VII. PUBLICLY SOLD PROOF COINS AND SETS, 1858-89
In this year Mint Director J. R. Snowden began wholesale advertising of proof sets to the general public. This went side by side with the first boom in coin collecting, soon to rival the tulip craze of 1635-37 in the Netherlands, the stimuli being several popular best sellers devoted to the subject. Mint policy appears to have been to make silver dollars in somewhat greater quantity (1858-60 only) than the other denominations; in earlier years the extras were mostly cents and half cents, and beginning in 1861 it would appear that the silver coins were made in equal numbers, i.e. only in sets, minor coins probably in the same sets only, minor sets from 1865 on in perhaps slightly larger numbers.
Flying Eagle cent. Large letters, similar to 1857. (1) Recutting on left foot of A(M). Rev.: High leaves at C T.(2) Minute doublings. Faint raised mark at border below first 8; left base of 1 above center; date slants up to r.Rev.: Similar; spur from dentil above top left wreath almost at 12: 00, closed (N) E, die file marks in left bow(same dies?). Compare Pelletreau: 83, Jay: 390. Note also that the large letter coins found with the pattern reverses of the year are exceedingly rare and no complete sets including them are known today. There are many very deceptive early strikes masquerading as proofs. Most of these show some granularity or hidden mint frost around letters; borders are usually partly blurred into rims, rims are rounded. Some nefarious individuals have been known to take well struck uncirculated pieces and plate them with nickel, silver or chromium to simulate proofs. This practice is undesirable in the highest degree and is now contrary to Federal statutes, prosecutions being possible on grounds of mutilation of currency as well asfor fraud. All such plating, of course, not only produces unnatural color, but also tends to obscure fine detail, whereas a true proof would show much sharper detail than on normal uncirculated coins. Look at leaves and feathers as well as within letters.
The argument leading to the conclusion about the probable number minted is fairly complex. Specimens were struck for the proof sets of the year. If Chapman was right in his guess (from DuBois or some other mint official?) that about 80 silver dollars were minted, and that more dollars were made than smaller silver (as will be seen), then we might expect to find in all say 50 to 60 cents from the sets. But there were also small letter proof cents of regular adopted type sold as part of the sets of twelve pattern copper-nickel cents of the year. There were evidently a few dozen such sets, probably forty or fifty in all, most of them being since broken up. It follows that the total number of 1858 proof cents of regular type (die varieties aside) must at least be equal to the sum of these two sources together with, perhaps, odd specimens sold separately. The guess of about 100 proof cents is therefore not going to be very far from the truth; should some record of them survive in the Archives, the actual number will turn out to be something like 112 pieces (or possibly on the low side of 100 instead) rather than 50 or 235 or any higher number.
Why so few survive today is as yet unsolved. Nickel cents were melted up in quantity after the Civil War, the bullion being converted into 3Â¢ and 5Â¢ pieces; but the coins melted up were primarily worn ones from circulation. As quite a few of the surviving proof cents show signs of improper cleaning, quite possibly they had developed unsightly sulfide tarnish while remaining in the paper wrappers in which the mint supplied proof sets. Others may well have been spent in later years - possibly even during the Civil War in which almost any form of hard money was prized far in excess of paper money. Relatively brief circulation of proof coins would make them unrecognizable as proofs. Remember that the same thing happened again and again with earlier proofs such as the half cents in the 1840's, and one of these worn down to VF is no longer obviously identifiable as having originally been made as a proof - aside from its being of a proof-only date. A Fine or VF 1831 original might well have originated as a proof rather than as a business strike. So too with the proof copper-nickel cents. In any event, whatever the reason, the surviving percentage ("Characteristic Ratio") for proof flying eagle cents is very low, whereas for all later minor and silver proofs it is comparatively high, in some cases in excess of 90%. Proofs were made to be saved, not to be spent; but in times of hardship proofs were spent and the locus classicus is gold proofs (see below during the 1880-1893 period especially in the eagles and double eagles). And some such cause may also explain the comparable situation in copper-nickel cents. Notice that though the survival ratio of 1856 Flying Eagle cents is reasonably high, probably in excess of 75% as this date has always been recognized as a collector's item, still the vast majority of specimens have seen circulation. We may need no further hypothesis, then, to explain the disappearance of proof 1857-64 cents. The VF or Fine coin in the dealer's tray may have originated as a proof rather than as an uncirculated piece - though nobody would ever be able to tell now short of evidence of die identity. Should a Fine or VF 1857 show up with the closed E and center dot, for instance, that would be clear evidence of proof origin, but unfortunately the proof dies of most other nickel cents are not so clearly marked.
The 1858 cents include various transitional coins, some made in considerable quantity over and above those struck for the mint's 12-piece sets; we suspect the sets were made. up later. A full discussion of them is rather beyond the scope of this study, but at least I can record the varieties. All occur in proof, some also in unc., some got into circulation; die varieties exist of most.
*Flying eagle, small letters (A M apart). Rev. ONE CENT in laurel wreath - Regular obv., rev. adopted 1859. "First Transitional." Judd 191, not in AW; 40-50 (1) known in all. One or another variety included in the 12-piece sets. The following varieties exist:
-Normal U (perfect serifs). Rev. Prototype die, leaves in clusters of 5, before repolishing; leaves normal. Ribbon ends differ from the other type (6-leaf clusters, adopted in 1859). 1971 ANA:277, where called "J-191A"; others. (The 1971 ANA consignment was from Willard C. Blaisdell.)
- U lacks inner r. serif. Rev. As last. Wayte Raymond set; Austin:ll02; others.
- U lacks inner r. serif. Rev. "Regular" type, leaves in clusters of 6, as in 1859. J. M. Wade, W. C. Blaisdell, 1971 ANA:278 as "J-191B"; LM 9/70:615; others. This obv. comes also on other varieties in the 12-piece sets.