skip to Main Content

The Mystery of the Stella Solved

8th NSDC

Oct. 29 – Nov. 1, 1987

St. Louis, Missouri


The Mystery of the Stella Solved

Are the adjustment marks the key in the “original” vs. “restrike” puzzle?

By Michael Hodder


The four-dollar gold piece, the famous Stella, has long been considered among the most interesting and well-designed of all the pattern coins struck as proposals for an American coinage that could circulate worldwide.  Designed in 1879, and struck from dies prepared by Charles E. Barber and George T. Morgan, the patterns bear on the obverse the head of Liberty and on the reverse type a large, centrally placed star, hence the name of the proposed denomination as recommended by the congressional Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures.

Two obverse dies were prepared for the 1879 pattern.  Barber’s Liberty wore her hair long, flowing behind her neck; his design was a close copy of his father’s pattern half eagle of 1878.  Morgan’s Liberty was more restrained in feeling, her hair bound up on the top of her head in a more matronly fashion.  Around the circumference of the obverse the metallic content of the proposed coin was abbreviated as “6*G*.3*S*.7*C*7*G*R*A*M*S*,” signifying that the coin contained 6 grams of gold, .3 grams of silver, and .7 grams of copper, for a total weight of 7 grams.  The reverse design was common to both obverse types, bearing a large star in its center inscribed with the name of the denomination and its equivalent value in cents; 400.  Around the circumference of the reverse in two bands of inscriptions was placed our country’s name (as the issuing authority and ultimate guarantor of the coinage), the value of the coin in dollars: 4, and our national motto with an additional Latin tag added to balance the over design (“Deo Est Gloria,” meaning “Glory be to God”).

With its metallic content clearly noted on the obverse, proponents of the denomination hoped that it would be acceptable as currency worldwide, since each country could translate the gold content of the coin into its own monetary equivalent.

As a pattern for a proposed coinage with international currency, the Stella takes its place with Dana Bickford’s 1874 international 10-dollar gold piece (Judd-1373) and the metric double eagle of 1879 (Judd-1642 and 1643).

Unfortunately for later collectors, neither the 1874 eagle nor the 1879 double eagle were struck in quantity and they are both very rare (Judd-1642 is unique).  The 1879 Flowing Hair Stella however, proved very popular with members of the Committee on Coinage to whom the pattern was shown.  Fifteen pieces are said to have been struck in 1879, for presentation to the members of the committee, as exhibits of the proposed coinage.

The beauty of Barber’s design and the unusual nature of the denomination were the causes of its popularity.  Accordingly, in 1880 the committee ordered additional pieces coined, for sale to other members of Congress and their friends.  Various reports survive numbering the total struck in 1880 as 400 (Edgar Adams), about 500 (R.E. Preston, Bureau of the Mint), and 600 (according to Walter Breen, this figure appears in several of W. Elliott Woodward’s auction catalogues of the 1880s).

There seem to be no records of any “restriking” of Morgan’s 1879 Coiled Hair design, and the quantity of this type struck appears to be about the same as the original 1879 striking of Barber’s design, around 15 pieces.

As the idea for an international coinage persisted as a possibility in 1880, new obverse dies were cut that year of the types of 1879 but dated 1880 (on the 1879 Flowing Hair obverse the jewel in Liberty’s diadem nearly touches the bottom right point of the sixth star in the legend; on the 1880 obverse the jewel is distant from the star).  As with Morgan’s 1879 Coiled Hair design only a handful of the 1880-dated pieces were struck, and the total was probably close to 15 of each type.

Cataloguers and numismatic researchers have attempted to find ways of distinguishing the 15 or so 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas struck that year from the 400 or more pieces coined in 1880 using the old 1879 dies.  Two major distinctions have been proposed.  The first, appearing in the 7th edition of Dr. J. Hewitt Judd’s United States Pattern, Experimental, and Trial Pieces, states that “originals” (i.e., pieces coined in 1879) weigh 109 grains, while “restrikes” (pieces dated 1879 but struck in 1880) range in weight from 103 to 109 grains but with almost all of them weighing 108 grains.  This distinction is not very helpful to the collector or numismatic research, however, if the majority of 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas seen are within one grain of the weight of the so-called “originals.”  Only a very few specimens will be found with weights significantly below 109 grains to allow them to be called “restrikes,” yet we know from contemporary reports, even if they disagree as to totals, that several hundred were coined in 1880 while only a handful were struck in 1879.

Following Dr. Judd’s argument, one would expect that the majority of specimens seen would be underweight, given the total number struck in 1879 and 1880, rather than the other way around.  If we apply scientific numismatic methodology to the population of 1879 Stellas that survive and plot the weights of specimens known on a graph and then extract from the graph the median weight of all specimens listed, we will derive the originally intended statutory weight of the issue (in this case, the proposed weight, as the denomination was not officially authorized by Congress).  The resulting figure is 108 grains, or 7 grams, exactly the weight of the majority of specimens seen and, incidentally, the weight of a Stella converted to grains, as inscribed on the coin itself.  So, the fact that the proposed weight of the denomination corresponds to the observed weights of the majority of the 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas seen does not help in distinguishing “originals” form “restrikes,” and some other method must be found.

The second traditional way of distinguishing “original” from “restrikes” may be found in the work of all students of the denomination.  It appears in virtually every auction catalogue description of a specimen, is noted in Dr. Judd’s book, is echoed by Dan Taxay in his Catalogue and Encyclopedia of United States Coins, and appears in Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Proof Coins.  Enshrined in David Aker’s lavish, and regrettably out of print, United States Gold Patterns, it has become the standard argument.  This holds that the quantity struck in 1880, to satisfy the demand from Congress for more of the lovely coins, can be identified by striations, usually on the obverse, composed of sometimes faint and sometimes strong parallel lines running across Liberty’s hair and occasionally reaching into her face.  Originals are said, in this argument, to be free from these lines.

The origin, nature, and purpose of these striations have never been satisfactorily explained.  Dr. Judd and his later redactors suggested that the “restrikes” were made from a warn obverse die, and presumably the lines, with their attendant weakness is in the design area where they occur, were to be explained as an artifact of die wear.  The fact that only 15 or so pieces were coined in 1879, too few to materially wear a die, was not taken into consideration in this explanation.  Liberty’s head is the deepest part of the obverse die and it is common numismatic experience that when a die wears through long usage the wear first shows up on the highest parts of the die (corresponding to the lowest parts of the coins struck from the die) as softening around letters, thin breaks in the fields or from the rims, and so on.  Wear does not appear first in that area of the die that is cut the most deeply.  Lack of definition on the high points of a coin is usually the result of inadequate striking pressure if the coin was struck on a screw press; on coins struck in a steam driven press, as the Stellas were, it signifies too wide a spacing between the dies in relation to the thinness of the planchet.

Another argument against striations being the result of die wear derives from the observed positions of the striations on specimens of the 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas actually examined.  (See enlarged illustrations accompanying this article.)  Were they the result of wear one would expect the lines to be in the same place in the die, where it had begun to wear, appearing on the coins struck from it in the same place from specimen to specimen, perhaps growing larger as the wear progressed  but certainly not changing position from coin to coin.  Only one obverse die was cut for the 1879 Flowing Hair Stella.  Actual experience, however, shows that the striations run in different directions on different coins.  On some, the striae slant down from 7*C through Liberty’s face; other show the striae slanting down from other positions on the rim, as from C*7, G*R, 7*G, and so on.  These examples of different placements of the striae could be repeated almost endlessly.  The diversity of positions clearly shows that the lines could not have been in the die originally, and some other explanations must be found for their appearance on the vast majority, actually almost all, of the 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas.

To add another dimension to our problem of explaining these striations, it should be remembered that all known 1880 Stellas, both Barber’s Flowing Hair and Morgan’s Coiled Hair types, exhibit the same sort of striations on the obverses; and that the striations show up on some of the 1879 Coiled Hair types as well.  What are we to make of this observation?  By the standard argument, striations appear on pieces restruck later.  Yet, we have neither records nor even hints that the very rare 1879 Coiled Hair or the similarly rare 1880 pieces of both types were restruck, and their surviving populations are so low as to suggest that any so-called restriking was limited to only a very few pieces or that if a larger number was run off, the majority of the restriking was subsequently lost or melted.

The “striations means restriking” arguments has given researchers and collectors more problems than solutions to distinguishing between “originals” and “restrikes.”  David Akers was reduced to arguing that the striated specimens of the 1880 Flowing Hair type were not technically restrikes because the idea for an international coinage was dead in 1881 and so additional quantities would not be called for to support it.  Consequently, Akers opined that the striated that the striated 1880 Stellas were struck later than the unstriated ones, but still in 1880 and therefore technically were not restrikes.  He correctly noted that the small number of 1880 Coiled Hair Stellas known suggests that the total struck must have been correspondingly small, but faced with the existence of some which showed the striations, he was forced to conclude that the presence of striations was “…hardly conclusive evidence by itself that an additional quantity was struck…”

The problem with the “striations equals restrikes” argument is that it must hold for all Stellas whatever their dates or types if it is to hold for any of them.  Yet, we are faced with only one of ht e four kinds of Stellas that we know for a fact was restruck; restriking in extremely limited numbers, or else we are faced with the implausible mystery of the subsequent disappearance of the overwhelming majority of the restrikes.  As far as I know no researcher has seriously sought a technical explanation for the striations seen on almost every Stella known regardless of its date or type.  Yet hints of their origin can be found in Akers’ and Breen’s referenced studies, although neither one followed up their own suggestions.

If the striae were not on the dies, as I have shown above, they must have been on the coin, either on the flan before striking or an accident to the coin after striking.  The latter suggestion is impossible, as the striae appear in different places on different coins and no single machine-made cause would result in different accidental results.  Could the striae have been applied to coins after they were struck?  As they are somewhat disfiguring it does not seem likely that the Mint would deliberately disfigure a coinage pattern intended to impress Congress with the need for a new denomination of the types proposed.  It appears most probable that the striae were on the flans before the coins were struck.

Simple observation proves that the striae were originally on the flans before striking, as they can plainly be seen underlying the devices which have been struck over them.  Breen noticed that the striations had to have been on the blanks before striking, calling them “…something looking like file marks in the centers.”  Akers correctly named the striae “…light adjustment marks on the head,” calling them characteristic of the “restrikes” of the 1879 Flowing Hair type Stella.

Adjustment marks are common on the silver and gold coins struck by the Philadelphia Mint 1795 through 1834, when coining operations were largely conducted by hand with the aid of not very sophisticated machinery.  Blanks meant for coining were punched from rolled strips of metal, the rollers being set to produce strips of metal of desired thickness.  Individuals blanks punched out were roughly close to statutory weights of the coins they were intended to become.  Blanks were carefully weighed by hand to test their weights, light-weight ones being rejected and later melted for re-rolling.  Heavyweight blanks were commonly filed down across their surfaces with a hand-held metal file, the intention being to reduce the weight of the heavy blank until it reached the desired, legal weight the denomination it was to be coined into.  These file marks can be seen on many early United States coins, most prominently on 18th century dollars and half dollars, and on gold quarter eagles, half eagles and eagles through the first decade of the 19th century.  Called adjustment marks, because by filing away some metal they “adjusted” the weights of too-heavy planchets, they appear as thin, parallel lines underlying the devices struck over them.  As the planchets were adjusted by hand the adjustment marks are of vary intensity.  As the adjusted blanks were fed into the pressed without regard for the orientation of the file marks, the marks are found running in different directions on different coins.  The adjustment marks on early federal coins are identical in appearance to the striations we see on the later Stella patterns.

If the striations on the Stellas are rightly to be termed adjustment marks, then what was being adjusted on the Stellas?  Researchers have always assumed that the Mint produced planchets of correct diameter and weight for the proposed Stella denomination.  In fact, the question of the origin of the planchets used to coin the Stella has never been asked in print, to my knowledge.  But, if the Mint manufactured statutorily correct planchets for the denomination there would have been no need to adjust their weights.  It now appears that the presence of adjustment marks on the Stellas known shows that the Mint did not produce custom-made planchets at all.  In fact, given the low mintage figures of all but the 1879 Flowing Hair type, and even here all authorities agree that fewer than 700 were struck, it would have been more economical for the Mint not to have custom-made a four-dollar planchet.  When it is remembered, further, that the original mintage of the 1879 Flowing and Coiled Hair Stellas was limited, in all likelihood, to a number approximating the number of congressmen on the Committee on Coinage, then the total run of the denomination as originally conceived by the Mint was probably under 50 pieces.

The answer to the origin of the planchets, and the purpose of the adjustment marks seen on the Stellas, is suggested by the diameter of the pattern.  Careful measurement with a precision graduated caliper gives a range of diameters for specimens actually seen of 21.50mm to 21.55mm.  Two off-metal strikes were also measured, one each in copper and aluminum; their diameters were identical, 21.6mm.  We can safely assume that the Mint intended the Stella to measure no less than 21mm and not more than 22mm, and that the actual diameter of a Stella was to be 21.5 to 21.6mm.  The statutory diameter of the standard five-dollar gold piece, the half eagle, was 21.6mm.

Now it appears that when the Mint decided to strike the new four-dollar gold denomination rather than going to the expense and trouble of making special planchets for a pattern meant to be coined in a very small number, they economized and used half eagle planchet stock, first adjusting the eights of the five-dollar blanks by hand, removing about 20 grains of metal to reach the desired weight of the Stella.  In his 1877 Report of the Director of the Mint, H. R. Linderman noted that “Gold coins and trade dollars are the only pieces singly adjusted and weighed by hand,” the subsidiary coinage being adjusted at the Philadelphia Mint by the Seyss automatic weighing machine.  This shows that the practice of hand-adjusting the gold coinage was usual only two years before the 1879 Stella was struck.  The weight range of 103 to 109 grains reported by Dr. Judd and echoed by later writers further supports the thesis that the planchet stock was adjusted by hand, since some discrepancies from the statutory norm of 108 grains are to be expected.  The further observation that no off-metal Stella (copper and aluminum) is known bearing adjustment marks of the sort usually seen on the gold striking reaffirms the proof that the striations were not in the dies originally, but rather, were on the gold planchets before striking.

Some gold Stellas are said not to exhibit striations on their obverse or reverse faced, and these, an extremely small number are said to be the “originals” (e.g., Bowers and Merena/Arnold Romisa Sale, November, 1984, Lot 117).  Yet the Arnold Romisa sale coin weighed 107.4 grains, according to Dr. Judd and others, equivalent to the weight of the restrike.  If restrikes show adjustment marks and are lighter in weight than originals, then the Arnold Romisa coin which was catalogued as without striations had to be an original.  If originals weigh 109 grains and restrikes weigh less, then it had to be a restrike.  This is not to cast aspersions on that specimen, which was  gem o fits type, but rather to use it as a convenient example of the convolutions the restrike vs. original argument forces the collector and researcher into  The far simpler explanation, and one that satisfies all the technical observations explained above, is that those few Stellas that are said not to show adjustment marks were struck with sufficiently close die spacing to obliterate them as the planchet metal deformed under the striking pressure.

In conclusion, it appears plain now that there is no certain way of distinguishing, from the coin itself, one of the handfuls of 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas struck in 1879 from one of the hundreds struck from the same 1879-dated dies in 1880.  Additionally, the presence of what now can be accepted as planchet adjustment marks on the overwhelming majority, indeed, if not on all, the known specimens of standard half eagle planchet stock, adjusted for correct weight by hand, for striking the four-dollar denomination.

I first had the opportunity of examining a complete set of 1879 and d1880 Stellas in 1983.  When I described the S. Hallock DuPont set for action sale I noted in the catalogue that no adequate explanation for the adjustment marks had yet been offered, and the questions they raised in my mind at the time stayed with me.  Earlier this year I first noticed the tantalizing suggestion offered by the identity of the diameters of the four and five-dollar gold denominations and mentioned the observation to a co-worker.  I did not pursue it further, however, as I was pressed t the time with cataloguing the Frederick Taylor Collection of Connecticut coppers.  Recently, however, I mentioned my theory about the Stella to Dave Bowers and he encouraged me to write and see where my argument would take me.  The results are entirely my own responsibility.  So far as I know, the seemingly obvious conclusion that four-dollar Stellas were made from five-dollar gold planchets has never been advanced before. I hope this article will clarify the procedure by which the famous four-dollar Stellas were struck, and will clear up some of the confusion about the “differences” between originals and restrikes.  It seems likely a major mystery surrounding the Stella has been solved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back To Top