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The Exalted Gold $10
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
January 08, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The gold $10 or eagle holds an exalted place in U.S. coinage history. It was the highest denomination coin until the gold $20 or double eagle made its debut in 1849, and it remained the most widely seen gold coin until production ended in 1933.

Respect for the gold $10 echoed in an item in the Atlanta Georgian in 1908: “One hundred brand-new $10 gold pieces. Can you imagine a prettier sight?”

The Indian Journal had the perfect rejoinder: “Yes. Two hundred brand-new $10 gold pieces.”

When the exchange appeared in print, a stunning gold $10 piece had recently been released. But the eagle’s story began more than a century earlier, during George Washington’s presidency. The Act of April 2, 1792 provided for a $10 coin to be called the “eagle.” According to the initial specifications, it was to have 270 grains of gold and a fineness of .9167.

Production of gold $10 pieces began on Sept. 17, 1795. The Mint struck 400 pieces that day. Engraver Robert Scot, in his 70s and with failing eyesight, designed the new coin. Greek portraiture inspired the Liberty Cap or Turban Head obverse. On the reverse, a small eagle perched on a palm branch and grasped a laurel wreath in its beak.

The Oct. 21, 1795, issue of the Columbian Centinel described a new half eagle with the same design:

“Liberty is represented by a female head, in which the finest touches of the graver display the most perfect symmetry of features, animated with the truly beneficent expression of a deity.

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“Our Columbian artist has evinced the justness of his ideas of freedom by the mild yet resolute, the firm but feminine soul, which he has communicated to his figure of that divine goddess, speaking eloquently from her countenance, winning our love and commanding our homage.

“The reverse bears the American eagle, soaring with the olive branch. The gold appears of the finest carat, and the coinage must be popular not only from its intrinsic value, but its extrinsic workmanship.”

Gold shortages limited eagle production. Speculators melted or exported many of the early issues. Yet the Mint was still concerned about the gold $10 piece’s design, and in 1797 it received a new heraldic eagle reverse adapted from the Great Seal of the United States.

President Thomas Jefferson suspended gold eagle production in 1804. Only a few thousand examples were struck that year. Coinage of eagles didn’t resume until 1838.

A new design by Christian Gobrecht elevated the gold $10 piece to near-jewelry status. Liberty’s turban was gone. Instead, she wore a tiara or coronet inscribed with her name. A similar Liberty head appeared on the large cent, but it looked much more regal in gold.

An eagle and shield appeared on the reverse. The tips of the eagle’s wings pointed up, instead of down as on silver coins.

An 1834 law resulted in a smaller gold $10 piece containing less gold. The government wanted to stop the melting and exportation of the coins and keep their instrinsic value in line with their face value.

“Henceforth, the standard of gold is to be so reduced that the Eagle to be coined will only be worth $10,” Railway Locomotives and Cars said in 1835. “There has been, hitherto, in the relative legal value of gold and silver such an inequality as to banish gold completely from circulation. The question now is, whether in attempting to remedy this evil and to make the standard of the two metals correspond, gold has not been made, in relation to silver, too dear, as before it was too cheap.”

The 1835 edition of The Knickerbocker published a statement of the amount of gold, subject to coinage under the new ratio, deposited at the Mint from June 1 through Aug. 1, 1834. It listed “Coins of the United States of the former standard, 48,000.” However, it did not state how many were gold $10 pieces.

In A Practical Treatise on Arithmetic, published in 1839, George Leonard Jr., explained:

“The gold pieces coined before 1834 contained 1/12 of alloy: the eagle consisting of 247 1/4 grains of pure gold and 22 3/4 grains of alloy, or of 270 grains of the standard gold of that time. These eagles are now worth $10.66 1/2,and the half and quarter eagle in proportion.

“The reason for altering the size of the eagle is as follows: When the first eagles were coined, 1/15 of an ounce of pure gold was worth as much as one ounce of pure silver. So they put 1/15 as many grains of pure gold in 110 of an eagle as they put grains of pure silver in a dollar.

“In 1834, 1/16 of an ounce of pure gold had become worth as much as one ounce of pure silver, so they put about 1/16 as many grains of pure gold in 1/10 of an eagle as there are grains of pure silver in a dollar.”

The 1834 law also made current in the United States the gold coins of Great Britain, France, Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Portugal and Brazil. Leonard wrote,”Foreign gold coins usually sell at a premium.”

The California gold rush gave greater prominence to U.S. gold coins. Production spread to branch mints. A.G. Heaton wrote in his 1893 booklet Mint Marks:

“The eagle or $10 piece was coined in New Orleans from 1841 to ’61, from ’79 to ’83, and also in ’88. The date 1883 is a high prize. 1879 is very rare, ’59 and ’41 are rare and ’57 scarce. With these gained, one might be sure of the rest at leisure.

“No eagles were coined at Dahlonega or Charlotte—a great saving of time and money to the collector.

“The coinage at San Francisco is from 1854 to the present, except 1875. There are no very small issues, but pieces of ’64 must be very scarce, and ’60, ’76, ’69, ’59, ’70, ’55 and ’67 follow in moderating importance.

“In Carson City, eagles were coined from 1870 to ’84 continuously. 1879 is rare, 1878, ’77, ’73 and ’76 are more or less scarce and chances favor the finding of the other dates where CC issues are much seen.”

Heaton’s booklet was published too soon to mention Denver Mint eagles. The first examples were struck in 1907.

According to Heaton, the rarest branch-mint gold $10s were the 1841-O, 1859-O, 1879-O, 1883-O, 1864-S and 1879-CC. Concerning these and other gold rarities, he wrote:

“From the very limited use of gold in the greater part of the United States, these pieces are not to be found by simply waiting for them to appear in circulation as in the case of silver coin, nor will they form part of the collections that revert to dealers for sale.

“It becomes therefore of the utmost importance that dealers and collectors should use all influence to examine the gold reserve of the banks in their vicinity, or that paying tellers, and those persons who count the cash in the government vaults, Sub-Treasuries, branch Mints and private financial institutions, should be somewhat informed numismatically, both for their own profit and the enriching of private and public collections by their discoveries.

“But it would cause less delay here also if some experienced collector were authorized to be present when the counting of coins was in progress, both to see the contents of sacks and mark upon them as far as possible the period of the coinage they contained.

“Furnished with a number of pieces of the denominations undergoing count, his trained eye could quickly detect rarities which he could at once secure and replace.”

In 1866, “In God We Trust” as added to the gold $10 piece’s reverse. Information about the motto was sketchy and not widely available to the general public. As a result, there were misconceptions about the rarity of certain gold $10 pieces. The Aug. 25, 1909, issue of the Centralia News Examiner told of one case:

“A press dispatch stated that someone had paid an 1847 $10 gold piece to clear a fine imposed in a police court and in so doing had parted with a coin he could have sold for 50 times its face value.

“The San Francisco reporter claimed that because ‘In God We Trust’ does not appear on the 1847 coin and that only a few of the eagles were struck off that year, they are now so rare as to be almost priceless.”

The Examiner set the record straight, saying the motto didn’t appear on the eagle until 1866, and the 1847 was worth only face value.

Still, any gold $10 piece was impressive. In 1831, the average value of land in the United States was about $10 an acre, according to Charles Augustus Goodrich’s A History of the United States of America, published the same year.

In 1834, gold $10 coins dated 1804 were struck for use as diplomatic gifts on President Andrew Jackson’s behalf during trade missions to Asia. In October 2007, a presentation 1834 gold $10 coin, one of four survivors, sold for $5 million.

Gold $10s were frequently used as prizes. In 1882, The Art Journal held a contest for elementary drawing. First prize was $10 in gold, most likely a freshly minted eagle.

In 1889, American Agriculturist staged a prize crop competition and awarded gold coins to the winners. Categories included $500 for the best acre of corn, $500 for the best acre of wheat and $500 for the best acre of potatoes. Many lesser prizes, payable in gold coin, were also awarded. Gold eagles were undoubtedly among the coins presented to the winners.

Gold $10s were sometimes worn as pendants or attached to money clips. Wealthy individuals might have carried a gold eagle as a pocket piece. The manager of a baseball team took it to an extreme. The Sept. 17, 1904, issue of the Greenfield, Ind. Gazette and Courier reported:

“The manager of the Hinsdale [Ill.] baseball team was so jubilant over his success that he jumped up and down like a schoolboy, and a pocketful of $10 gold pieces which he had carried fell out and were scattered all over the ground near the players.… At the close of the game, each of the players was given one of the gold coins.”

The writer said the manager paid for a special train that brought 150 people from Hinsdale. He also furnished the money that was bet on the game.

Demand for gold $10 pieces surged at Christmas time. In December 1926, bags of eagles and other gold denominations left Federal Reserve banks in truckloads, headed to banks throughout the country. Most recipients quickly spent their Christmas coins. By the end of January, they were back in bank vaults.

In the early 1890s, Mint Director Edward O. Leech wanted new coin designs, but not for the gold series. The April 12, 1891, issue of the Reading Eagle quoted him:

“As the designs of our gold coins are generally satisfactory, and as our gold coins cut no considerable figure in the circulation of the country but remain as a rule in vaults as reserves for the basis of paper issue, I shall not recommend any change in the designs of our gold coins for the present.”

Years later, President Theodore Roosevelt had different ideas. Referring to it as his “pet crime,” he commissioned new gold coin designs of the highest artistic standard, even if they were destined to reside in bank vaults.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens designed new gold $10 and $20 pieces. For the reverse of the $10 coin, he adapted the standing eagle from one of Roosevelt’s inaugural medals. Saint-Gaudens sketched the medal design on a paper napkin while riding a train from Washington. An associate, Adolph Weinman, did the actual work.

The gold eagle’s obverse was initially intended for the gold $20 piece but instead wound up on the $10 coin. Roosevelt suggested the Indian headdress in a letter to Saint-Gaudens, published in Theodore Roosevelt and His Time, by Joseph Bucklin Bishop. In his Autobiography, however, Roosevelt credited Saint-Gaudens with the idea:

“It is idle to insist that the head or figure of Liberty shall only appear in the hackneyed and conventional trappings which conventional and unoriginal minds have gradually grown to ascribe to her.

“A great artist with the boldness of genius could see that the American Liberty should, if possible, have something distinctly American about her; and it was an addition to the sum of the art of all nations that this particular figure of Liberty should not be a mere slavish copy of all other figures of Liberty. So Saint-Gaudens put the American Liberty in an American headdress.”

Production began with the striking of 500 1907 Indian Head gold $10s having high relief and a wire edge. The Philadelphia Mint then struck 31,550 pieces with a rolled edge. Because of striking problems, all but 42 rolled-edge 1907 gold $10s were melted.

Mint engraver Charles Barber modified the design for mass production. In the autumn of 1907, the Philadelphia Mint struck nearly a quarter-million gold $10 pieces.

A news summary in Moderator Topics said the Saint-Gaudens gold $10 appeared in circulation on Nov. 6, 1907. Some cities had to wait a while longer. The Nov. 22, 1907, issue of the Sheridan [Ind.] News said, “The new $10 gold pieces to arrive here differ considerably from the old.” Many people liked the new coin. The International Studio said, “The eagle of the Saint-Gaudens $10 piece is suggested by familiar and beautiful coins of great vigor and force of Ptolemy Philadelphus and Euergentes.” It added:

“Our usual coins put an indifferent picture on a flat disk. The Greek coiner treated the coin as a whole, filled its space with sense and composition, was careless of imitation, conventionalized natural objects, and gained ‘color’ by high relief. This norm Saint-Gaudens followed.”

A Putnam’s Monthly writer had mixed emotions:

“At first sight, I must confess, I was disappointed in the new gold coins. The face on the obverse of the smaller one, though topped by an Indian headdress, is not that of an Indian; and the eagle’s trousers excited my risibilities. But the more I have thought about it, the more reconciled I have become to the new design. The face is not that of an Indian, and there is no reason why it should be, as we are not Indians ourselves.

“Left to himself, Mr. Saint-Gaudens would not have put an Indian headdress atop it; but he was by no means left to himself. As to the trousered bird, there are eagles that wear their leg feathers that way, and Mr. Saint-Gaudens invariably drew that kind, which he thought produced a better effect than the spindle-shanked variety.”

Drawings of the Indian Head and standing eagle designs appeared in the Dec. 26, 1907, issue of the Milford [Iowa] Mail. The writer noted, “The curator in the United States Mint in Philadelphia says that Saint-Gaudens did not use an Irish girl’s face for the Indian.”

The most talked-about aspect of the new gold pieces was the omission of “In God We Trust.” Roosevelt felt its use on coins was disrespectful. Most Americans disagreed.

“’In God We Trust; has been left off the new gold coins,” the Chicago News said, “but at least the name of J.P. Morgan has not been substituted.”

The Nov. 23, 1907, issue of the Colorado Springs Gazette quoted the Philadelphia Record: “‘In God We Trust’ has been removed from the coins of the United States. We are a world power and put our trust in the Big Stick.” The writer was referring to Roosevelt’s foreign policy: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

For those who wanted to give gold eagles as Christmas gifts, the missing motto didn’t make much difference. The Dec. 27, 1907, issue of the Harrisonburg Daily News said:

“Omitting the motto ‘In God We Trust’ had no perceptible effect upon the availability of the new gold coins as Christmas presents. It is estimated at the Treasury Department there were exchanged for other money over $100,000 of the new gold coins intended for Christmas presents. It is not anticipated that any of the coin will be returned because of the omission of the customary inscription.

“The demand for these new coins has been unprecedented this year, and today there was a continuous line of late-comers at the Treasury who desired to exchange bills for the new gold coins to be used as Christmas presents. Stationers recognized the demand by providing a box just large enough for the coins.

“The new coins are being struck at the rate of half a million a day, at which rate they have been minted for 10 days.”

Ministers were divided about the omission of “In God We Trust.” The Nov. 14, 1907, issue of the Logansport Reporter said:

“Rev. A.A. Mainwaring, pastor of the Baptist church, takes exception with President Roosevelt in his views on the phrase ‘In God We Trust,’ which by the latter was not inscribed on the new gold coins. Rev. Barton B. Bigler, pastor of the First Presbyterian church, and Rev. J.B. Haines, pastor of the Market Street church, are quoted as coinciding with the chief executive.

“Roosevelt says that it cheapens the solemn motto by using it on coins, that people have come to use the phrase irreverently.

“Rev. Mainwaring says that it is principle that governs, not whims and fancies. He believes that the phrase should be left on the coins.”

The battle over the motto was one of the few Roosevelt lost. “In God We Trust” was added to the Saint-Gaudens gold pieces during the 1908 production run.

The gold $10 piece fell on hard times even before the Depression hit. None were minted from 1917-1919, 1921-1925, 1927-1929, and 1931.

The series ended with the striking of more than 300,000 gold $10s at the Philadelphia Mint in 1933. Most of them were melted. Today, an Extremely Fine-40 survivor is valued at $140,000.

The eagle’s flight had lasted nearly 140 years as a succession of designs rose up from the Philadelphia, San Francisco, Carson City, New Orleans and Denver mints. A series of executive orders ended the production and distribution of all gold coins in 1933, but collectors will never forget the gold eagle’s beauty and history.

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