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Home NCC Library THE U.S. COINAGE OF 1839


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by Ken Camilleis

The year 1839 was a tough one economically for Martin Van Buren and his young United States. There was much unrest over slavery, and in fact in this year’s summer began the slave rebellion on the Amistad. The so-called “opium wars” with China were raging, and the U.S. had just emerged from a major depression and was into another one. Coins of all denominations were being hoarded; the specie (gold and silver) for their value as legal tender and the coppers (large cents, primarily) for their use in everyday commercial transactions.

However, 1839 was one of the U.S. Mint’s better years in terms of quality control, as the steam press was now in use for production of coins of all denominations. As a novelty, the steam press was not immune to failure, as portions of the rims on 1839 coins are sometimes mushy, and the star centrils may not be fully defined. On the other hand, device detail, such as shield plates, eagle wings and hair cords, are usually fully struck up on coins of 1838-40, in contrast to coins from prior years and some years following.

The copper cent of 1839 was minted in two major varieties, as in this year the cent of the Coronet type changed from the Young Head to the Petite Head Liberty profile, and the line under the word CENT was eliminated. Known varieties of cents confined to the year 1839 are the Silly Head (Young) and the Booby Head (Petite), and there is also a scarce Mint error referred to as the 1839 “9 over 6”. To ameliorate the supply of circulating small change produced by the Mint, one-cent tokens reflecting the Hard Times era were manufactured by private merchants as well; these are called store cards. No half cents were coined by the Mint in 1839.

Half dimes and dimes from 1839 are of the Seated Liberty “No Drapery” style. This term does not actually mean no drapery but no extra segment of drapery visible at Liberty’s elbow.  The reverse depicts a closed bud wreath, as on all No Stars & No Drapery dimes and half dimes of 1837-40.

The quarter dollar of 1839 is also solely of the Seated Liberty No Drapery design, with an eagle which is usually well-struck except for a soft area around its dexter leg and the legend QUAR. DOL. The quarter was coined only in Philadelphia, whereas other silver coins were minted in New Orleans in 1839.

1839 was one of only two years in the nation’s history that two half dollar designs were employed in the same year. There was a regular production run of Capped Bust halves with the reeded edge that was introduced in 1836 as the first trial of business-strike coinage on the steam press. Later in the year, the Seated Liberty half was introduced, and this was initially of the No Drapery and Small Letters style, and later in 1839 of the Drapery variety with the same reverse.

The silver dollar of 1839 was the last of a very short (1836-39) trial coinage, struck only as proofs, known as the Gobrecht Dollar. It is very rare and expensive. Restrikes of the 1839 dollar, which are documented to have been made in the 1850s or 1860s, are nearly as rare. This limited-production coin, designed by Christian Gobrecht in 1836 with a plain edge, was originally termed a pattern coin, although it was immediately put into general circulation and later thought of as a production coin despite its rarity and proof-only status. The 1839 dollar has a reeded edge.

The quarter eagle of 1839 was the last year of the Classic Head design, and was coined at four mints - Philadelphia, Charlotte, Dahlonega and New Orleans. Quarter eagles of 1839 are difficult to obtain, as other 1839 gold issues, especially branch mints, in choice mint condition.

The half eagle of 1839 was coined at Philadelphia, Charlotte and Dahlonega, but of the Coronet design. In this year, and part of 1840, a wider rim (known as the “broad mill”) was used on $5 coinage.

The eagle was coined in two varieties of the Coronet design, the first being the “Covered Ear” style introduced in the design’s debut year of 1838, and then the modified hair/truncated bust and smaller letters that encompassed the remainder of the 1839 $10 coinage. The latter is quite scarce in any grade.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 August 2013 02:26  
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