United States Pattern Coinage: A Short Chronology

Produced sporadically since the Mint’s earliest days, patterns drew little attention from anyone outside the Philadelphia facility until 1836, when the Gobrecht dollars first appeared.Judd-184-1856-Flying-Eagle-Pattern-Cent The closing years of the decade, which witnessed the beginning of the Mint’s own cabinet of coins, saw more Gobrechts produced, along with several half dollar designs. Pattern production then slowed to a trickle until 1849, when designs for a three-cent piece, a gold dollar and twenty dollar coin were proposed.

After James Ross Snowden became Mint Director in 1853, the Mint’s output of patterns increased dramatically. Snowden’s tenure encompassed the creation of many one cent designs, culminating in a large number of Flying Eagle and Indian Head cents issued from 1856-58. With the passing of the old large cents, coin collecting in the United States became quite popular, and in 1858, proofs were offered to collectors for the first time. Snowden was not at all adverse to taking advantage of this new demand and was particularly pleased that collectors would willingly trade coins needed for the Mint collection in exchange for rarities they lacked in their own.

In a letter dated January 11, 1859, Snowden discussed this with Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb. The agile director first complained about the demands collectors were making for rare pieces and then suggested a profitable solution. “I propose with your approbation to check this traffic and at the same time gratify a taste which has lately greatly increased in this country…, by striking some of each kind and affixing a price to them so that the profits may inure to the benefit of the Mint Cabinet of Coins and ores…” Cobb’s answer does not survive but “striking some of each kind” became an ongoing Mint sideline that created many rarities as eagerly sought by today’s collectors as they were by those of yesterday. Succeeding Mint Directors such as Snowden, James Pollock and Dr. Henry Linderman readily supplied such issues as 1804 dollars, proof half cents, Gobrecht dollars and a wide variety of patterns to well-heeled and well connected collectors.

Judd-1700-1882-Pattern-Half-DollarBy 1861, as the dark cloud of Civil War descended upon the nation, experiments with religious mottos accounted for many new proposals. After the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was adopted in 1864-66, designs for a new nickel five-cent piece took center stage. It was around this time that aluminum was first used in the Mint, and complete sets of the regular issues in that metal were made, reportedly for Mint Director Linderman. It was on Linderman’s watch that restrikes of both regular issues and patterns really came into full swing. Unlike his predecessors, who sought only to embellish the Mint’s own collection, Linderman was not at all reluctant to have coins struck on his own behalf.

In 1869, with silver coins absent from circulation since the Civil War, a new lighter weight “Standard Silver” design was proposed to replace the generally despised fractional currency that served as small change. But it was international commerce that captured Congress’ attention by 1871, as a proposed “commercial” dollar for overseas commerce prompted a series of Trade dollar patterns and James Longacre’s “Indian Princess” graced a whole run of silver coins.

The decade continued with aJudd-1795-1916-Pattern-Quarter-Dollar diverse group of designs, from William Barber’s “Amazonian” motifs for silver and gold to twenty-cent pieces and metric gold. 1876 was the year of the silver dollar, and 1877 the year of the half—both dollars and Unions that is, the Half Union being the ill-fated $50 denomination. Morgan dollar patterns debuted in 1878, along with a slew of proposals for metric and goloid coins. The “Washlady” and “Schoolgirl” silver designs appeared in 1879, followed by nickels in 1881 and the popular “Shield Earring” coins in 1882.

After 1885, the Mint’s output of patterns fell dramatically. Charles Barber’s designs in 1891, and a few cents and nickels in 1896 were the last to see daylight until 1906. In that year Barber made a pattern double eagle, which was embarassingly dull compared to the following year’s Ultra High Relief double eagle by Augustus Saint Gaudens. Nickels made an appearance again in 1913, Panama Pacific patterns in 1915, and new designs for the dime, quarter and half dollar in 1916 round out the list. Patterns dated after 1916 rarely appear. Of the 2,000 or so different varieties made since 1792, a surprisingly large number survive today.

Copyright © 2014 Robert S. Koppelman & the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation.  All rights reserved.