The year 1853 represents an interesting time in our nation’s coinage. With 30 different issues, nearly every denomination produced by the Mint is represented. Only two short lived series, the twenty cent piece and three dollar gold issues, are lacking from the 1853 roster. The year includes a couple one-year silver design types with the “Arrows and Rays” quarter and half dollar. The gold issues include all denominations from Philadelphia and representations from each of the three branch mints: Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans.
This carefully curated Year Set contains 27 of the 30 possible 1853 issues, along with two duplicates and a variety. The Fallbrook collection focused on quality for the grade as well as eye appeal. The resulting set has many green tag holders and other very conservatively graded specimens, many in affordable collector grades.
From 1850 through 1875, more gold was discovered than in the previous 350 years combined. The flood of the precious metal into the world market distorted the ratio between gold and silver prices. As gold prices declined, silver skyrocketed and the market prices of U.S. silver coins exceeded their face values. Melting became rampant and change for retail businesses dried up. Merchants and bankers were forced to make change with three-cent silver pieces, heavily worn dimes and half dimes, and Spanish fractional silver.
The Silver Coins of 1853
The Coinage Act of February 21, 1853, was enacted to ease the hoarding and melting of circulating specie. It reduced the weight (and thus the silver content) of all the silver coins except the dollar and three-cent piece by approximately 7 percent. To distinguish the new lower-weight coins, they were given distinctive designs. For the quarter and half dollar arrows were placed at each side of the date, with rays emanating from behind the reverse eagle. The arrows were also added to the dimes and half dimes. The “rays” design format (for the quarters and half dollars) lasted only one year, with a reminder of the reduced weight carried on through 1855 in the form of arrowheads only. Congress’ plan evidently worked and by early 1854, for the first time in U.S. history, there was an adequate supply of fractional coins for commerce.
The Gold Coins of 1853
The smallest coin in U.S. history also owes its existence to the California Gold Rush. The groundwork was laid for the gold dollar in the Carolinas and Georgia, where the nation’s first big gold rush took place in the early 1800s. That rush had a major impact on United States coinage, leading to the establishment of two branch mints in the region—in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in Dahlonega, Georgia—and a notable increase in the number of gold coins being produced by the U.S. government.
The first gold dollars made were privately minted by German immigrant Alt Christoph Bechtler, who operated a jewelry shop in North Carolina. As gold dust and nuggets were the primary medium of exchange in the area, Bechtler offered to refine raw gold into coins. By 1840, Bechtler and his family had turned out more than $2.2 million worth of gold coins, of which about half were gold dollars.
The gold dollar didn’t take its place in the official U.S. coinage lineup, however, until 1849, when yet another gold rush—this one in California—provided the spark. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 gave Congress the impetus to expand existing uses of the metal in U.S. coinage and find some new ones. On March 3rd, 1849, Congress passed legislation authorizing not only gold dollars but also $20 gold pieces. Thus the nation’s smallest and largest regular-issue gold coins were born.
By 1853, the U.S. Mints were producing all gold denominations except the $3 coin which didn’t begin production until 1854. The gold coins were in high demand and produced by Philadelphia as well as three branch mints. The value of silver had risen to be worth $1.06 in gold. And the early 1850’s saw the undervalued silver coins being melted and then sold for payment in gold coins. The gold coins were traded for silver coins, which were then melted and sold for gold. This practice, as mentioned earlier, dried up circulating silver coinages eventually leading to the Coinage Act of 1853.
This offering, a year set from 1853, proves to be an interesting glimpse into one of nineteenth century numismatics' most prolific and varied years.
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