By Dr. Steve Carr
What is the highest denomination coin struck by the US Mint? Anyone who has studied American coins for a little while knows that US Mints struck $20 gold coins for circulation. Many were used for overseas commerce. This is one reason why thousands of them, held by European banks, came back to America in the 1980s and 1990s (and are still coming back today). If you said $20, you are correct for circulation strikes.
But the US Mint in Philadelphia also struck some larger denomination gold coins. These include $50 and $100 coins. These coins are either patterns or bullion coins. The first were struck in and dated 1877. These were struck as patterns and were two and a half times the weight of a $20 double eagle, weighing 2 ½ ounces. They were 90% gold and 10% copper, just like the then circulating gold coins.
The idea of a $50 gold coin originated in the early 1850s. With the discovery of gold in California, where paper money did not circulate (another story there), something was needed to cover larger transactions. A branch mint was desired, but eastern interests defeated any legislation for a Mint in California. Instead, as a compromise, a United States Assay Office was established in San Francisco. This assay office was authorized to strike gold ingots with appropriate legends and inscriptions. These inscriptions included the word “Liberty” and “United States of America.” Charles C. Wright, a contract engraver to the U.S. Mint, designed the first U. S. Assay Office $50 gold coins.
The $50 coins were octagonal in shape and thus were not considered coins. Around the edges of the octagon were the words Augustus Humbert United States Assayer of Gold California 1851. The shape was also intended to evade the provisions of the Act of January 18, 1837, which prescribed fixed alloy ratios for coins. Mint Director George N. Eckert stated, “Even these are not money, or a legal tender, and the government is under no obligation to receive them.”
The US Assay Office struck some $50 “slugs” in 1851 and 1852 to meet this need. By 1854, when the San Francisco branch mint was up and running, most of these had been exported or melted.
1851 Augustus Humbert $50 slug. Notice the fineness (.880)
There was a definite need for larger denomination gold coins by merchants and bankers in San Francisco. When conducting business in large amounts of money, the few $20 coins, along with the lesser denominations, required extra effort. These businessmen petitioned Senator William Gwin (one of the first California Senators) and Secretary of the Treasury James Guthrie to authorize the striking of fifty dollar gold coins “of the same shape and fineness as the United States double eagle.” Gwin introduced a bill in the Senate to provide for the minting of large denomination gold coinage as follows:
"That there shall be coined and issued by the United States, or by such of the branch mints as the Secretary of the Treasury shall direct, a gold coin of the weight of 2,580 grains, of the value of one hundred dollars, and another of the weight of 1,290 grains, of the value of fifty dollars, each of which coins shall be of the standard fineness now prescribed by law for the gold coins of the United States."
Notice that this law called for both a $100 and $50 coin. At the time, the $100 coin was called a “union” and the $50 a “half union.” This bill passed the Senate on June 16, 1854 but was defeated in the House.
Despite the defeat of this bill, the private San Francisco firm of Wass, Molitor & Co. struck large numbers of fifty dollar gold pieces in 1855 to serve the purpose the proposed half unions. These “coins” were round in shape and circulated. The San Francisco Mint declared that the 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co. Fifty Dollar Gold Piece met the coinage laws of those times
1855 Wass, Molitor & Co $50 slug
A little more than 20 years later, during of Henry Richard Linderman’s term as Mint Director, the idea of a half union coin was again introduced. Linderman had been a Mint clerk in 1855 and may have remembered the half union from those earlier days. Linderman’s chief coiner was Colonel Archibald Loudon Snowden, who is remembered for the large number of pattern coins made at the Mint during his tenure. At Linderman’s request, Snowden had two proof “half union” gold coins made. An undetermined number of “half union” coins were also made in copper. According to the editor of the 10th edition of the Judd reference, “half unions” were a "pet project" of Linderman's, as there was no pressing need for large gold coins in 1877.
Contemporaneous Mint correspondence indicates that Mint personnel feared such large gold coins would be vulnerable to rim filing and being hollowed out and filled by lead.
Impressions from these dies were sent to Linderman on August 30, 1877, so the “half unions” must have been struck in late August.
These “half union” coins were deigned by George T. Morgan, who also drew sketches for a design of a $100 “full union” coin. These sketches were discovered about 10 years ago, but no “full union” coins were ever struck.
1877 “Half Union”
The two “half unions” coins were struck using two different obverse dies (one with a large head, the other with a small head) and a single reverse die. These gold coins weigh 1289.1 and 1287.3 grains respectively, well within desired specifications. A few others (as many as twelve) were also struck in copper. None were struck for circulation.
The Large Head type is identified as Judd-1546 and the Small Head design is identified as Judd-1548. Some of the copper examples were gilted, but it is unknown if this was done at the Mint or by private individuals. USPatterns.com suggests that fewer than a dozen copper examples exist today, about half gilted. One example is in the Smithsonian Institution and another is in the Connecticut State Library collection. The two gold “half unions” are also currently in the National Numismatic Collection in the Smithsonian Institute. Several of the copper strikes are in private collections. These copper examples were clandestinely marketed by Colonel Snowden to favored collectors.
How the two gold coins got to the Smithsonian Institution is an interesting story. Chief Coiner Snowden supposedly acquired the two gold “half unions,” which were supposed to be melted, by paying Linderman the bullion value of the coins and a charge for pattern pieces. Snowden then sold these “half unions” to William Woodin, a future Secretary of the Treasury, for $10,000 each! That was a world record price for a coin at the time. Coin dealer John W. Haseltine, who worked with some Mint employees in the selling of various patterns and restrikes, acted as an intermediary in this deal.
News of this deal reached the public in June 1909. An out roar of complaints from numismatists reached officials at the Mint and they decided they wanted the “half unions” (at least the two gold ones) back. They had not been legally issued, mint officials said.
Woodin was contacted and meetings were held between Woodin’s attorney and Mint officials. Woodin, who apparently had no idea that owning the coins was a problem, agreed to return them to Snowden in return for the $20,000 he had paid for them. Even that was not the end of the story.
Instead of $20,000, Woodin accepted from Snowden, a large chest of miscellaneous pattern coins, acquired while Snowden was employed at the Philadelphia Mint. This chest contained thousands of experimental coins. The returned “half unions” were placed in the Mint Cabinet, which was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1923.
The 1877 “half unions” were not the last Mint made $50 coins. In 1915, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal, was held in San Francisco. Farran Zerbe, a noted coin collector of the times, was in charge of the commemorative coins being minted in honor the event. These commemoratives were authorized by Congress, which specified that two types of $50 gold coins be minted, one round and one octagonal (8 sided). This was done to imitate the “slugs” used in California in the 1850s. No more than 3,000 total were to be minted. They contained 2 ½ ounces of gold but were not nicknamed “half unions.”
The Two Types of 1915-S $50 Gold Coins
These two coins were designed by Robert I. Aitken, a New York artist. The only difference in the designs, excluding their shape, was the addition of dolphins in the eight points of the octagonal version. These commemorative coins were originally to be struck at the Expo, but the site was too small for the press. The coins were struck, instead, at the San Francisco Mint, using a special medal press shipped to California from the Philadelphia Mint.
Government, state, and city officials, representatives of foreign governments and Exposition officials were present at the initial coining. On June 15, 1915, the first octagonal $50 pieces were struck in a special ceremony. T.W.H. Shanahan, superintendent of the San Francisco Mint, struck the first $50 coin, which was later put into a set of Panama-Pacific coins and given to Charles C. Moore, president of the Exposition. Various officials and guests struck the next 28 pieces with the remainder of the first 100 being made by Mint employees. In all, 1,509 octagonal $50 pieces and 1,510 round versions were minted. These numbers exceeded the number authorized, the extra being saved for the United States Assay Commission’s annual examination of United States coins. The $50 coins were sold for $100 each.
Sales were not up to expectations, and after November 1916, when Exposition sales ended, 855 octagonal and 1,015 round pieces went to the melting pot. That left an issuance of 645 octagonal and 483 round coins. It is estimated that about 80% of the Panama-Pacific $50 coins originally distributed still exist today.
Modern Saint Gaudens $50 Gold Coin
The Pan-Pacific $50 gold coins were still not the last $50 gold coins produced by the United States Mint. Since 1986, the Mint has produced a Saint Gaudens style $50 gold coin. For the first 6 years (1986-1991) Roman numerals were used for the date. Those produced from 1992 on have the date in Arabic numerals. These coins contain only one ounce of gold, alloyed with 10% silver and copper. They are often nicknamed "quintuple eagles."
Modern Indian $50 Gold Coin
Beginning in 2006, the Mint also struck $50 coins using the Buffalo Nickel design. Like the Saint Gaudens issues, these coins contained only one ounce of gold, but in this case, there was no alloy and the gold fineness was .9999. These coins contain only one ounce of gold (instead of the 2 ½ ounces in earlier coins) and were made for the collector/investor market.
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