The Liberty Seated coinage, one of the longest-running motifs on United States coins, remains one of the most popular and widely collected 19th-century types. These coins were produced at a time when it was standard for multiple denominations to share a common design, as was the case with the Flowing Hair, Draped Bust, and Capped Bust designs that preceded the Liberty Seated coins and the Barber coinage that replaced “Seated” coinage beginning in 1892.
The Liberty Seated design as originally crafted by Chief Engraver of the United States Mint Christian Gobrecht appeared on various silver coins between the late 1830s and 1891, including the half dime (1837-1891), dime (1837-1891), quarter (1838-1891), half dollar (1839-1891), and dollar (1840-1873). It should be noted that Gobrecht’s Liberty Seated motif appeared as early as 1836 on a limited run of so-called “Gobrecht Dollars” struck until 1839 and served as the inspiration for the virtually identical Liberty Seated design on the obverse of the Twenty Cent Piece (1875-1878) and similar Trade Dollar (1873-1885), both latter types designed by Chief Engraver William Barber.
While the Liberty Seated design constitutes a single type for each of the denomination on which the design was featured, there are a few important subtypes for most of the related denominations. Some of these involve the addition of decorative rays around the eagle or inclusion of the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” inscribed on an ornate ribbon upon the reverse. Meanwhile, the obverse saw some important changes, too, including the addition of stars on the half dime and dime and, on all long-running denominations from half dime to half dollar, the appearance of arrows around the date.
Follow the Arrows…
What do those arrows mean? And why did they appear twice on some denominations and only for a relatively short period of time? The arrows, which some refer to as privy marks, were used during two periods in the Liberty Seated series: 1853-1855 and 1873-1874. These were two periods when the weight of the half dime, dime, quarter, and half dollar changed. The arrows of the 1850s signaled a reduction in the weight (and overall total silver content) of those denominations and the 1870s reintroduction of the arrows pointed to a slight increase in the weight of the dime, quarter, and half dollar – the half dime was abolished in 1873.
The story behind the arrows goes back to the influx of gold that poured through American refineries and assay offices in the wake of the California Gold Rush that began in 1848. While new gold was flooding into the market, there had been no new similar recent discoveries of silver, and thus gold prices fell relative to the value of silver dollars. The equation? The precious metal value of 10 dimes, four silver quarters, or two silver half dollars was worth the equivalent of about $1.06 in gold, and this led to many melting down silver coins to make silver bars that could then be traded for gold coins, and those traded back for more silver coins at face value that could in turn be melted into ingots for further gold purchase.
The situation spawned severe shortages of silver coins along the Eastern Seaboard, with Three Cent Silvers and small foreign silver coins – still legal tender in the United States in the early 1850s – filling the void. Mint Director George N. Eckert determined the best way to solve the problem was to reduce the amount of silver in half dimes, dimes, quarters, and half dollars, something that required an Act of Congress. The resultant Coinage Act of February 21, 1853 reduced the weight of the half dime from 1.34 to 1.24 grams, the dime was lessened from 2.67 grams to 2.49 grams, the quarter shed descended from 6.68 grams to 6.22 grams, and the half dollar was down from 13.36 grams to 12.44 grams.
All Signs Point to Arrows
Eckert believed some type of distinguishing mark needed to be on the coins that saw a weight reduction to differentiate them from their heavier-weight predecessors. To expedite the process without seeing through design changes for the four denominations affected by the change, he determined that placing an arrow on either side of the date as seen on the obverses would be the most efficient way to achieve that. Dies with arrows flanking the dates of the half dime, dime, quarter, and half dollar were promptly prepared. Most of the 1853 production of those four silver denominations saw arrows by the date, though small numbers of these denominations were made early that year sans arrows; such pieces range from scarce to extremely rare, depending on the issue.
With the new weight standards firmly established by 1855, the arrows were dropped in time for the 1856 production while retaining the specifications set in the Coinage Act of February 21, 1853. Fast forward two decades, and a new scenario presented itself in 1873, when new legislation called for metric weights for the nation’s coinage. The act, which also abolished the Two Cent and Three Cent Silver coins as well as the half dime, called for weights to slightly increase for the dime, quarter, and half dollar. The dime and quarter tacked on three-hundredths of a gram to become 2.5 grams and 6.25 grams, respectively, while the half dollar doubled that gain to six-hundredths of a gram, now weighing 12.5 grams.
As came with the weight reduction in 1853, arrows were temporarily added to the three denominations in 1873-1874 to denote the change. It should be added here that the minor increase in planchet weights was still within the tolerances of the preceding weight standards for the three coins and it’s thus possible that many lighter-weight planchets were upcycled for striking by the arrows-embellished dies of 1873 (or 1874). Though, as both weight standards are within tolerances of the other, a collector would be hard pressed to make a legitimate case that any given “With Arrows” specimen of the mid 1870s was struck using an “underweight” planchet.
Collecting “With Arrows” Coinage
While the With Arrows coins represent critical subtypes for each series in which they appear, there isn’t a necessity to collect them – many collectors on a budget wanting a Liberty Seated type will buy one likely without regard for whether they contain an arrow, rays, stars, motto, or not. But plenty of collectors do believe the individual subtypes are important and pursue them with passion. Therefore, the With Arrows coins of 1853-1855 and 1873-1874 are extremely popular type coins. In a high enough grade, any of these issues is at least conditionally rare.
All of the 1850s With Arrows business-strike half dimes and dimes as well as most of the quarters and half dollars are relatively common in well-worn grades and affordable at that level. However, the situation is a bit different for the body of arrowed 1873-1874 dimes, quarters, and half dollars. By the mid-1870s, the Carson City Mint had gotten involved in striking silver coinage, and all such “CC” pieces are now regarded as rare. Subsequently, all 1873-CC and 1874-CC “With Arrows” coins are rarities that sell for big bucks. The 1874-S Half Dollar is also remarkably scarce. Many PCGS Registry Sets incorporate the With Arrows coinage of 1853-1855 and 1873-1874, giving collectors ample opportunity to showcase all of their Liberty Seated acquisitions to the public.
- Breen, Walter. Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. Doubleday, 1988.
- Lange, David. History of the United States Mint and Its Coinage. Whitman Publishing, 2006.
- Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing, 1966.