Chapter 7: Gobrecht Dollars, Historical Background Table of Contents

1838 Gobrecht Dollars Coined
There was a small, but continuous, public demand for the Gobrecht dollars dated 1836. Even the Treasury Department kept a special supply on hand for the curious. However, in June 1838 the Treasury stockpile became exhausted. Early in July Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury wrote the director asking for 50 more pieces. These were duly furnished within a few days, but Patterson noted that only the issue of December 1836 (of the fineness and weight standard of 1792) was available, the 600 specimens struck in 1837 having been paid out some time back.

Fifty pieces of the new silver dollar were not quite enough and Woodbury asked for another 25. No answer from the Mint can be found to the second letter. It is assumed that this request was the basis for the pattern issue of 1838, of which perhaps 50 originals were made. Whatever the reason, dies dated 1838 were made and patterns struck, probably in late July or early August. Each had a reeded edge.

The 1838 Gobrecht dollar is clearly a pattern and the second such pattern in the series, the issue of 1836 with name below base being the first. For this coinage the director ordered that the 26 stars be removed from the reverse and 13 put on the obverse. Why this was done is not clear, but perhaps the tradition of stars on the obverse was simply too strong to overcome. Original issues of 1838 and 1839 have reeded edges as opposed to the plain edge of 1836.

The Liberty Seated quarter dollar, introduced in September 1838, closely followed the new dollar design of 1838 in that the stars were on the obverse. The reverse, however, kept the Reich eagle design of 1807 minus the motto which had been dropped some years before. It may be that the director thought that the quarter was too small for the flying eagle design to be shown in all its glory or someone in the Treasury felt that tradition demanded the old reverse.

1839 Gobrecht Dollars
In December 1839 the coiner delivered 300 silver dollars, the last with the flying eagle reverse. Like the 1838 dollars, these had reeded edges. The 1839 coinage ended the period of experimentation to see if the dollar would again be acceptable. Apparently, the answer had been yes because in 1840 the Mint struck silver dollars in much larger numbers than it had during the period 1836-1839.

When coin collecting began to be more of a national pastime than it had been in the 1840s, there arose a demand for older American coins, especially of the very earliest period-the 1790s and the Gobrecht dollars of 1836-1839. Dies were no longer on hand for coins of the 1790s, but the coiner had carefully preserved the Gobrecht dies of the 1830s.

In 1857 the director of the Mint was James Ross Snowden. He had one overriding passion when it came to coins and medals: to build up the Mint Cabinet, or collection, to the point that it was on a par with some of those in Europe. He was especially interested in acquiring coins, medals, and tokens relating to George Washington. Indeed, his interest was so intense that in 1861 he wrote a book on Washington items.
Snowden decided to make everyone happy by restriking (without of course saying what he was doing) the Gobrecht dollars of 1836-1839 and either selling or trading them to collectors. In a trade he expected something of value not in the Mint Collection, while the money received in selling these coins was used to purchase rare specimens for the collection. He was able to engage in this work for about three years, but a series of scandals erupted over such practices and it was stopped. It is believed that most of the restrikes were made in 1859 and early 1860.

The scandals arose because certain employees of the Mint were able to use some of the dies and sold for their own profit the restrikes they made. For example, Snowden learned that several 1804 dollars (Class II, plain-edged) had been newly made and took some pains to recover them.

Most of the restrike Gobrecht dollars seen today are in superior condition, but a surprising number have a degree of wear, indicating actual circulation. As virtually no one believes that the restrikes were ever in daily use, either some of the coins were deliberately circulated," probably by putting them in revolving drums filled with small bits of metal, or they were kept as pocket pieces.

The justification for this artificial wear would have been twofold. First, the coins would thus appear to have been taken from Circulation and argue against any rumors about restriking at the Mint The second reason (less likely) would have been an opportunity for Director Snowden to offer different grades of restrikes at varying prices and conditions, One cannot say that Snowden did not have imagination!

Restrike Gobtecht dollars may be identified by rotating the coins, either end-over-end or sideways, and noting that the eagle Will be flying level when the rotation is properly done. It is almost certain that Snowden ordered this special alignment of the dies so that he could tell one of his own restrikes from an original.(Kenneth E. Bressett comments (comments sent to QDB, received March 18, 1992): "Perhaps this is why the (1859) Class II 1804 dollars also have a 10° turn." Walter H. Breen (in a letter to QDB, March 19, 1992) believes that Snowden simply copied the horizontal eagle alignment as used on the 1856-1858 Flying Eagle cent.) In fairness to Snowden it should be noted that he thought the Gobrecht dollars of the 1830s were all patterns and thus had no qualms about the restriking. It is believed that all hubs and dies were destroyed in1867 by order of Mint Director H.R.. Linderman; ending the possibility of restriking. It was the end of a very special time in American numismatics.

Chapter 7: Gobrecht Dollars, Historical Background Table of Contents