Early Gold Quarter Eagles

Early Gold $2.50 Coins

After 1808 there was no coinage of this denomination until 1821. By that time no gold coins were seen in domestic circulation. The international price of gold bullion had risen to the point at which it took a few cents over face value to coin quarters and half eagles. $10 gold eagles had not been minted since 1804. So many had been exported that the Treasury discontinued the denomination. It would not be until 1838 that eagles were coined again.

Quarter eagle coinage, suspended after 1808, resumed in 1821 as noted. From that year through the first half of 1834, a small number of coins were made, amounting to 42,065 pieces totally, not enough that anyone had a realistic chance of seeing one, as not a single coin was used in circulation. Although facts are scarce, it is likely that most were used domestically, where they were valued at a premium. In contrast nearly all half eagles were exported. During this period, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, from Missouri and nicknamed “Old Bullion,” and certain of his fellow legislators insisted on receiving their salaries in gold coins. One can imagine Benton having a little bag of quarter eagles and half eagles. Legislators took these coins to bullion dealers and exchange offices and received a premium for them in terms of silver coins or of sound bank notes such as those of the Second Bank of the United States.

Quarter eagles of the 1821-1827 years are of a modified Liberty Head adapted from John Reich’s Capped Busy, but different in appearance. The diameter is the same as that used since 1796. Coins of these years are rare today, with, perhaps, 1827 being the very rarest, although the 1826 receives more publicity in this regard. The most often encountered date—and that is not very often—is the 1824/1. Most are found in worn grades. In contrast, the 1825 is seen less often in terms of total specimens, but Mint State coins are more available for this particular date than for any others of the 1821-1827 type.

In 1829, engraver William Kneass made slight modifications to the quarter eagle dies, including reducing the diameter to 18.2 mm.

On the obverse the stars are closer to the border as a result of the narrower diameter, with the spacing appearing especially tight above Miss Liberty’s head. The stars were punched into each die by hand and thus vary slightly in their relation to each other, the dentils, etc. Dates were entered into the working dies by hand, one digit at a time.

On the reverse the letters are closer to the border. On both obverse and reverse the dentils are shorter and differently formed than on the pre-1829 issues, the later issues having beadlike dentils, sometimes called a “beaded” border, although this is a misnomer. The rim appears more prominent than on the earlier issues. The entire effect is less delicate than on quarter eagles of the 1821-1827 years. Certain punches may have been cut by Christian Gobrecht, who at the time performed certain work under contract to the Mint (he later joined the Mint staff, in 1835).

In 1832, engraver William Kneass modified the portrait very slightly. The details of certain hair curls (such as below LIBERTY, especially below the B; also at the bottom of the portrait) are different, and the relief of the head appears to be more “solid.” The obverse border is more prominent. This portrait was employed through early 1834.

Mintages were low for each year. Perhaps a few dozen Proofs were struck, but original information is virtually non-existent except for pieces made in 1834 for presentation sets. Complicating the question is the use of polished dies to create prooflike circulation strikes.

To permit gold coins to circulate at par Congress reduced the authorized weight of the various denominations through the Act of June 28, 1834. Senator Thomas Hart Benton spearheaded the movement. For the quarter eagle the weight was reduced from 67.5 grains to 64.5 grains. On August 1, 1834, the new standard went into effect.

So that the public could readily differentiate the new coins from the old, the design was changed. Engraver William Kneass created what is called the Classic Head today. The head of Miss Liberty faces left, her hair secured by a band inscribed LIBERTY, stars circling her head, and with the date below.

The reverse depicts an eagle with a shield on its breast, perched on an olive branch and holding three arrows. The inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and 2½ D. surround. It was originally intended that the new coins would bear the date AUG. 1, 1834 on the reverse to make them easy to differentiate, but in practice this was not done. It is interesting to observe that certain coins minted by Bechtler in North Carolina did adhere to the original proposal and do include the full date. Instead, the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM, used on quarter eagles since 1796, was omitted, making it easy even at a casual glance to distinguish the new reverse from the one in of somewhat similar design in general use 1808-1834. Beginning in 1839 quarter eagles were also struck at the Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans mints. These coins have mintmarks C, D, or O on the obverse above the date.