This month’s coin highlight focuses on an interesting piece that was circulated for 40 years, following the great California Gold Rush. This particular piece never found the popularity of the $20 Double Eagle, or even the $3 gold piece, but it has found its way into the list of beloved coins that anyone can appreciate and add to their collection.
The California Gold Rush was one that greatly impacted both American history and American numismatics. Following the Gold Rush was the inclusion of three new denominations into American coinage: the gold dollar, the $3 dollar gold piece and the $20 Double Eagle.
Prior to this time, the Silver Dollar had been minted and circulated for awhile, but with this new influx of gold from California, the U.S. Mint began the process of producing these new denominations of gold coins. The first gold dollars struck for circulation were made in 1849. The federal government anticipated strong public demand for the new gold dollars, but the public’s reaction was largely mixed. A common complaint was that the coin was too small and difficult to handle. Numismatists conclude that large quantities were struck because gold was abundant—not because there was a large demand for the coins.
Mint Director Robert Patterson was still on the scene at this point, and still opposed such coinage as the dollar gold coin, but this time his resistance was swept aside. On March 3, 1849, Congress passed legislation authorizing not only gold dollars but also Double Eagles—$20 gold pieces. This lead to the simultaneous release of America’s smallest and largest regular-issue gold coins.
Throughout U.S. history, people have complained that silver dollars were too large and heavy to carry around. However, gold dollars posed a dramatically different problem: at less than three-quarters the size of today’s dime, they were so small they could easily be mishandled, lost, dropped, etc. Even so, these tiny coins had unbelievable purchasing power, equivalent to a full day’s wages or more for many Americans in the mid-1800s. They also enjoy enormous respect from collectors today, for while they may be diminutive in size, their rarity and value can be huge!
In 1854, the U.S. Mint attempted to solve the size issue by changing the gold dollar’s design and dimensions. They enlarged the coin slightly but made it thinner. Ultimately, they simply traded one issue for another; the new thin version was extremely difficult to strike properly. Most coins came off the dies with incomplete design detail. Furthermore many specimens became bent or easily damaged in circulation.
The gold dollar was further modified in 1856; this time the design was changed to improve metal flow and allow for a more complete strike. The Mint may have fixed the design and production issue, but they weren’t able to improve the public’s opinion of the coin. It remained a white elephant of sorts in circulation; most Americans preferred to use silver dollars or one dollar paper notes. Mintages were tiny towards the end of the coin’s run; in many years fewer than 10,000 pieces were made. By 1889, the coin was no longer minted.
Today, gold dollars are popular collectibles due to their low price point, relative to other collectibles, and availability in higher grades. Respectable AU (About Uncirculated) pieces can be had for under $400 each and Uncirculated specimens are easy to locate too. Due to their small size, quite a few ultra-high grade examples managed to survive. Unlike most other 19th century gold coins, gold dollars can be sourced in lofty grades like MS 67 and MS 68 without searching for years or spending five figures.