VOL. XIV No. 1
SOME OBSERVATIONS ABOUT EARLY DOLLARS
(FLOWING HAIR AND DRAPED BUST, 1794-1803)
BY JOHN J. HAUGH
(Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the Introduction of a soon-to-be-published book on Early Dollars by Jules Reiver. It is expected to be available by Fall 1998, through Krause Publications. This is the first of three articles that will appear in the NSDR Journal. We are thankful to John Haugh, Jules Reiver and Jim Stoutjesdyk of Heritage Rare Coins for allowing us to present this sneak preview to our readers.)
The mint’s official records indicate a total production of 1,439,196 Early Dollars (or EDs) bearing the dates 1794 through 1803. Q. David Bowers, in his important treaties on silver dollars, does some rounding, but concludes that 1,431, 758 were minted with dates from 1794 through 1803. Both figures include the nearly 20,000 dollars dated 1803, but minted in 1804.
The practice of continuing to produce coins with a previous year’s date was common in that era. While there are ongoing debates as to how many EDs were actually minted with some of the dates, the consensus is that the entire production of all Flowing Hair and Draped Bust (the latter obverse style was adopted in late 1795) was slightly in excess of 1.4 million.
All who have studied EDs recognize their extremely low survival rate. Walter Breen suggests no more than 4% of the original 1794-1803 mintage survive in all grades. Bowers, who together with Mark Borckardt conducted an extensive study of auctions, collections and engaged in extensive conferences with ED specialists, concludes that from 43,000 to 76,000 EDs remain, suggesting a survival rate of 3 to 5%. These low survival figures include all specimens, regardless of condition (holed, graffiti, scratched, etc.) and wear. No new large hoards have surfaced for decades.
An interesting bit of history (which helps one to understand why so many EDs vanished): On at least two occasions early on in our history (both over 140 years ago), sudden surges in the value of silver created a profit opportunity, prompting many to buy U.S. silver dollars (many of which were EDs) in exchange for paper currency at par. The EDs were then melted, refined to the necessary (or desirable) purity level, resulting in gain. The tastes and beliefs of the American populace had changed. When EDs were first introduced, they became the preferred medium of exchange. “Paper” money was then distrusted – most history buffs recall the popular comment, early in American history, when defaults on government obligations were fresh in the memories of the populace – to refer to an item of little or no value – as “not being worth a Continental”.
In its own peculiar way, the success of the first series of silver dollars (and silver coins of lesser value) sowed the seed of its own demise by increasing confidence in government “money”. As the Federal government developed a better reputation for stability – and commercial activity increased commensurate with American expansion – heavy coinage became less desirable than lightweight “paper” money in higher denominations. “Checks” drawn on banks could be generally relied on. The revered silver dollar, heavy and difficult to move around in quantity, became less favored.
The populace became not only willing, but actually anxious, to exchange their heavy clumsy silver dollars for paper money, at par. The French in particular where adept at seizing the opportunity, engaging agents in the U.S. to buy up EDs now survive; it was a major contributing factor. Indeed, a detailed study of all the socioeconomic factors which contributed to the present dearth of classic U.S. silver coinage – especially in higher grades – is worthy of an entire book.
For present, it will suffice to say many factors combined to result in the disappearance of roughly 96% of all EDs ever minted. The absence of sufficient numbers (by date, variety or “major variety”) of EDs has, in turn, led to disinterest in them on “electronic” trading networks (not enough are available in comparable grades to “make “an active market) and to the popular “bid” prices quoted in the “graysheet” being almost pathetically below the “real market” for better quality EDs for sound, higher grade examples. There are virtually no advertising and/or major promotions of EDs because the major dealers, who heavily advertise and promote, simply cannot obtain sufficient numbers of EDs to justify the expense and effort involved, which they commonly do with Morgan/Peace dollars and other more plentiful “types”. Hence, a smaller number of collectors take the time to become enchanted enough with the series to seriously commit to it – though that number is growing – which in turn has led to many overlooking their charm, appeal and historical importance.
To put the relative scarcity of all EDs in perspective, compare the entire mintage of the whole series (1794 through 1803) of 1.4 million with one date/mint of the Morgan series, the 1881-S, which was 12.7 million (and far from the highest). The relative scarcity of “Mint State” EDs is even more dramatic. Two of the certification services (PCGS and NGC) have graded over 170,000 1881-S Morgans to be “Mint State” (MS60 or higher), whereas less than 300 EDs from the entire series have been graded Mint State by those same two services. Even that figure (roughly 287 as of mid-1998) is inflated because of resubmissions. Stated differently, a Mint State 1881-S is 6,000 times more common than any Mint State ED, from the entire series.
Buttressing those who believe in a survival rate for the whole ten year series at the low end of estimates (35,000 to 50,000 total survivors) is the extraordinarily low survival of the 1794. Of the documented mintage of 1,758 pieces, most estimates are that 125-135 have survived. No mintage year of the entire Ed series has been as extensively studied as the 1794. Among others, the late Jack Collins exhaustively studied the 1794 for some two decades. He was assisted by leading ED specialists, including Martin Oghigian, Jules Reiver and Mark Borckhardt. At the time of Collins’ untimely demise, 125 known specimens had been identified (although a few of those might be duplicates, as so many 1794 pieces were “doctored” over the decades). The Collins manuscript for a book on the 1794 mintage, nearly completed when he died, has never been published. It is the near unanimous belief of ED specialists that there could not be more than 120-150 survivors of the 1794 issue.
As the 1794 was distributed in significant part to high government officials and members of Congress, and was the first dollar coin ever struck in the U.S., one would expect the 1794 survival rate to be far greater than subsequent year mintages. Yet, only 7-7.8% of the 1794 mintage survives. It is reasonable to assume the survival rate of the 1974 is at least twice the balance of the entire series. It is logical to therefore accept Breen’s opinion that no more than 4% of the entire ED production of 1.4 million have survived (less than 56,000). This writer concurs with the consensus of ED specialists that no more than 45,000 survive today (in any condition).
SOME INTERESTING ASPECTS AND VARIETIES OF EARLY DOLLARS
One of the more fascinating aspects of ED study and collecting is the extraordinary variety of designs, die varieties and die states. They present a special challenge and have some aspects not found in other US types. Among the more notable:
Some (most believe 30 to 50, a few surmise 80 or more) of Flowing Hair dollars minted in 1795 have a silver “plug” in the center, visible on both sides. Thus far, they have been found in five varieties (B-1, 3, 4, 7 and 9). Roughly 8 mm in diameter and always found at or close to the center of the coin, this curious anomaly was not mentioned in any of the books or articles on Flowing Hair dollars, for nearly 200 years. Both John W. Haseltine and M. H. Bolender – in their seminal studies – missed it.
Although many noted numismatists are given (or try to take credit) for having “discovered” the silver plugged variety, anecdotal stories convincingly demonstrate that “coin doctors” were the first to encounter the plug decades ago when – in the process of attempting to improve their appearance – a “circle” would “pop” out of some 1795’s after heating. One “coin doctor” – long since retired—confided to me that he had experienced that phenomenon three times. He gently tapped the “pop out” back into the coin. For obvious reasons, this group did no report their findings to the coin media.
Bowers described the curiosity in 1981, but was unsure what it was. By the early 1990s, several numismatists began to delve into the enigmatic “small circle” found in some 1795 Flowing Hair dollars, including Bowers, Roger Burdette, Kenneth Bressett and Tom DeLorey. Initially, it was surmised some indentation or defect in planchets had been corrected, then covered with silver. As more examples surfaced, more attention was focused on the strange anomaly.
Bressett presented a paper on the “curious circular ring or seam” at an American Numismatic Society (ANS) Conference in New York City (in October 1993) on American Silver Coinage, part of a series of presentations at a “Silver Coinage of the Americas Conference”. After analysis of numerous examples, all the same size and in the same location, he found they had all been added before striking as the die impressions were always struck over them. Bressett and Burdette speculated that the strange metal had been added to increase the silver content (fineness).
It was known, from earlier research, that the Mint Director (David Rittenhouse) had ignored the silver fineness mandated by Congress (.89243) and secretly employed a .900 benchmark, adding an extra 3.5 grains of silver to each silver dollar coin. Could Rittenhouse have added a tad of metal to planchets to come into compliance with the mandated standard? This was originally thought to be the answer. As Bressett studied the “circular ring” further, he soon concluded it was far more probable that extra metal was added to bring “lightweight” planchets up to standard. He reasoned the extra metal brought those “short” up to the norm, at least as an experiment in 1795, just as overweight planchets were corrected by removing metal with a fine file, leaving adjustment marks. The “plug” is not found in 1784, the Draped Busts of 1794, or any subsequent year.
The “plug” area was subjected to spectrographic x-ray analysis, which demonstrated the fineness of the ‘added metal” roughly equaled the rest of the planchet in nearly all cases (or was within understandable tolerances of). In reality, the term “plug” is somewhat misleading. Bressett explains his conclusion as to how the metal was added, in the paper described above, as follows:
During mid-1795 an experiment was tried in the mint to salvage lightweight planchets by inserting a dowel, or plug, in the center of the piece and then striking it with normal dies. There would be no need to drill a hole, or remove any metal. A simple piercing with a sharp instrument would leave an opening where a pin or dowel could be inserted. The effect after striking would be to round over the exposed tips on each side of the coin, much like the ends of rivets used in building construction…
Copper pattern cents of 1792 also have a “silver center” from a dowel inserted prior to striking (to raise the coin value to face), no other regular issue of the U.S. Mint was known to have a silver “plug”. However, in 1997, when a 1795 Flowing Hair half dollar was discovered to have a similar plug, a second was soon found. Other 1795 halves with this feature will probably surface. The hunt for them is on in earnest.
Chris Pilliod, a professional metallurgist and numismatic historian, subjected the “discovery” 1795 half dollar with silver plug to advanced electron analysis. After five retains on each side, he found the silver fineness and trace metals to be virtually the same for the plug and the remainder of the coin. He concluded the “plugging was undoubtedly done solely as a weight adjustment on light planchets” prior to striking.
Why did the 1795 Flowing Hair dollar (and half) with silver plug go “undiscovered” for some 200 years? One can only surmise. In early America, coins were often holed for jewelry, pocket pieces and coat buttons. Many were plugged later, often expertly. Some who noticed the circle may have assumed this had occurred. Moreover, the outline of the plug is nearly (or completely) invisible on darkly toned specimens. Even professional numismatists, who noticed the curious circle, dismissed it as “toning”. As late as October 1992, when the noted Starr collection was auctioned by Stack’s, the catalogue described a silver plugged 1795 dollar as having “a splash of toning, mostly in the central portions of each side.” The overwhelming consensus today is that the “plugs” were inserted prior to striking to correct light planchets, in an experiment which occurred only in 1795. The “Red Book” began listing the “silver center plug” as a separate variety in 1994. It commands a premium over common varieties of 1795 Flowing Hair Dollars in the same condition.
Except for 1795, when many Flowing Hair dollars received the “silver plug” treatment, underweight planchets were added to the bullion inventory, remelted and put through the process again (forming ingots rolling them into strips and punching out planchets.) Overweight planchets were dealt with in a different manner, and are much more common. Overweight planchets were lightened, prior to striking, by creating thin grooves into the metal with a fine file to remove metal.
Thousands of EDs show this hand filing, which appear as “scratches” or thin grooves. Most are parallel. Some “crisscross”. Some are quite prominent, even unsightly. Some are almost invisible, nearly obliterated in the striking process. Over the years, specialists have come to refer to these filing grooves as “adjustment marks”. They appear on many dates and varieties. Most of the surviving 1794 issue which survives bears adjustment marks, on the obverse.
Most collectors, especially those seeking attractive “type” pieces, consider adjustment marks a detriment. A few specialists actively seek EDs with dramatic adjustment marks as examples of the early Mint process. In 1996, Bowers and Merena reported, in their “Rare Coin Review” for collectors, that Ray Merena had found a 1795 Flowing Hair (BB-18/B-7) with both a silver plug and adjustment marks. Bressett opined that the coin may have been made too light by filing, and then brought back to standard by plugging. This writer wonders if it could have been the reverse. It was the only known 1795 with both a silver plug and adjustment marks until 1998, when a second one was found. Other examples may exist.
The purpose of the Flowing Hair and Draped Bust dollar was to create a coin containing one dollar’s worth of silver. Silver (and gold) were the medium of exchange. For centuries, people would file, clip or “shave” small amounts of silver or gold off the edges of coins, gradually accumulating significant amounts of bullion, representing real buying power and value. This “debasement” of the coinage often went undetected. Repeated edge shaving eventually would become apparent, resulting in refusals to accept the coins for goods, defeating their very purpose. To prevent the filing of edges, and confirm the value of the coins, all EDs have an inscription incused into the edge, covering the 360° of the perimeter, with ornamental designs between the words. This incused inscription has become known as “edge lettering”. The words themselves read: HUNDRED CENTS ONE DOLLAR OR UNIT.
The edge lettering was impressed into the edges y a machine designed to pull the planchet between tow steel bars, parallel to each other, each with one half of the inscription and symbols. This edge lettering process rather effectively reduced the penchant to “shave” valuable silver off edges. Such tampering was immediately obvious. As the incusion took place, essentially “pinching” or squeezing the coin, the pressure also raised the outside edge, creating an elevated rim.
Edge lettering is rarely examined closely, even by specialists. Although the edge lettering is impossible to see in certification service “holders”, it is frequently found with unusual characteristics. Examples include double (and even triple) punched edges, and “overruns” (with extra lettering). Examples with reverse lettering (with one or both halves of the inscription pointed the wrong way) exist, probably created when coins were ejected, then returned “backwards” in the machine.
Bolender, in his important treatise on EDs, utilized the term “bifurcation” often when describing the characteristics of various varieties. He used the term to describe letters and numerals which appear to be “split” or “forked” at the base. He created sub-varieties (such as the 1799 B 10b) where he noted bifurcated lettering, whereas the main number (his “non-bifurcated” state) had none. His writing suggests he believed bifurcation was the result of worn dies (a different “die state”) or repunching.
Most ED collectors and specialists now ignore the term bifurcation, as diagnostic varieties, though the term remains in use to describe the “plitting” or “forring” of letters and numerals. In reality, the striking process (which Bolender did not fully understand) created the differentiation in the base of letters and numerals. Reiver and many other specialists believe it is caused by “strong strikes”, asserting that if strongly struck, the base of these expand outward, tending to create “forks”, “splits” or “elongations” at the base of letters and numerals (as well as stars) where the planchet tended to flow toward the collar. Bowers and many other specialists assert these same characteristics result from “weak” strikes, when opposing dies do not put sufficient pressure on the planchet. This writer’s observations suggest that when the forking or splitting appear, the strike details are invariably stronger. The issue (whether caused by a “strong” or “weak” strike) is worthy of further analysis.
Bolender was unaware of the intricacies of the striking process, the detailed research of which was largely done after his work was completed. Specialists now agree that bifurcation is not indicative or diagnostic of die varieties or die states. Indeed, many EDs of the same die variety and die state can be found with no, little or heavy bifurcation.
SUCTION MARKS/DIE CLASHES
Another term used liberally by Bolender, which has confused two generations of ED collectors, is “suction marks”. As one of the diagnostics of 1799 B-16a, he explains “suction marks… show between stars on left to stars on right of obverse.” What he describes as “suction marks” has been discarded by specialists, who now recognize that they are in fact clash marks. When they noticed the problem, the Mint staff would remove the clash marks by filing, lapping or polishing the dies, which frequently weakened the devices.
Die clashes or die clash marks (or impressions) are found on numerous ED varieties. When opposing dies would meet (clash) with no planchet between them, the occurrence would often leave an impression on the opposing die (and sometimes both) which, if strong enough, leaves impressions (from faint to strong) on planchets subsequently processed through the altered die.