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Fascinating Seated Dimes
By R.W. Julian

Once of little interest to most collectors except as a type coin, today the Seated Liberty dime is much more popular. Rare dates and pieces of exceptional quality, even if common in ordinary condition, bring strong prices at auction and in private sales.

The history of this coin begins in a small way in July 1835 with the arrival of Dr. Robert Maskell Patterson at Philadelphia as the new Mint director. Patterson had been a medical student at Paris in 1810 - while Napoleon still ruled most of Europe - but also studied in England before returning to the United States in the summer of 1812.

While in France, Patterson had taken the opportunity to visit the Paris Mint on many occasions. Because his father was then director of the U.S. Mint, the younger Patterson was given virtually unlimited access to the engravers and coiners and was able to learn many of the intricacies of the business. The quality of French coinage was admired throughout the civilized world, not only for its technical excellence but the artistic quality as well.

Upon his return to America, Patterson finished his studies but elected to become a university professor rather than a working medical practitioner. In 1835, when Mint Director Samuel Moore decided to resign, Patterson was at the University of Virginia.

Moore had also been interested in improving the designs on U.S. coins but his first order of business had been to improve the machinery for making the coins. It was under his watch, for example, that Franklin Peale had been sent to Europe to study the latest techniques.

Thus, when Patterson arrived at the Mint in early July 1835, the technical revolution was well underway but little had been done to improve the looks of our coins. The new director was determined to put his personal stamp on the faces of the coins and lost little time in doing so.

Patterson, of all the coins he had seen in Europe, was the most impressed by the British coins carrying the figure of Britannia, an ancient symbol for the British isles originally created by Roman coin engravers in the second century A.D. This motif had been brought back to life under King Charles II in the 1670s and had been a mainstay on the English coinage, especially of copper, since that time.

The Mint director turned to two men who were justly acclaimed as among the best artists in America. Thomas Sully was a world-famous portrait painter while Titian Peale was equally famed for his work in portraying plants and animals.

In the latter part of September 1835, only a few weeks into his new post, Patterson asked Sully to design a seated Liberty figure for the obverse of a new silver dollar. Sully quickly agreed to do so for the low price of $50 and began work on Oct. 1, finishing on the 5th. (Peale was delegated the flying eagle design but this went more slowly.)

The director was pleased by Sully's effort and the drawing was given to Mint engraver Christian Gobrecht for further work. Patterson was very demanding that only the best would be accepted and thus it was not until December 1836 that the first Gobrecht silver dollars saw the light of day. All who saw the new dollars were visibly impressed.

By the spring of 1837 Patterson was convinced that the seated Liberty design was appropriate for the other silver coins as well. He petitioned Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury to allow the dime and half dime to get the new design and permission was soon granted. (The eagle was not to appear on the reverse of either coin because a new law of January 1837 dictated that the reverse would consist of the denomination surrounded by a wreath and the name of the country.)

The first Seated Liberty dimes for circulation, bearing the date 1837, were struck by the Mint in July although at first coinage was rather slow as Mint technicians learned to get the most out the dies. The 1837 Seated Liberty dimes have no stars on the obverse. In this case the design was the same as the Gobrecht dollars of 1836.

Toward the end of 1837 Mint officials began to think that stars ought to go on the obverse of the dimes and half dimes. This was not so much an artistic improvement, but rather bowing to tradition. U.S. coins nearly always had 13 stars on the obverse.

It is not quite clear when the decision was made to put the stars on the obverse and it seems possible that it was not done until as late as May 1838. In the meantime 30,000 dimes had been struck in March 1838 and there is some suspicion that they were dated 1837. Another 80,000 pieces were delivered by chief coiner Adam Eckfeldt in April.

The matter becomes confused when it is learned that dime dies were sent to New Orleans, for the first such coinage by that mint, in April 1838, after dime coinage had already commenced at Philadelphia. This does not seem so odd until one sees that the New Orleans dime coinage for 1838 also has an obverse without stars. New Orleans began its coinage of dimes in May 1838, within days of the dies being received.

Philadelphia dimes of 1838 have 13 stars on the obverse as do the New Orleans dimes beginning in January 1839. The no-stars dimes are not especially scarce but the price is somewhat higher than expected for heavy mintages because type collectors need this design.

In the summer of 1839 Patterson ordered a thorough review of the Seated Liberty coinage, which had by then been extended to all the silver denominations, from half dime to dollar. He found that complaints about some of the coins not being well struck were correct. He hired sculptor Robert Ball Hughes to redesign the figure by lowering the relief and adding drapery at the elbow. Toward the end of 1840 the modified dime dies were placed in use at Philadelphia.

One of the most interesting dimes of the 1840s is the Philadelphia issue for 1844. Only 72,500 pieces were struck and one will pay well for the privilege of owning this coin: book value in Extremely Fine-40, for example, is more than $1,000. The high cost of the coin, however, has little to do with its rarity. This is due to publicity some years ago by Kansas City writer/dealer Frank Ross. The 1846 dime is actually rarer but has not had the publicity accorded the 1844 issue.

Ross specialized in dimes of 1844 and gave the coin the nickname of "Little Orphan Annie," after the famous cartoon character of the 1930s, and the name stuck. Because of the nickname and the publicity efforts by Ross, many collectors came to believe that the 1844 was the key dime of the 1840s and well worth owning, regardless of price.

The relatively heavy dime coinages of the 1840s gradually caught up with public demand and it was not until the late 1840s the mintages became stronger. This would change, however, after the discovery of gold in California.

The sudden availability of gold disrupted the normal ratio between gold and silver, causing silver to rise in value against gold. Bullion dealers began to buy up all the American silver coins that could be found, though they concentrated on silver dollars and half dollars at first, then going for the quarter dollars. Dimes and half dimes took their share of hits but on the whole were less harmed.

By 1850 little American coined silver was to be seen in the marketplace. The dimes and half dimes had not been heavily melted for export but were hoarded by the public. The situation continued to deteriorate until early 1853 when Congress finally acted by reducing the weights of the minor silver coins by about 6 percent, enough to keep them from foreign melting pots.

To mark the new coinage, Mint officials decided to place arrows at the date of the minor silver coins. (The silver dollar was not affected by the new law as its weight and fineness did not change.) This lasted from 1853 to 1855 and provides a distinct coin for type collectors. Both Philadelphia and New Orleans struck the arrows coinage in large quantities and these coins are easily found. More than 12 million dimes were struck at Philadelphia alone in 1853, more than any date and mint until 1891.

Old-time collectors have reported that 1853 dimes were so common that they were still seen in use as late as the 1920s in some areas. It is one of the few times that a small coin lived on well beyond its normally allotted life span.

When Congress enacted the 1853 law it was realized that too many silver coins might flood the market, a situation almost as bad as a shortage. To this end it was decreed that minor silver coins could be paid out by the mints only for gold, a sensible way to avoid problems. However, Mint Director George Eckert saw matters differently and ignored the law when he issued a circular announcing that the Philadelphia Mint would purchase silver bullion for silver coins.

Eckert died shortly after the circular was published but his successor, James Ross Snowden, carried out Eckert's ideas to the letter. By 1857 the Eastern part of the United States had been inundated by large quantities of silver coin. Minor silver coins had limited legal tender, which only added to the problem.

As early as 1855 merchants and bankers alike were complaining to the Treasury about the situation. In 1858, as a result, the Treasury finally ordered Snowden to adhere to both the spirit and letter of the 1853 law. He did so reluctantly and coinage fell off drastically during the latter part of 1858. The upside to all of this, however, is that silver coins of this period are much more common today than would otherwise be the case.

Snowden was somewhat miffed at the Treasury order and looked for ways to increase the popularity of the dime and half dime. To this end chief engraver James B. Longacre, with the help of assistant engraver Anthony C. Paquet, redesigned these two denominations toward the end of 1859. The major difference was that "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" was switched from reverse to obverse.

For some unexplained reason neither Snowden nor Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb had bothered to read the act of Jan. 18, 1837, which stipulated that the name of the country had to be on the reverse of the dime and half dime. This error remained in place until 1916 despite the fact that the mint law of 1873 had the same requirement.

The change in design probably did not affect demand in 1860 for the dime though coinage was higher at Philadelphia. At New Orleans, on the other hand, dime coinage was remarkably small, at only 40,000 pieces, making this issue one of the key coins of that era. (San Francisco struck dimes in 1860 but, oddly enough, they were of the old design.) New Orleans did not coin dimes again until 1891.

The coming of the Civil War in April 1861 was to change everything. In an effort to keep silver coins in daily use in the North, the Lincoln Administration ordered heavy mintages of minor silver coins and the dime was no exception. The policy came to nothing, however, because in June 1862 the public suddenly hoarded every silver coin that could be found; that not hoarded was promptly exported to Canada and Central America for use in those areas. (Gold had left the marketplace in December 1861.)

On the other hand San Francisco continued to coin gold and silver as hoarding did not occur in the far West. Such coins continued to circulate in the 1860s when paper money was the order of the day in the rest of the North.

Beginning with 1863 the coinage of dimes at Philadelphia was virtually non-existent, only a few thousand being struck each year. Most of these coins were used to pay off the odd amounts of gold deposits and were not used in daily commerce. The San Francisco issues are much easier to obtain.

Beginning in the summer of 1868 larger numbers of dimes were struck with an eye toward putting them into circulation but the fluctuating value of the greenbacks made this impossible for the time being. The government simply bided its time until it would be possible to do so. The strong coinages of 1868 through 1873 provided a ready pool of coins for the proper time.

In 1870 the Carson City Mint began operations but did not strike its first dimes until 1871. With only 20,100 coined, it became an almost instant rarity although most issues dated after 1874 are relatively easy to find for this mint.

In the meantime there was a thorough review of the coinage laws. Congress passed a comprehensive mint law in February 1873 increasing the weights of the minor silver coins slightly. In 1873 and 1874, as in 1853, arrows were added to the date to show the change in weight.

From 1873 to 1877 the coinage of dimes and other silver coins was very heavy as the government met the seemingly endless demand by the public for silver coins in daily use rather than the ever-present paper and small coins of bronze and copper-nickel. In 1876, for example, the three operating mints struck about 30 million dimes.

In the latter part of 1877 came one of those odd events that baffled everyone at the time and still is not well understood. A large part of the minor silver coinage that had been exported during the Civil War suddenly returned to this country. Coupled with the large coinages of 1873 to 1877, the Treasury vaults found themselves flooded by coins that were not needed in the marketplace. The government responded by shutting down the coinage of minor silver at San Francisco and Carson City, leaving only Philadelphia to strike small amounts for collectors or as presents for children.

In 1882 the Treasury hoard of dimes was finally paid out and coinage resumed at Philadelphia. It was joined by San Francisco in 1884 and from then until 1891, with the end of the Seated Liberty design, coinage was fairly strong each year.

As early as the mid-1870s there had been official agitation to change the design on the minor silver coins. This was finally accomplished in late 1891 when a special meeting of President Benjamin Harrison's Cabinet approved the new Barber designs for 1892. After that only the collector was left to appreciate the fine design that was no more.

 



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