Our Silver Coinage From 1836-1891

Seated Liberty
"With arrows" 1873 quarter dollar. (Photo: Leon Worden)

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
The Signal
Saturday, January 7, 2006

he silver coinage from the mid-1830s to 1891 was known as "Seated Liberty" coinage. The main obverse figure was a seated figure of Miss Liberty with a shield in her right hand and a pole with Liberty cap in her left. The similarity to the English Britannia series is very strong.
    Christian Gobrecht (1785-1844), chief engraver of the U.S. Mint, designed the first of the series, the silver dollar, in 1836. Although considered patterns, some were restruck in the 1850s (and later) with 1836-1839 dates.
    All U.S. silver coins of the era, except for the silver three-cent piece, featured similar obverse renderings of a seated Liberty figure complete with shield and Liberty cap. The reverse of the dime and half dime featured a wreath with the denomination in the center. The 20-cent piece, the shortest-lived in the series, featured an eagle on the reverse. The total mintage was limited to regular issues in 1875 and 1876, and "proof-only" issues in 1877 and 1878, when the denomination was discontinued.
    The quarters, halves and silver dollars all featured the same eagle reverse. Seated Liberty silver dollars were issued only from 1840 to 1873. The better-known Morgan dollar series began in 1878.
    A special trade dollar series began in 1873 and officially ended in 1878, with only proof specimens struck in very small numbers from 1879 to 1885. The trade dollar was slightly heavier than the standard U.S. silver dollar, to match the large silver coins circulating in the Far East. The trade dollar was made expressly for foreign trade, not for domestic commerce.
    Throughout the history of the series, many rarities exist. Although these coins — usually the halves — circulated well into the early 20th Century, many of the others went into hiding, as witnessed by the various hoards uncovered in the past 50 to 100 years.
    A "type set" of circulated Seated Liberty coinage is not difficult to assemble, and it is pretty reasonable, as older coins go. The prices for coins grading fine (a lower- to medium-circulated grade) are: half dime, $10 to $15; dime, $12 to $15; 20-cent piece, $80 to $100; quarter, $22 to $25; half dollar, $30 to $35; silver dollar, $185 to $200; and trade dollar, $95 to $100. Coins in lower grades can be found for lower prices at dealers' exhibit tables. The prices listed above are from the current issue of the Red Book. Prices for mint-condition coins are multiples of these prices, and often reach well into the high four figures.
    This series covers the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, Reconstruction and westward expansion. The mintage figures often reflect the economic conditions of any given year.
    For a collector, the numismatic reference books on the subject shed much light on our history not found in usual school textbooks.

    Dr. Sol Taylor of Sherman Oaks is president of the Society of Lincoln Cent Collectors and author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Click here for ordering information.