The Gobrecht Dollar
The US Mint ceased production of silver dollars in 1804. In 1835, new US Mint Director Robert Patterson took steps to revive this flagship silver coin. The following year, the Mint began producing a small quantity of new silver dollars to test the market.
Patterson was responsible for the design concept of the new silver dollar, though it was executed by other artists. The obverse design, showing a seated Liberty figure, is based on a sketch by Philadelphia artist Thomas Sully. Titian Peale was solicited for the reverse design, which shows a soaring bald eagle. Peale was the youngest son of the Philadelphia artist and naturalist Charles Wilson Peale (who had named many of his children for Renaissance painters). Peale’s eagle design was reportedly based off of the US Mint’s pet bald eagle, Peter, who flew around the Mint’s facility until he was caught in a press in 1836 and taxidermied; he is still on display at the current Philadelphia Mint.
Sully and Peale’s sketches were converted into actual coin designs by Chief Engraver Christian Gobrecht. President Jackson viewed and approved the designs in October 1835. The coins subsequently became known as Gobrecht dollars. Approximately 1,900 were produced over a four-year production run. Gobrecht dollars are very popular with collectors, owing to their unique history and the proliferation of varieties. They are the only series of circulation coins struck as proofs. As the new dollars were somewhat experimental in nature, a number of modifications were made to their design over the course of their production run, and numerous types were produced.
The 1836 Gobrecht dollars were struck in .892 fineness, as specified by the Coinage Act of 1792. Congress passed an updated law in January 1837 increasing the fineness of US silver coinage to .900, so later Gobrecht dollars were struck to this fineness. Though Gobrecht dollars were produced in 1837 in .900 fineness, they were struck with the 1836-dated die. The 1837 dollars can be easily distinguished, as their design is in “medal orientation,” meaning the obverse and reverse designs are aligned on a vertical axis. The 1836 coins are in “coin orientation,” meaning the designs are aligned on the horizontal axis, as is the case with most US coins.
The 1830s were a decade of great change for the US Mint. The Mint’s new facility in Philadelphia opened in 1832. With the beginning of the industrial revolution, the Mint acquired some of its first steam-powered machinery in 1836 - until this point, coins were struck exclusively by hand. New technology directly impacted the design of the Gobrecht dollar, as the Mint acquired a reduction lathe in 1837. This pantograph-like device allowed Gobrecht to work on large-scale models, which the machinery would reduce to the smaller dies. Prior to this, engravers had to work by hand on the actual dies, which was considerably more difficult. Gobrecht used this technology to design the 1837 and later dollars.
The Gobrecht dollars were ultimately a success. Full-scale production of the Seated Liberty half-dollar, with a nearly identical obverse design, began in 1840 and continued until 1873.
The story of the Gobrecht dollars did not end there. As coin collecting became more popular in the 1850s, some Mint employees would strike older, out-of-production designs and sell the restrikes for a profit. The Mint Director of this era, James Ross Snowden, is known to have sold these restrikes himself as a means of acquiring coins for the Mint’s own coin collection. No records were kept, but the number of restrikes probably exceeds the original mintage. Restrikes were made in 1858-60 and 1867-68.