Q. David Bowers
Beginning about 1852, many tiny gold 25c, 50c, and $1 "coins" were made by private parties, often jewelers and suppliers to the souvenir and novelty trades. Whether these were widely used in circulation is a matter of speculation, although it is certain that they were used to some extent. Known today as California small denomination gold coins, these pieces were of irregular weights and uncertain alloys. In time, some were made by lightly gold plating planchets made of copper or other non-precious metals.
Only a few mentions of these have been found in San Francisco newspapers of the 1850s, perhaps indicating that their use in circulation was nominal at best. Among these accounts is an item printed in the New Orleans Picayune and picked up by the Alta California, August 25, 1852:1
We were shown this morning a gold half dollar, California money, which is so much like the United States gold dollar piece that the best judges would be completely deceived at a first glance. The half dollar piece is lighter in color, and somewhat smaller in diameter, than the dollar. They are of a private issue, and have stamped on them, HALF-DOLLAR CALIFORNIA GOLD 1852.
During the 1850s, there were many cambists (listings of coins of various countries and their intrinsic values) distributed for the edification of the public and for use by banks and specie dealers. Dye's Gold and Silver Coin Chart Manual, published in New York in 1855,2 furnishes an example of a cambist that illustrated such pieces, in this instance a "California gold half dollar" assigned an exchange value of 48c and a "California dollar," 98c. However, it seems unlikely that such coins would have been received for 48c and 98c respectively in New York City; otherwise, these pieces, of low intrinsic value, would have been shipped there in quantity.
In 1860 the 2nd edition of Dr. Montroville W. Dickeson's American Numismatic Manual illustrated several small denomination California gold coins on Plate XIX and gave brief notices of them on pages 226-227. This was an expansion of the 1st edition, slightly differently titled as American Numismatical Manual, which had no pictures of the pieces. This may have been the first mention of them in a book expressly intended for coin collectors.
Their use as souvenirs was reflected in the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, by James Pollock, for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1863. There can be no doubt that the Philadelphia Mint, with veteran numismatists Jacob R. Eckfeldt and William E. Dubois on the staff, was more aware of coin varieties being minted in California than any other government agency or institution at the time:
It will not be amiss to give some public information in regard to certain small octagonal gold coins, stamped "1/2 dollar, 1859," and "1/4 dollar," without any name, but believed to be coined in California, and sold as pocket pieces, or to gratify the eagerness of coin collectors. Their fineness varies from 425 to 445 thousandths, and the intrinsic value of the "1/2 dollar" is eleven cents, while that of the "1/4 dollar" is six and a half cents. They present a good appearance.
In general, California small denomination pieces made circa 1852-1856 were of insignificant intrinsic value, although short of the face values inscribed on them. No doubt they were a convenience in trade.
It is highly unlikely that California citizens would have accepted later issues (which were mostly grossly lightweight) as pocket change, although Walter Breen dismisses this thought with this comment.3 "This amount of underweight was doubtless ignored in token small change; anyone who might have objected most likely received some answer as 'better honest gold than adulterated dust.' " In fact, such pieces were hardly "honest gold," Dye's Gold and Silver Coin Chart Manual notwithstanding. It is to be remembered that beginning in 1855, the San Francisco Mint turned out a stream of 25c and 50c pieces (in silver).
Regardless of the circumstances of their original use, today these little pieces of gold are highly interesting from a numismatic viewpoint and are enthusiastically collected.4 Some varieties are very rare and valuable.
1 As quoted in Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, 1988, p. 641. As it would have taken nearly three weeks for these coins to have traveled from San Francisco to New Orleans and another three weeks for the newspaper account to have come from New Orleans to San Francisco, this would suggest that such pieces were in circulation by at least early July 1852. No round California gold dollar variety dated 1853 is presently known to numismatists. Several varieties of 1853-dated gold half dollars are known, namely Breen-Gillio 428 to 431, but these all have the denomination expressed as HALF DOL., which is somewhat different from the Picayune notation.
2 Published by John S. Dye, bullion and specie dealer, 172 Broadway, New York City. Dye had a long career in publishing periodicals on counterfeits, bank notes, and coins, with imprints in Cincinnati and New York, possibly beginning in 1847 with Dye's Wall Street Broker. There was either much pirating of Dye's information by others, or licensing arrangements were made, as in 1850, Joseph Arnold, of Philadelphia, issued under his own imprint the same information that had been published in Cincinnati as Dye's Counterfeit Detector and Universal Bank Note Gazetteer; in 1856, Hodges & Co., New York City, introduced Hodges' New Bank Note Delineator; A Complete Spurious and Altered BiU Detector, Giving Correct Printed Descriptions of all The Genuine Notes of Every Denomination, of All Banks Doing Business Throughout the United States and Canada, containing identical wording and some errors found in an 1855 Dye work. The August 1856 issue of The Merchants' Magazine carried a report of a lecture by Dye in which he told of bank note frauds, the making of fake plates for fake banks, the alternation of plates and notes, etc. Years later in 1883, he was the author of Dye's Coin Encyclopedia, which dealt with historical and numismatic information, not bullion values.
3 Encyclopedia, 1988, p. 641.
4 Important references on the series have been produced over a period of years by several authors including Edward M. ("Ed") Lee (California Gold Quarters, Halves, Dollars, 1932), R.H. Bumie (Small California Territorial Gold Coins: Quarter Dollars, Half Dollars, Dollars, 1955), Kenneth W. Lee (California Gold Dollars, Half Dollars, Quarter Dollars, 1970), David and Susan Doering (California Fractional Gold, 1980), and Walter Breen and Ron Gillio (California Pioneer Fractional Gold, 1983), the last being the text considered today to be the standard authority.
Undated Round 25¢ BG-221. Rarity-3. Liberty Head.