The Mint Act of 1792 authorized all of the gold and silver coins that would eventually be struck by the young Philadelphia Mint. After property was acquired, construction of the actual buildings was completed, and all was ready to produced the Nation’s first coinage, copper, silver, and gold. Despite completion of the physical components and acquisition of the necessary equipment, coinage of gold and silver could still not be accomplished as the bonding requirement for key employees was too strict. These employees were unable to meet the original requirement of $10,000 bond to insure against possible loss.
Rittenhouse approached Congress with a request to reduce this amount, which they eventually did. The new requirement was $5,000 bond, a more reasonable figure for the time. It was understood that steps would be put in place for these bonded employees to only have access to a limited amount of gold and silver at any one time, further reducing the risk to the government. Finally, all was set for production of precious metals coinage. Silver dollars and half dollars were coined for the first time late in 1794, followed by other silver denominations. Half eagles and eagles came next, with the first gold coins struck in July 1795, and finally the quarter eagles were produced beginning in September 1796 with the No Stars issue. Even after all was set for production of gold coins, few quarter eagles were produced. The denomination of choice for depositors were the larger half eagles and eagles.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Creation of the early quarter eagle design is generally attributed to Robert Scot, the first Chief Engraver of the Philadelphia Mint.
A bust of Liberty faces right, draped and capped, with the 1796 date below and LIBERTY above. A total of 16 stars are arranged with eight to the left and eight to the right, each oriented point-to-point. Only a few early U.S. coins have stars oriented in this manner as the usual orientation has a single point toward the border.
The reverse has a large, Heraldic eagle patterned after the Great Seal of the United States. A ribbon in the eagle’s beak extends left and right, bearing the inscription E PLURIBUS UNUM. The eagle holds a bundle of arrows (eight are visible) in its dexter claw and an olive branch in its sinister claw. A shield on the eagle’s breast consists of eight vertical stripes and nine horizontal crossbars. Above the eagle’s head is a row of clouds (seven or eight, depending on the viewer’s perspective) and 16 stars in a seemingly random placement. The statutory legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA follows the border clockwise, from 7:30 to 5:30.
The reasons why so few quarter eagles were coined in the first place requires a bit more explanation, but convenience seems to be the key. Walter Breen’s monumental Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins suggests that most were held in local banks, subject to the infrequent requests from depositors for the denomination: “During this whole decade [1796-1807], quarter eagles were coined only in isolated driblets of a few hundred or at most a few thousand pieces. In most of these years, each date represented a new design modification–creating instant rarities and type coins.
The problem is less why the coins are rare, why so few were made to begin with, but why any were struck at all! To judge from available Archives records, they were ordered on whim by a few local banks (principally the Bank of Pennsylvania and the Bank of the United States); to judge from the condition of survivors, they spent most of their time in vaults.
Between 1803 and 1833, the Mint’s major output consisted of cents, half dollars, and half eagles; all other denominations had a kind of poor-relative status–seldom called for, few made, little welcome.” From 1795 through 1804, more than 140,000 eagles totaling $1.4 million were coined. From 1804, when eagle coinage was discontinued, until 1838, when it was reinstated, the half eagle was produced in quantities of about 2.1 million pieces, or $10.5 million in face value. In contrast, the lowly quarter eagle was produced to the extent of only about 64,000 pieces totaling $160,000 from 1796 through 1834, when the Classic Head type premiered.
Kentucky became the 15th state to join the Union in 1792, and accordingly the early U.S. gold and silver coins of 1794 and 1795, generally speaking, featured 15 stars on new dies. When Tennessee was admitted to the Union on June 1, 1796, coinage designs accommodated a 16th star on new dies, but Mint Director Elias Boudinot became aware that the burgeoning Union’s stars would eventually crowd other design features off of the nation’s coins. He accordingly ordered Engraver Robert Scot to limit the number of stars on new dies to the original 13.
The 16 stars are arranged 8 x 8 on this With Stars quarter eagle, which Breen calls “very rare,” noting that the 432 pieces of the issue were delivered on Jan. 14, 1797. The recently published Garrett-Guth Gold Encyclopedia says, “This subtype is somewhat rarer than the 1796 No Stars quarter eagle, yet it generally sells for much less in comparable grades. Most examples are in circulated condition, with a cluster at the About Uncirculated level that may represent some unreported resubmissions. Mint State examples are extremely rare; included among them is a single gem example. Late states of the dies show heavy lapping to remove clash marks.”
Designer: Robert Scot
Diameter: ±20 millimeters
Metal content: Gold – 91.7% Silver and Copper – 8.3%
Weight: ±67.5 grains (±4.37 grams)