Introduction to American Gold Coins
United States gold coins are beautiful, exciting to own, and traditionally have furnished an excellent store of value. A type set of the 11 different designs used in the early 20th century is a joy to behold and a treasure to own. If desired, at a later date it can be used as a basis for an expanded collection.
The first federal coins struck in gold were $5 and $10 pieces made at the Philadelphia Mint in 1795. These were known as half eagles and eagles, the eagle being the highest denomination of the realm.
From that point, through the 1830s, gold denominations of $2.50, $5, and $10 were produced. Production was intermittent, and often long spans of years would elapse without any being made at all. For example, no $2.50 pieces were made from 1809 through 1820 inclusive, and in the years 1816 and 1817 no gold coins were struck of any denomination. In the early years prior to 1834 most gold coins were used in the export trade. Very few were seen in domestic commerce.
The Coinage Act of June 28, 1834, adjusted the gold content of coins, and made it possible for them to be produced in larger quantities. Beginning in August of that year, $2.50 and $5 pieces of the Classic Head were produced. Up to this time, the Philadelphia Mint, established in 1792, had been the one source for all coins, in various metals including copper, silver, and gold. In 1838, the first branch mints were established at Charlotte (North Carolina), Dahlonega (Georgia), and New Orleans.
New Orleans was the busiest port on the Gulf Coast and was the key to commerce in the Mississippi Valley. Foreign gold and silver coins arrived in quantity, especially from Europe and South America. The New Orleans Mint melted them, refined them to the proper quality, and struck United States silver and gold denominations. The Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints were set to produce coins from gold mined in those regions. The operations of the Charlotte and Dahlonega mints were never large, with the result that their coins are scarce today. Branch mint issues were identified by mintmarks, C, D, and O for the first three branch mints. In 1854, the San Francisco Mint (S) began making coins, then in 1870 the Carson City Mint (CC) opened for business, and in 1906 the Denver Mint (D) commenced striking coins. By the early 20th century, the three mints in operation were at Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco.
$2.50 and $5 pieces of the Classic Head design were produced from 1834 through 1838 and 1839. The design was by William Kneass, chief engraver at the Philadelphia Mint since his presidential appointment in 1834. Beginning in 1838, the new Liberty Head motif was introduced. This was the work of Christian Gobrecht, a talented engraver at the Mint, who in effect had been doing nearly all of the work after Kneass suffered a debilitating stroke in August 1835. Gobrecht was a highly accomplished artist and inventor, and had created designs for bank notes, medals, and other items. The Liberty Head design was introduced first on the $10 gold coin of 1838, then on the $5 in 1839 and the $2.50 in 1840. This portrait proved to be long enduring. A modification was made in 1866, when the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse of the $5 and $10, creating a different design type. A 20th century gold type set includes a Liberty Head $2.50, $5, and $10 with the obverse by Gobrecht.
Beginning in 1848, the discovery of large-scale gold deposits in California resulted in a large outflow of precious metal to the East. This prompted the creation in 1849 of two new denominations. The gold dollar was introduced in that year, and the $20 coin, or double eagle, was first issued for circulation in 1850. The double eagle became a favorite, including for large transactions and overseas exchange. By the time that the last United States gold coins were minted in 1933, over 77% of all gold that had been converted to coinage form, even including the years prior to the advent of the double eagle, were made in the form of $20 pieces. Today, enough of these survive to provide a supply for numismatists, who enjoy their impressive appearance. Each contains about one ounce of gold. The 20th century gold type set includes four different double eagles.
The gold dollar continued to be produced until 1889, usually in relatively small quantities. That series includes three different designs. In 1854 a new denomination was introduced, the $3 coin, which was continued through 1889. This was illogical, as there already was a $2.50 piece of nearly similar value. Mintages soon declined, and although production was continuous, the amounts made each year tended to be small.
By 1900, the four denominations being produced were the $2.50, $5, $10, and $20. Of these, the double eagle was a standard coin in world commerce, as noted. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed that gold coins would no longer be paid out at par, and the United States was reduced to being a nation of paper. The public was commanded to turn in gold coins, which was done over the next several years. In time, those that were preserved and escaped destruction became highly prized collectors’ items, as they are today.
A Type Set of 20th Century Gold Coins
The panorama of American gold coins is beautiful, fascinating to collect, and impressive to contemplate. While various types can be acquired from the first year of issue, 1795, down to the last, 1933, as described above, a collection of the 11 different designs used in the early 20th century is especially interesting. This includes two $2.50 quarter eagles, two $5 half eagles, three $10 eagles, and four $20 double eagles. The types are described below:
Quarter Eagles ($2.50 Gold)
1840-1907 Liberty Head $2.50: In 1840, Christian Gobrecht’s Liberty Head was introduced on the quarter eagle, after it already had been used on the $5 and $10 (see below). This design was continued through 1907, the longest continuous span of any motif in the history of American coinage. The obverse features a depiction of Miss Liberty and the reverse an eagle with shield. The same general motif was also used on contemporary $5 and $10 gold coins. For a 20th century type set, any date from 1900 to 1907 is suitable. In Mint State these are very attractive.
1908-1929 Indian Head $2.50: Bela Lyon Pratt, a Massachusetts sculptor, was enlisted to create this novel motif. On the obverse is the portrait of an American Indian, in realistic style. The reverse shows a standing eagle. The designs are in relief, but below the surface of the field of the coin. Accordingly, the flat or field area is actually the highest part. This was an innovation in American coinage and created controversy at the time. By 1908, the quarter eagle was the smallest gold coin produced. These were popular as souvenirs and keepsakes. Numismatists did not pay much attention to them, however, as the face value was expensive in that era. Production was continuous through 1915, then intermittent until 1929. Today, examples are available in About Uncirculated and Mint State grades, but care is needed to select choice examples.
Half Eagles ($5 Gold)
1866-1908 Liberty Head With Motto $5: The Liberty Head design by Christian Gobrecht was introduced in 1839 and continued through 1908. However, as the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added part way through 1866, it is the 1866-1908 design that is part of a 20th century type set. The obverse and reverse designs are similar to those used on quarter eagles and half eagles of the era. For a 20th century type set, any date from 1900 to 1907 is suitable. In Mint State these are very attractive.
1908-1929 Indian Head $5: Parallel to the $2.50, the $5 Indian Head was created by sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt and featured an incuse or recessed design. Production was continuous through 1916, after which none were made until 1929, the last year being a rarity. Examples are available in all grades, but connoisseurship is important to find pieces with good eye appeal.
Eagles ($10 Gold)
1866-1907 Liberty Head With Motto $10: Designed by Christian Gobrecht, the Liberty Head motif made its first appearance on a gold coin in 1838. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added part way through 1866 and continued in use through 1907, defining the design needed for a 20th century type set. Examples are available in all grades, but, again, finding examples with excellent eye appeal within a given category requires care.
1907-1908 Indian Head Without Motto $10: In 1907 the new Indian Head design appeared, created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the request of Theodore Roosevelt. The artist, whose studio was in Cornish, New Hampshire, was America’s best known sculptor at the time. The obverse features an artistic concept of an Indian Head, the face of a woman wearing a headdress, while the reverse has a standing eagle, a motif used on certain ancient coins. Those of 1907 and part way through 1908 were made without the motto, as President Theodore Roosevelt objected to the motto on coins, feeling it was sacrilegious.
1908-1933 Indian Head With Motto $10: In 1908, Congress differed from the president and added the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, used on earlier designs, to the $10 and $20. Eagles with the motto were made continuously from 1908 through 1916, then intermittently in these varieties: 1920-S (San Francisco), 1926, 1930-S, 1932, and 1933. Examples are readily available for type, but care is needed in selecting coins with good eye appeal.
Double Eagles ($20 Gold)
1877-1907 Liberty Head TWENTY DOLLARS $20: The Liberty Head double eagle, by Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, made its debut in 1850, the largest gold coin up to that time, and the one that proved to be a foundation in American finance. Inspired by the Gold Rush, these were made in large quantities for a long time afterward. In 1877 the denomination was expanded from TWENTY D to be spelled as TWENTY DOLLARS, constituting a new design. Production was extensive, continuing into the 20th century. Today, examples are readily available in Mint State. Again, care is needed in selecting for quality.
MCMVII (1907) Saint-Gaudens High Relief $20: President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create an American coin of great beauty, with “sculptured” high relief in the ancient or classical style. The result is this gorgeous coin, featuring Miss Liberty on the obverse, striding forward, holding a torch and an olive branch, the symbol of Victory, as adapted from the Sherman Monument statue made by the sculptor. The reverse shows an eagle flying horizontally. Only 12,387 of these were struck. They became a sensation, and many were saved by the public. Today, an estimated 6,000 exist, most of which show evidence of handling. However, within a given grade attractive pieces can be selected with care. In terms of value, these are the most expensive of the double eagle types. In 2009 the Mint produced a “tribute” version dated MMIX, in High Relief, providing a more affordable example of this highly admired classic design.
1907-1908 Saint-Gaudens Without Motto $20: After the MCMVII coins were struck in High Relief, which required three impressions of the coining press for each piece, the motif was revised to a shallow format, and the Roman numerals were discontinued. These could be struck in quantity on high speed presses. Those of 1907 and 1908 lack the motto and constitute a separate type. Examples are available in any grade desired, although selecting for quality is important.
1908-1933 Saint-Gaudens With Motto $20: The final double eagle type was created in the summer of 1908 when Congress added the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to the reverse of the Saint-Gaudens design. These were produced in quantity through 1916, and again from 1921 to 1933, although not at all mints and in all years. Many dates are plentiful today, but others are scarce to rare. High grade coins are available and can be obtained with careful selection.