Liberty Head Gold Dollar
The tiny Liberty Head Gold Dollar had tremendous purchasing power - equivalent to a full day's wages or more for many Americans in the mid-1800s.
Our nation’s dollar has taken a number of forms. Of course there was the standard U.S. silver dollar of 1794-1935 (with some major gaps between of course). Then there came the paper $1 note. In 1971 there appeared a silver-dollar-SIZED dollar coin that was actually clad instead of silver. This was followed by the much smaller, silver-colored but still not silver Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. When that failed, the U.S. Mint tried again with a small-sized GOLD-colored dollar coin, the Sacagawea dollar, which actually didn’t contain any gold, much less silver. Then there are the “special” dollar coins, not actually struck for circulation– these would be the U.S. commemorative silver dollar coins struck from 1900 to the present day (with REALLY major gaps in between), as well as the Silver Eagle bullion coins struck from 1986 to present.
But our nation actually once struck a gold dollar coin for circulation– a gold dollar that actually CONTAINED gold! The first of these was the Liberty Head gold dollar of 1849-52.
It’s fitting that the Liberty Head gold dollar first appeared in 1849, the boom year of the California Gold Rush. For the first time in our nation’s history, a U.S. territory was yielding an unprecedented amount of gold! Because of the gold discovery at Sutter’s Creek in California, it seemed that every able-bodied American male between the ages of 16 and 60 dropped everything to head out to California and stake their claim! Many came overland from the eastern United States, but probably most came by ship, with San Francisco Bay being the main port of entry for the would-be 49'ers. In fact, from 1849 through the early 1850's, San Francisco Bay was cluttered with abandoned ships, as even the sailors took off for the Sierra foothills with picks and shovels!
Because of the massive amounts of gold being mined, the gold lobby was a force to be reckoned with in 1849. They used their considerable power and influence to push through legislation for the production of a U.S. gold dollar coin. The bill passed and was signed very quickly, because before the year was out, the Liberty Head (sometimes called the Coronet Head) gold dollar was in production. The new gold coin was designed by James B Longacre, who would become more famously known for designing the popular Indian Head cent of 1859-1909.
The obverse of the Liberty Head gold dollar featured a right-facing Liberty bust surrounded by stars. She wore a pointy headband which read, ”LIBERTY”. On the reverse, “One Dollar” and the date was within a laurel wreath.
For a complete collection of Liberty Head gold dollars, you will need to collect five different mintmarks. This new gold dollar was struck at Philadelphia (no mintmark), New Orleans (O mintmark), Dahlonega, GA (D mintmark), San Francisco (S mintmark) and Charlotte, North Carolinia (C mintmark).
Mintages were pretty high at the Philadelphia mint, but relatively small at the branch mints. After starting out with a mintage of 688, 567 in 1849, the Philadelphia mint struck 481,953 in 1850, just over 3 million in 1851, just over 2 million in 1852, and just over 4 million in 1853. As would follow, the Philadelphia mint Liberty Head gold dollars will be your most affordable. Today, the 1849-54 Philadelphia mint gold dollars retail roughly $110 in Fine, $190-$200 in Extra Fine.
The Liberty Head gold dollars struck at the Dahlonega and Charlotte mints are easily the scarcest pieces in the series, usually with mintages of just a few thousand. The Dahlonega gold dollars retail around $975 in Fine, while the Charlotte Liberty Head gold dollars retail around $800-$900 in Fine. The 1849-54 gold dollars struck at New Orleans are only just a tad more expensive than the Philadelphia mint issues. As far as the San Francisco mint, only in 1854 were Liberty Head gold dollars struck there. An 1854-S Liberty Head gold dollar (mintage 14,632) retails $245 in Fine, $545 in Extra Fine.
What will soon become evident to you when seeking out Liberty Head gold dollars, is the number of damaged pieces for sale. Yes, the Liberty Head gold dollar did circulate, but once out of circulation, many folks in the late 19th century and early 20th century saw fit to use these tiny gold coins as personal ornaments! That’s why so often you see these 1849-54 gold dollars (at least the common date ones) holed, soldered, looped – maybe even all three! Such pieces, of course, can be purchased at a discount, perhaps for as little as $45-$65.
The tiny gold coin contained 1.6720 grams of gold and was 13 mm. in diameter, making it the smallest-sized U.S. coin ever– even smaller than the tiny U.S. 3-Cent silver coin. As you can imagine, the Liberty Head gold dollar’s minute size made it extremely awkward to handle, and tremendously easy to lose! But there was another problem. The Liberty Head gold dollar coin may have been small in diameter, but it was thick enough to slice in half, scrape a bit of gold from the center, then solder back together again! For these two reasons, the U.S. Mint saw fit to retire the Liberty Head gold dollar in favor of a larger, thinner gold dollar coin– this new gold dollar coin would feature an “Indian Princess” bust on the obverse.