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1839: Another Amazing Year in US Coinage – by Arno Safran

During the mid to late 1830’s our coinage underwent a number of changes. The first of these began with modifications to the cent in 1835 and again in 1837. In 1836 silver dollar coinage was resumed. It portrayed a Liberty Seated figure with no stars on the obverse. The reverse depicted a soaring eagle in a sea of 26 stars. It was engraved by Christian Gobrecht.

gobrecht_020809In 1837 the Capped Bust dime and half-dime was replaced by the Liberty Seated no stars type and on the reverse the eagle was supplanted by a wreath. The diameter of the dime was reduced from 18.5 mm to 17.9 mm while the half dime remained the same. In 1838 the Liberty Seated (with 13 stars added) was placed on the quarter and in 1839 it was the half dollar’s turn.

The Gobrecht dollar also underwent further modifications in 1839. Finally, there were no less than five important modifications made to the Coronet type large cent in 1839. These have become popularRed Book varieties among cent enthusiasts.

The reader will observe that among the two sides of the basic 1839 year set shown and directly above there are two different types for the half dollar denomination; the outgoing Capped Bust-Reeded Edge and the new Liberty Seated types thereby continuing the annual parade of transitional date designtype pairings begun in 1837.

The Cents: In 1839 Chief Engraver Christian Gobrecht made several modifications to the cent design. First we have the 1839/6, a scarce variety (actually 9 over inverted 9; probably made in 1836). It shows a plain hair cord which was discontinued in 1837. The second is the “Head of ’38”, similar to what appeared later in 1837 as the beaded hair cord subtype. This was followed by two less successful 1839 renditions nicknamed the Silly Head and the Booby Head. Unlike the previous, both display a protruding curl on the forehead. The Booby Head however shows no hair at all at the lower right of Miss Liberty’s coiffure.

Gobrecht made still another modification on the large cent in 1839, known today as the Petite Head. This became the standard smaller head type large cent appearing on the large cents from 1840 on.

When the resumption of dollar coinage was authorized in 1835, the new Mint Director Robert Maskell Patterson wanted a seated figure resembling the Britannia design that appeared on British coinage. He asked renowned portrait artist Thomas Sully to draw up a sketch.

The first dollars dated 1836 and the dimes and half dimes of 1837 showed Chief engraver Gobrecht’s rendering of Sully’s conception but without the thirteen stars that had surrounded the earlier Bust type coinage.

In 1838, Mint Director Patterson decided to restore the thirteen stars to the obverse of the coins; possibly to avoid confusion between British and US coinage. As a result the 13 stars appeared on the obverse of the half dimes, dimes and the new quarters struck later in 1838.

In the second half of 1839 the design type of the half dollar was changed from Capped Bust- Reeded edge to the Liberty Seated type along with a small number of 1839 proof silver dollars that were put into circulation; some presumably given to members of Congress.

The Dollar: Arguably, the most exquisite coin of 1839 is the Gobrecht dollar design type. Originally, this coin, like the 1836 dated no stars on the obverse versions, was thought to be a pattern since only 300 proofs were made, but due to the research of Robert Julian and others, it was determined that both the 1836 and ’39 issues were bone fide coins of the realm having been placed into circulation despite their respective low mintages.

Since the stars had been restored to the obverse on all the other silver denominations including an 1838 pattern Gobrecht dollar, it was no surprise to see this feature continued on the dollar in 1839. The 26 stars originally surrounding the soaring eagle on the 1836 Gobrecht dollar were removed leaving the eagle soaring in an empty field surrounded by the legend, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and ONE DOLLAR below.

In later years a number of restrikes were made like the one pictured above and these are likely to be more available if you consider a coin priced at more than $20,000 within your budget. While the vast majority of us will never be able to afford such a coin, the 1839 dollar is a beautiful work of art and it is a pity that the design was wholly emasculated in 1840.

The Half dollar: There was some dissatisfaction by the critics when the new design type appeared on the half dollar in 1839. It was thought that Miss Liberty was insufficiently clad, especially on the side of her gown just above her knee at her waist directly below her elbow. This was most noticeable on the half dollar as it was the largest circulating coin available to the public.

Gobrecht was asked to add drapery over the waist and under the elbow on the right. He also reduced the size of the rock on the lower left side of the coin rendering it further away from the lowest star at the left as well.

The minor Silver coins and the Quarter: The Liberty seated half-dimes, dimes and quarters of 1839 were unchanged from 1838 except for the date. All are represented by the no drapery subtype that would be ‘rectified’ by mid 1840. None of these denominations are unduly expensive up through AU-58.

Two of the most important figures connected with the creation of our 1839 Liberty Seated coins are shown here. Below is a self portrait by the renowned painter, Thomas Sully who sketched out the Liberty Seated figure and below is Christian Gobrecht who engraved it onto the dies for our coins.

Each artist forged successful careers in their respective fields and were among the few persons responsible for creating the short-lived Gobrecht dollar series of 1836 and 1839. It is a pity that this low mintage 1839 dollar coin, easily the most desirable of all denominations struck that year, is the one coin of the entire year set most collectors are least likely to own.

[Editor’s note: This article is reprinted with permission of the author from the October 2009 issue of the Augusta, GA Coin Club Monthly Newsletter.]


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