree shillings. The earliest collector of United States gold coins by dates may have been Robert Gilmor Jr. of Baltimore, whose numismatic pursuits have been published by Joel Orosz, fellow Coin World columnist.

See you next column.

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