This may trouble some people, but the Gobrecht dollar really should be renamed to
something a bit more accurate – perhaps the Seated Liberty, Flying
The Gobrecht dollar is named after Christian Gobrecht, an engraver
at the United States Mint in 1836 when the coin made its debut.
However, unlike the similarly named Morgan dollar, the Gobrecht dollar
was not designed solely by the man whose name it bears. Credit for the
designs used by Gobrecht properly should be shared with others, which
is why a name change is appropriate for accuracy's sake.
We're not going to delve into which Seated Liberty, Flying Eagle
dollars are patterns, which are circulation issues and which are
restrikes. Modern researchers are still debating those points and
publication of one person's view is generally a rallying call for a
contrarian viewpoint from someone else.
Instead, we'll focus on how the coin came to be, and why the
Gobrecht dollar is singularly misnamed.
COIN VALUES: See how much Gobrecht dollars are worth today
Silver dollar production had ceased in 1804 with the production of
19,750 Draped Bust dollars dated 1803. The silver dollar had too much
silver when compared to the Spanish 8-real coin, and most were
exported rather than circulating in the United States. Except for some
1804-dated dollars struck about 1834 as diplomatic gifts, no silver
dollars were struck from 1804 through 1835. It was determined by the
mid-1830s, however, that a silver dollar was necessary, and plans were
made for a coin of new standards and designs.
The new silver dollar, rather than being designed by one man, was
designed virtually by committee. Robert Maskell Patterson was one of
them. He was named Mint director on May 26, 1835, effective upon the
resignation of Director Samuel Moore July 1.
One of Moore's last acts as director was to recommend the hiring of
Christian Gobrecht as an assistant engraver, made necessary by the
expected increased need for dies with the opening of the new Branch
Mints. Before Gobrecht could be hired, William Kneass, the engraver,
suffered a stroke.
Patterson hired Gobrecht. He also hired two Philadelphia artists,
Thomas Sully and Titian Peale, to create new designs for various
denominations, including the dollar.
All four men (and others) would play key roles in creating the
silver dollar that today bears the name of just one of them.
Patterson deserves much of the credit. He conceived the obverse
design as an American variation of Britannia, Britain's allegorical
icon, and advised his artists and engravers on fine points of design
modifications. Credit should also go to Kneass, who produced a sketch
of an Americanized Britannia before he suffered the stroke. Both Peale
and Sully produced their own versions of a Seated Liberty as well, and
deserve credit. Gobrecht, using sketches provided him, made a
copper-plate impression for presentation to Secretary of Treasury Levi
Woodbury, and thus should share the credit. Early in 1836, Patterson
sent impressions from a study die to Woodbury and President Jackson.
Both officials approved the design, although Woodbury expressed a
desire to see the foot of the Liberty pole held by Liberty (replacing
the trident held by Britannia).
Patterson replied that this would be impossible on a seated figure.
Patterson also recommended further refinements of the design
(including to her right arm, her cheeks, the drapery and her index
finger), and in April submitted an improved obverse die, as well as a
sketch of the Flying Eagle reverse.
Patterson referred to this eagle as being "true to
nature," avoiding the "absurdity of the shield sticking to
the breast of a bird." He noted in a letter to Woodbury that some
30 sketches for the eagle had been rejected before an acceptable
Flying Eagle design was created.
Gobrecht claimed credit early. At one point, he placed his name in
the field beneath the image of Liberty on one die. Then his name was
moved to a less prominent place on the base upon which Liberty sits.
One can imagine the reaction of the others who worked on the designs,
to receive no credit. However, his bold signature presaged the day
when collectors would ignore the contributions of Woodbury, of
Patterson, of Peale and Sully, and call the coin by just his name –
the Gobrecht dollar.
It hasn't always been that way. Collectors at one time referred to
the coin by its designs, not the engraver. This practice makes sense.
We call the silver dollar that followed the Seated Liberty dollar,
with an obverse based on that used from 1836 to 1839. However,
Patterson's natural eagle did not survive, being replaced by an eagle
with a shield absurdly sticking to its breast.
At some point, collectors and dealers began calling the dollar of
1836 to 1839 the Gobrecht dollar, probably because Gobrecht's name
appears on some specimens. That practice continues.
However, it's neither fair nor completely accurate to do so. Whether
the collecting community will change its practice is questionable.
Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:
Cents and half cents:
2- and 3-cent coins:
Dimes and half dimes: