Half Eagles – $5.00 Gold Capped Bust Small Eagle 1795-1798
This design type was coined between 1795 and 1798, with an estimated mintage of 17,555 pieces for all issues. The 2008 Guide Book lists 8,707 half eagles minted in 1795. According to information contained in Bullion Journal A of mint records, 1795 half eagle mintage occurred between July 31 and September 16 of that year:
Mint records indicate that one extra five dollar piece was struck for assay with the July 31 delivery, one with the August 11, two with the August 14, and three each with every delivery after that, for a total of 22 assay coins. The early Mint little cared what date a coin bore, and the reported quantities of coins made often failed to match the years stamped thereon. But the 1795 issues were created from 12 different die pairings.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Although the 1795 is not particularly scarce by half eagle standards, it is nevertheless a relatively high priced coin due to its popularity among type collectors. In this regard. Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth, writing about the 1795 issue in their Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins: 1795-1933, indicate that the number of survivors today is about 520 examples. They go on to say that Mint State specimens are fairly rare, and are most likely to fall into the MS60 to MS62 grade range. With respect to Gems, Garrett and Guth contend that they are “extremely rare.”
The Capped Bust to Right, Small Eagle design type was created by Chief engraver Robert Scott. Walter Breen, writing in his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, says that while Scott’s source for the obverse design is unknown, “Probably he copied some unlocated contemporaneous engraving of a Roman copy of a Hellenistic goddess, altering the hair, adding drapery and an oversize soft cap.”
According to Breen, the origin of the reverse small eagle is more certain: “It is Scott’s adaptation of a sketch or engraving of a first-century A.D. Roman onyx cameo, no. 4 in the Eichler-Kris catalog of these cameos in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, a lesser relative of the Gemma Augustea and possibly by the same master. The eagle’s attributes (wreath in beak, palm branch in claws) are the same, though Scott turned him from a profile view to front view.” We are also fortunate that our forefathers made the national bird the eagle rather than the turkey that Benjamin Franklin favored, else we might be writing about half turkeys and double turkeys!
The fledgling Mint first produced copper coins in 1793, silver coins in 1794, and its first gold coins–eagles and half eagles–in 1795. The red-headed stepchild of gold coinage–quarter eagles–would have to wait until late 1796.
It is likely that mint personnel produced the larger eagles and half eagles as a matter of national prestige (and due to greater need), but it was slow going at first. The Mint first made the 1795 Small Eagle half eagles before switching to the 1795 Large Eagle (or Heraldic Eagle) reverse later in the year. But it reverted to the Small Eagle reverse for a few pieces made in 1798, an indication of just how in demand serviceable dies were. For the ten dollar or eagle denomination, the Small Eagle reverse lingered through 1797.
None of the early half eagles or eagles bore their respective denominations. John Dannreuther points out in Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties that the term “denomination” is actually a misnomer:
“Even though a gold eagle was denominated as a ten-dollar coin, our forefathers traded gold by the tale. The weight and purity were the only things important to merchants and individuals–money was gold, and gold was money. In most cases, transactions had to be settled in gold, especially where governments were involved. There really was no need for at first for a stated denomination on either gold (or silver) coins, because it was known that our coins would be under extreme scrutiny and would likely be assayed by foreign mints and others as to their weight and purity. However, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, the architects of the United States’ monetary system, realized that a bimetallic system would afford this new country a more flexible currency, as both would be readily acceptable. Thus, the gold eagle was equal to 10 silver dollars, although eagles bore no denomination until their resumption of production in 1838.”
It is worth noting that among silver coins, the presence or absence of a stamped denomination on the coins was also sporadic until well into the 1800s.
In many ways the early half eagles and eagles were little different from the octagonal gold “ingots” representing fifty dollars in California gold, which would appear a half-century later, or the rectangular assay bars representing different weights and values of gold and silver. The early gold coinage, however, showed the advantages of a consistent design, a uniform value and shape, a convenient form, and issuance by the United States government, benefits that were enormous–and irreproducible in California until the opening of a branch mint there.
Designer: Robert Scot
Mintage: All Years 17,555
Diameter: ±25 millimeters
Metal content: Gold – 91.7% Silver and Copper – 8.3%
Weight: ±135 grains (8.748 grams)
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