Capped Bust, Large Diameter (1815-28)
The American political experiment spawned many liberation movements throughout Europe, as people naturally embraced the idea of the right to self-determination. It began with France—first with the Revolution in 1789 and again, after the fall of Napoleon, spreading to Naples, Greece, Belgium and Poland. As the old Spanish Empire crumbled, the Latin American Republics were also created in this spirit.
The chaos in Europe attracted many immigrants to the dynamic, energetic and relatively peaceful United States. One of these was John Reich, a German engraver caught up in the Napoleonic Wars. He paid his way to America through indentured servitude and pursued his calling as an engraver by applying for a job at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. He was hired in 1807 and was immediately given the task of creating new coinage designs.
Reich brought Europe to America. His obverse design shows Liberty facing left, surrounded by thirteen stars, with the date below the bust. Liberty is quite buxom and, though characterized in the press as looking like “the artist’s fat mistress,” she is probably representative in appearance of the typical woman that Reich would have seen in Europe. Contrary to the opinions of some students of United States coinage, she is not wearing a Phrygian liberty cap but simply a mob cap, with a band inscribed LIBERTY. Many took issue with the idea that Liberty would be adorned with a cap given to freed slaves, but even President Thomas Jefferson saw this headdress, with its high cap bearing frills and ribbons, as familiar wearing apparel of women during this time. The bucolic Miss Liberty was quite different than the stern, no-nonsense look of Robert Scot’s preceding Draped Bust design. The reverse shows an eagle with outstretched wings perched on a branch and holding three arrows, the Union Shield on its breast and the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM (“One made up of many”) on a scroll above the eagle. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and value 25 C appear around the border. The eagle is more domesticated and peaceful looking than the aggressive Heraldic Eagle of the 1804-1807 design and more robust than the puny eagle on the 1796 quarter.
The Reich design would follow the policy established by the first director of the Mint, David Rittenhouse, that one design would be used on all coins of the same metal. It was first rendered on the half dollar of 1807, the dime of 1809 and finally the quarter dollar in 1815.
There were no quarters minted from 1808 to 1814, primarily because there was little demand for them. Early quarters were victims of Gresham’s Law. This economic axiom dictates that if two competing currencies exist side by side, the least valuable will be spent and the other will be kept. In other words, “bad” money drives out “good.” The competing Spanish two-reales coins were legal tender at par with the heavier quarter, so the quarter coin was either hoarded or melted for its silver content. The Spanish coins satisfied the needs of commerce, so there was not much need or motivation to make large mintages of United States coins.
Quarters were only minted in 1815 because the banks had ordered them. In fact, the majority of the mintage of 1815 went to the Planters’ Bank of New Orleans. Just over 89,000 pieces were made, including approximately 20,000 pieces delivered on January 10th of 1816. A fire at the mint the next day destroyed much of the equipment, shutting down production of quarters until 1818, but nobody missed the coin.
Though the design was criticized, it represented a technological improvement over the Scot Heraldic design. There were far fewer design elements that had to be worked in by hand, reducing the time necessary to make a working die and increasing its useful life. The dies and therefore the coins were more consistent, making it easier to detect counterfeits.
Relatively low mintages were the rule for this series, with production for the eleven years totaling only 1,290,584 pieces. While VG to VF pieces are easily obtainable, uncirculated pieces are scarce or rare. Assembling a complete date set is precluded by the two major rarities, 1823/2 and the proof-only 1827, but strong demand comes from type collectors.
Proofs, really presentation pieces, exist for some dates but are very rare. The 1827 proof issues have a special significance in that they are associated with the name Joseph J. Mickley, who is considered to be the “Father of American Coin Collecting.” On a visit to the Mint in 1827, Mickley obtained four proof quarters, which turned out to be at least a third of the entire mintage for the date. Although Mint records show 4,000 quarters were produced in 1827, undoubtedly they were struck with another date, as no 1827-dated business strikes are known. After coin collecting became popular in the United States in the 1850s, about a dozen surreptitious restrikes were made of the coveted rarity. The restrikes were made from the original 1827 obverse die, but the reverse used an 1819 die with a flat base 2 in 25 C. instead of the curled base 2 of the original 1827.
There is also a mystery surrounding the Capped Bust quarter. There are pieces, mostly dated 1815 and 1825, that have a large “E” or “L” counterstamp above Liberty’s head. They were first noticed by collectors in the 1870s and were thought to have official origins, possibly as some experiment, but official records show no such counterstamped pieces. The puzzle remains unsolved, though Walter Breen conjectured in 1982 that they could have been made for use as school medals, using the “E” for English and “L” for Latin.
Uncirculated pieces must be free of any trace of wear at the hair above the forehead and over the ear. In addition, check the drapery on Liberty’s bust and shoulder. On the reverse, the eagle’s head and the tail feathers below the shield are the high spots. Some examples come weak or unevenly struck, and this should not be mistaken for wear.
The ending of the large size Capped Bust quarter series in 1828 nearly coincides with the end of the first Philadelphia Mint. The cornerstone of the new mint building was laid on July 4, 1829 at Juniper and Chestnut Streets. The anticipation of the new mint was an opportunity to refresh the designs of the coinage. In 1831, a smaller size Capped Bust quarter was introduced, which kept the basic Reich design but eliminated the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. The diameter was reduced to 24.3 millimeters, the size the quarter would remain up through the present day.
Capped Bust, Small Diameter (1831-38)
After a generation of warfare ended in Europe in 1815, it can be said that the Western world truly entered the 19th century, a century that stands in retrospect as the most remarkable period of material progress in the history of the human race. From the beginning of history until about 1800, the work of the world was largely done by hand tools. Since then, it has been done by machines of increasing sophistication.
In the 1820s and ‘30s, several important scientific advances were made that were the foundations of later, important technological achievements. Beginning in 1831, Charles Darwin boarded H.M.S. Beagle and began gathering the information he would later use in his theory of evolution. Charles Babbage attempted to build a calculating machine in 1833 that was too advanced for the technology of the time, but his theories formed a basis for later work in this field. In 1830, Joseph Whitworth developed the standard screw gauge and a machine that could measure to one millionth of an inch, which made possible the production of more precise machine tools for planing, gear cutting and milling.
In the first three decades of production at the Philadelphia Mint, there was very little change in the methods used to strike coins. While steam presses had been discussed by Mint officials since the 1790s, coins continued to be produced by the old screw presses that were powered by either human or animal muscle. Then, in 1829, several mechanical improvements were made in the striking of half dimes, but it would not be until 1831 that these same procedures could be incorporated into the production of quarter dollars. At that time, a device known as a “close collar,” or more precisely a “collar die” was used, which confined the planchets at the time of striking and at the same instant reeded the edge of the coin. This “close collar” imparted what Mint Director Samuel Moore called “a mathematical equality” to the quarters so produced. A higher, beaded border was also incorporated around the rims which served to protect the interior surfaces of the coin.
Director Moore used these mechanical improvements to also make several changes in the previous Capped Bust design. The first change Moore ordered Mint Engraver William Kneass to make was to eliminate the scroll above the eagle with the traditional motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. It was Moore’s belief that the motto, which translates from Latin as “One made up from many,” was redundant; the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA was already on the coin, and this signified the same concept. The elimination of the motto was somewhat controversial in government circles, and Treasury officials sought to restore it, but Moore traveled to Washington to press his case for its elimination. Moore prevailed and the motto was not restored to quarters until 1892, with Charles Barber’s redesign of that year.
Kneass reworked the entire coin. He retained the “sandwich board” eagle of John Reich’s previous design, with its union shield displayed on the bird’s breast. The obverse kept the same figure of Liberty facing left and wearing a mob cap, but Kneass tightened the design, giving the coin a more cameo-like appearance. He also deepened the devices, resulting in better striking qualities.
Small size Capped Bust quarters were struck in only eight years, with a total of 4,202,400 pieces produced. All were struck in the Philadelphia Mint between 1831 and 1838. There are no major rarities in the series, but the 1832 and 1836 issues are considerably scarcer than other dates in mint condition, while 1831 and 1834 are the dates most often seen. The 1831 issue comes in Small and Large Letters varieties, but each is of approximately equal rarity.
Because these quarters were made for such a short time, the series is one of the few of the 19th century that can be completed by the average collector. However, relatively few complete date sets have been assembled over the years, perhaps because Bust quarters in general are largely overlooked and underappreciated by collectors.
The series can also be collected by die variety. While there have been several references published over the past fifty years that list the die varieties on quarters from 1831 through 1838, collecting the series in this manner has not caught on as it has with other denominations such as half dollars, dimes and cents. In general, small size Capped Bust quarters are sought out as type coins. In problem-free AU and mint condition, they are surprisingly scarce, with most survivors grading XF or less.
Proofs are known from each of the eight years in this series, but they are great rarities. These coins were struck decades before proof coinage was made available to the general collecting public, and proofs were minted either on demand for favored collectors or for presentation purposes. Only two or three proofs are known in certain years, and all are significant numismatic items.
Small size Capped Bust quarters wore evenly as a result of Kneass’ redesign, and the raised rim assured minimal loss from circulation. On the obverse, friction first begins to show on the highest points of the hair above the eye, at the top of the cap and on the stars. On the reverse, the eagle’s talons and the arrowheads will show wear first.
The Kneass-designed quarter dollars of 1831-38 can be viewed as a great success from the viewpoint of the mechanical advances they incorporated, and they are certainly one of the best examples of the U.S. Mint’s entrance into the “modern” era. While the design was a reworking of John Reich’s previous edition, its revised elements gave the coin a slickness that is certainly an artistic improvement over the original concept from 1815. The technical merits of the coin are especially noteworthy, with the innovative close collar giving the quarters a precise, uniform appearance that would (with the advent of the steam press) be later imparted to all U.S. coins struck after 1836. Although almost “state of the art,” the series would end abruptly in mid-1838 to begin preparation of dies for Christian Gobrecht’s new Seated Liberty design, which would go on to be issued for the next half century.
Coin Descriptions Provided by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC)