The 1870s marked a period of transition for the United States. When the decade began, America was still healing and rebuilding from the Civil War. The era of Reconstruction was still in progress, as it took until the late 1870s to fully reunite the nation and restore the Southern economy. In the West, the country was expanding rapidly—but not without its share of difficulty. Events like the Battle of the Little Bighorn highlighted the tension between Western settlers and Native Americans. The United States was becoming more powerful economically, but it still experienced setbacks like the Financial Panic of 1873. In a nutshell, the 100-year-old country was still encountering growing pains.
From a numismatic standpoint, the 1870s are remembered for a strong production of coins in copper, nickel, and silver—but relatively little in gold. As the country’s population expanded, the need for every day “pocket change” coins increased tremendously. Denominations like copper “pennies” and nickel five-cent pieces were used (and produced) extensively. In addition, thanks to powerful lobbyists representing Nevada miners, Morgan Silver Dollars were also struck in massive quantities.
United States gold coins, meanwhile, saw modest production. The tsunami of yellow metal from the California Gold Rush had subsided and other mining regions, like the Appalachians, had seemingly run dry. Putting aside supply issues, demand for U.S. gold coins was extremely low in the 1870s. In 1875, for instance, the Philadelphia Mint struck a minuscule number of gold coins. How small were the mintages? Just 400 Gold Dollars and Quarter Eagles were made for circulation, 200 Half Eagles were issued for everyday commerce, and just 100 Eagles were released to the public.
With the country still reeling from the Panic of 1873, the Philadelphia Mint all but halted gold coin production altogether in 1875. While that year’s mintage figures are an extreme example, they provide some indication of how few gold coins were needed during this era. The turbulent economic conditions of the 1870s resulted in a restrained production of gold coinage.
Conditions changed immensely in the 1880s and 1890s. The United States entered a phase of rapid economic growth and industrialization—often referred to as the Gilded Age. America’s railroad network more than doubled in size, the country surpassed Great Britain in manufacturing output, and American inventions like the light bulb achieved worldwide success. With this explosive economic growth came a gigantic increase in the production of gold coinage.