Dollars : Liberty Seated Dollar : Type 1, Flying Eagle Reverse, With Stars

Obverse of 1836 Gobrecht Silver Dollar Reverse of 1836 Gobrecht Silver Dollar

John Dannreuther: Gobrecht dollars have been popular with collectors since they were first struck in 1836. Whenever restrikes exist of an issue, you know they were popular with collectors of the day. These enigmatic issues are the first coins with the Liberty Seated motif, a design that would dominate the silver issues until 1892 and the debut of the Barber design. Gobrecht dollars were called patterns or experimental issues for many years; it would be the latter part of the twentieth century before researchers found Mint records indicating that a substantial number of these coins were actually placed into commerce. Thus, some Gobrecht dollars are now considered regular issues, albeit with a caveat, as most numismatists have considered them Proofs, a striking variant that is usually reserved for coins struck for collectors.

How the Liberty Seated design was introduced to American coinage is found in correspondence of the day. When Mint Director Samuel Moore tendered his resignation (effective June 30, 1835), Dr. Robert M. Patterson had already been appointed as the new director.  However, Patterson faced a slight delay because he was a Professor of mathematics at the University of Virginia and had to wait until the school session ended before taking his post.

Christian Gobrecht was originally hired as a Mint engraver to prepare dies for the soon-to-be-opened Branch mints. Director Moore received a letter from Secretary of the Treasury, Levi Woodbury, dated June 20, 1835, stating in part: “…the President…authorizes me to say, that he approves of the suggestion it contains relative to the future employment of an Assistant Engraver for the Mint, and the amount of his compensation. It is very desirable that the dies for the Branches of the Mint be finished by the time the Machinery is prepared to be put in operation, and the President expresses his hope that such will be the case.”

The stroke that incapacitated Chief Engraver William Kneass in August 1835, changed all the plans, and Gobrecht became the de facto chief engraver from August 1835 until he became Chief Engraver in 1840 (he died in office in 1844). The genesis of the Liberty Seated coinage lies with the new Director and is found in an August 1, 1835 letter from Dr. Patterson to the famous artist Thomas Sully. Patterson wrote: “In entering upon the execution of my office here, I have felt it to be one of the first objects requiring my attention, to Endeavour to introduce a change in our coin, that may make it a more credible specimen of taste and art.”

Later in the same letter, Patterson elaborated on his ideas for the coinage: “For the ‘inscription emblematic of Liberty,’ you know that our coins have heretofore a bust. It appears to me that it would be better to introduce an entire figure. When a likeness is to be given, as in the European coins, the head alone is very properly used, in order that the features may be distinctly represented. But, when an emblem only is called for, it would seem rather desirable to avoid this individuality in the features. Besides, there is certainly more room for a display of taste and beauty of form, when the full figure is used. The round form of the coins, its small size, and the practical necessity of covering as much of the face as possible, seem to require that the figure be in a sitting posture, - sitting for example, on a rock. To be distinctly ‘emblematic of Liberty,’ I would propose that the figure hold in her right hand, the liberty-pole surmounted by the pileus, - an emblem not unclassical, and which is universally understood. I would also suggest that the left hand be made to rest upon the United States Shield, on which the word ‘Liberty,” required by the law, may be inscribed.”

The pileus was the cap of a Roman freed slave, a symbol familiar to 19th century Americans. Today, almost no one would recognize the symbolism of a cap atop a liberty pole. Patterson continued in the Sully letter with his desires for the reverse design: “For the Reverse of the coins, I propose an Eagle, flying, and rising in flight, amidst a constellation, irregularly dispersed, of 24 stars, and carrying in its claws a scroll with the words ‘E Pluribus Unum,” – of many stars one constellation – of many states one union. As I am desirous that the real American Bald Eagle should be represented, and not, like the heraldic eagle, a mere creature of imagination. I have requested Mr. Titian R. Peale to make a design in conformity with the above suggestions, and therefore will not trouble you with the reverse of the coins, at least for the present."

Sketch of eagle by Titian Peale
(Courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

Thus, we have the genesis for the Liberty Seated coinage in the words of Director Patterson. By the time the dies were produced in late 1836, there were 26 States, represented by 7 large, 7 medium, and 12 small stars. Although Patterson had envisioned the stars “irregularly dispersed,” Gobrecht actually used a pattern for placement of the stars. There are numerous patterns used to place the stars: larger stars in open areas with medium and small ones near the eagle, as well as the stars above and below the beak in order, small-medium-large, and so on. The “onward and upward” phrase (probably a creation of a later mind) is really “flying, rising in flight” per the Patterson August 1, 1835 letter to Sully, the earliest known citation mentioning the new Liberty Seated design.

On October 15, 1835, Patterson sent Treasury Secretary Woodbury a Gobrecht impression of the obverse; he noted in this letter: “… a slight outline in copper, of the size of the dollar, in order to enable us to judge of the general effect of the figure upon the coin itself; and I have now the honor to submit the enclosed impressions, from this outline, to you, and through you to the President…..I do not now, Sir, ask for permission from the government to accept this device definitely as the impression ‘emblematic of Liberty’ to be intended in our coins…” The approval for the new design was not soon forthcoming and it would be December 1836 before the first Gobrecht Liberty Seated dollars were placed into circulation.

Historical descriptions of “Original” Gobrecht dollars as Proofs has muddled their true identity as circulation issues, which the author believes is the best way to determine Originals versus Restrikes. The Originals are not Proofs, while the Restrikes are almost always obvious Proofs, but how that conclusion was reached is beyond the scope of this article (but will be addressed in a future issue). Another bone of contention among respected researchers has been why particular alignments were placed into circulation – be they Original circulation strikes or spent Restrike Proofs. For the 1836 Name on Base issues, alignments I and IV are frequently encountered in both circulated and uncirculated condition, while alignment II (also found circulated) and III (mostly Restrike Proofs) are scarce. Recently, two well respected numismatists (Robert Julian and Craig Sholley) weighed in with their research in an article in Numismatic News (July 31, 2007).

Julian and Sholley believe that Walter Breen’s theory about the striking order (called the Originalist Theory) is correct and they believe the striking order proposed by James Gray and Mike Carboneau (called the Revisionist Theory) is incorrect, at least for some striking alignments. Gray and Carboneau have published their work on several occasions in the Gobrecht Journal, the publication of the Liberty Seated Coin Collectors Society. Both sides have presented compelling evidence for their conclusions. This article (and Part 2 next month) will offer other possibilities for the striking variations of these magnificent issues.

First, one must understand the language of the Gobrecht dollars, as there has been much confusion about the nomenclature over the years. Readers also are encouraged to examine the other two theories, as only summaries of their work appear within this article. The various striking alignments for Gobrecht dollars are difficult to pinpoint, as there are some variations (discussed later in this article and in Part 2, where they are aligned by die state in the Emission tables).

I – Coin turn (flipped up/down) with pellets left and right of ONE DOLLAR level and the eagle flying “onward and upward.”
II – Medal turn (flipped left/right) with pellets left and right of ONE DOLLAR level and the eagle flying “onward and upward.”
III – Coin turn (flipped up/down) with uneven pellets and eagle flying level.
IV – Medal turn (flipped left/right) with uneven pellets and eagle flying level.

These are the four basic alignments, but as noted, there are slight differences in positioning for some of the coins and they do not fit exactly into these “neat slots.” In fact, one of the biggest arguments between the two theories is how the “in between” alignments came into being. The author believes other reasons than those presented by either side account for the “in-between” alignments, which are discussed later.

However, a possible clue relating to the alignments is the recent discovery by the author of the removal of Gobrecht’s name from the base of the 1838 and 1839 working dies! Previously, it was thought the name was omitted for these dies (they have been called Name Omitted issues for years), but Gobrecht’s name was actually effaced from both working dies. The signage is incuse on the base of the coins and raised on the dies, so it was easily effaced, leaving virtually nothing but graver lines on the 1838, while the 1839 has obvious “ghost” letters. The angles of the bases were changed in both cases by the extensive tooling.

1836 Gobrecht Name on Base

1839 Gobrecht Name Removed

Although there are differences in the two alignment theories, there is also agreement in some areas. Both theories believe that the 1,000 coins struck in December 1836 with C. Gobrecht F. on the base (F. is Latin for Fecit, i.e. “Gobrecht made this die”) were alignment I coins. This is the normal coin orientation with the eagle flying “onward and upward.” The Starry Reverse die is found in its earliest state only with a few alignment I coins, while the majority of the alignment I strikings are found in State b (lapped or polished).

The polishing of the dies produced several markers, including a prominent die line from the upper wing pointing to AT of STATES, although the author believes this may be a clash mark from a shield stripe. There is also a chip in the dentils above the last A of AMERICA. Four hundred of the original 1,000 Gobrecht dollars were kept at the Mint for visitors and collectors. These 400 coins are thought to be exclusively die alignment I coins, although a few alignment II may have been struck in December 1836 and retained (this has not be speculated before, but we really do not know when certain alignments were struck).

Breen reported, and Julian and Sholley agree, that a few 1836 Name Below Base patterns (J-58) were struck in alignment I in November before the December strikings of the alignment I Name on Base coins. If true AND they were not melted, those few coins (unseen by modern numismatists) are expected to have State a, the perfect state of the reverse die.

Both theories also believe that the next striking alignment was II – when 600 more coins were delivered to various banks in March 1837. However, the Originalists believe that all the March 1837 coins featured this alignment, while the Revisionists believe one of the dies rotated and resulted in some of the March issues appearing with alignment IV (and positions in-between alignment II and IV). The author believes that most, if not all, of the March 1837 coins were in alignment IV and slight variations of this position (alignment IV coins exist with the eagle flying slightly upward and alignment IV+ coins with the eagle appearing to “dive”). The alignment IV coins are many times more common than alignment II coins. This leads to the conclusion that most of the March 1837 strikings were alignment IV. It should be noted that Gray and Carboneau have reported alignment II+ variants (eagle still flying upward, but at a slightly lower angle).

The only alternative, as Julian and Sholley postulate, is that the alignment II coins were placed into circulation and nearly all were subsequently melted. This would mean that huge numbers of circulated alignment IV examples are Restrikes that were obtained from the Mint, spent by their owners, “rescued” by savvy bullion dealers, and sold back to collectors. The author believes the “in-between” alignment IV coins are either intentional alignment tests or unintentional variants because of multiple striking periods.

The dies would have been placed into the presses in slightly different alignments for each striking period, as this was done by eyeballing the dies at this time. It appears that the striking order for alignment IV is: IV (level), IV+ (diving) and IV- (ascending). This emission sequence would eliminate rotation as a cause of the alignment variants, unless the alignment IV- strikings are later strikings. They do have the last die state seen for alignment IV strikes, but the author feels they are the last Originals struck in March 1837. Of course, if the original 400 Gobrechts kept at the Mint were dispersed, more coins may have been struck later in 1837 or 1838; these would have been alignment IV- strikings, with the eagle slightly ascending, the last known alignment IV issues.

As both theories propose, and the author concurs, alignment II coins were struck after alignment I, but before alignment IV coins. This would include the alignment II+ variant with a less inclined eagle (Gray and Carboneau report another coin with an even less inclined eagle, which might be the alignment IV- coin reported herein), which might have been struck in December 1836, as previously speculated. Julian and Sholley have also reported an alignment III coin struck between alignment II and IV, and a single low grade circulated example also appears to be an Original alignment III coin (pictured on Saul Teichman runs the pattern website, is the “keeper” of pattern information, and is responsible for much information in this article. He has provided answers to every question I have thrown at him. Thanks, Saul.

So, how can we infer that the level eagle was the preferred one?  In 1838, a half dollar pattern reverse die was prepared by Gobrecht with just such an alignment. Judd 73 and 79 have the eagle flying slightly upwards (equal to IV- for Gobrecht dollars), but with the two pellets correctly arranged for this eagle positioning.

Pattern half dollar with eagle slightly rising                     

Pattern half dollar with eagle flying level – double struck
(Courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

It would be unlikely that a replacement reverse die would be made to “level” the pellets for the dollar coins, as the expense to create a new master die would not justify the very few Gobrecht dollars struck in 1838 and the 300 struck in 1839. However, an overlooked feature of the Gobrecht dollar Starry reverse is its flexibility. It actually looks more “natural” with the eagle flying level (III or IV) or in a slightly ascending position (IV-). The eye is drawn to the very large eagle and the uneven pellets are not obtrusive, as they blend in with the 26 stars and are scarcely noticed. The eagle is a bird of prey; most of his time in the air is spent looking down, while flying level.

Gobrecht Starry reverse with level eagle ( III and IV)

The artistic and geometric effects for the level flying eagle are not as elegant on the Starless reverse used in 1838 and 1839, as the large eagle is the only diversion. If Gobrecht dollars (i.e. Liberty Seated) had retained the flying eagle reverse design, undoubtedly a correct pellet die would have been created with the eagle flying level or slightly rising, like the 1838 pattern half dollar reverse. It is the natural position for a flying eagle and this was realized by the officials of the day.

There is correspondence noted by Walter Breen and Don Taxay that Patterson, Gobrecht, and the others involved were fanatical in making the eagle look natural (as Patterson’s earlier quoted letter indicates). Patterson had Titian Peale make at least 30 sketches before he was satisfied with the eagle reverse. It is no wonder that the alignment was changed for the half dollar patterns in 1838 and all the dollar coins struck thereafter.

Of course, we may never know exactly when or why each alignment was struck, but die data for individual dies can determine the emission sequence, as with any coins that have definite die markers (the emission tables will be included in Part 2). The 1836 Gobrecht Starry reverse has several die markers, including the two just identified by Julian and Sholley. These (or their absence) and other markers can be used to line up the coins in striking order. Die markers, such as those seen on the common Proof-only reverse of the 1867 Rays nickel (combined with three different obverse dies on at least six different occasions), can ascertain striking order. They will not reveal the exact years that coins were struck, but an emission sequence can be established, sometimes with precision.

All known markers for 1836 Gobrecht dollars are found on the common Starry reverse die. Previously mentioned, there is a die line or clash line protruding from the upper wing pointing to AT of STATES, as well as a chip in the dentils above the last A of AMERICA. The line from the wing is easily worn away on circulated examples.

The new Julian/Sholley die markers are found on the rim above the A and T of STATES (raised and indented). On the die, the rim area is a recessed area, called the lip and is protected from lapping or polishing. These rim markers progress and become more prominent in later states, similar to the progression of a die crack. It appears that most of these markers are damage to the die’s lip (there are raised and indented areas on most of the markers). Other markers also appear, one found on the rim above the last A of AMERICA (raised, probably rust or spawling). In a later state, another is found on the rim between the pellet and U of UNITED (indented); at the same time that this rim marker appears, a new die line is now found under the D of DOLLAR, indicating another polishing. On very late state alignment IV coins, another rim marker appears above the R of DOLLAR (raised and indented). These rim markers may have resulted when the dies were removed or when they were replaced, as most of them appear to be damage to the lip of the die, as noted.

The Original 1838 and 1839 issues, as well as all the various other Restrike issues will be examined in the second part of this article in next month’s issue.