The San Francisco Mint Coinage of 1872
November 30, 2012
by John McCloskey (Liberty Seated Collectors Club)
Soon after the discovery of gold in Central California in 1848 thousands of adventures sailed into the Port of San Francisco seeking their fortune in the gold fields along the tributaries of the Sacramento River. The area around San Francisco grew rapidly as a commercial center, expanding from a population of about 1500 early in 1849 to over 25,000 just a year later.
Many early arrivals to the gold fields were quickly rewarded for their efforts with ample surface gold available in the surrounding streams. This gold could be easily extracted using a simple sheet iron pan measuring from 10 to 14 inches across with sides four inches high and extending outward at an angle. Gold bearing dirt and gravel would be taken from the stream bed, mixed with water and then swirled around in a rotary manner until the lighter material had been ejected. However, most of the readily available surface gold had been taken from the stream beds during the first two years of the gold rush so that late arrivals to the mining camps were often forced to dig several feet below the surface before new unprocessed dirt could be found. Under these conditions, many adventurers found that it was more profitable to operate businesses selling goods and services to other miners than to engage in mining itself.
The gold rush drew a large number of people to the city of San Francisco and greatly expanded its importance as a commercial center on the western frontier. This rapid development resulted in the admission of California to the union in September 1850, after which the government established a United States Assay Office in San Francisco and announced that beginning in February 1851 it would receive gold dust for smelting and assaying and form ingots and bars in accordance with a contract authorized by an act of Congress.
The United States Assay Office was not permitted to strike regular issue United States coinage so a request was made to establish a United States mint in San Francisco to provide sufficient coinage for commercial transactions on the western frontier. Work on a San Francisco mint building began in 1853 and this new facility produced its first United States coinage in April 1854 with the striking of $20 gold double eagles with an S mint mark. Production of silver coinage with the S mint mark began in 1855 with the striking of silver quarters and half dollars.
During the years immediately before and during the Civil War the state of California was far removed from the turmoil that led to war in the eastern part of the country. The San Francisco mint continued to produce large quantities of gold and silver coinage during this period that would facilitate commercial transactions in the far west. However, development in the western states was greatly restricted by the lack of a land route across the country connecting East and West. However, this deficiency was overcome at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869 where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific rails met to form the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The culmination of the nation’s dream to unite the East and West coasts brought major changes to the country. The new railroad provided the first practical means of round trip travel from coast to coast. The railroad expanded the settlement of the western states from Nebraska to California.
At this time of growth and development in the western states I would like to examine the coinage produced at the San Francisco mint during the year 1872. I have chosen this year because it was a time of westward expansion and the year before the change in weight of the silver dime, quarter and half dollar. This weight change with the addition of arrows at the date for the silver denominations in 1873 had an effect on the survival rate for some of the denominations struck in 1872. The production of San Francisco Mint coinage for the year 1872 along with its listed value in three circulated grades from the October 2012 issue of Coin Values is given in Table 1 below. No prices are given for the gold issues in the VG-8 grade because gold coinage is not usually collected in this grade.
Production and Value of 1872-S Coinage in Circulated Grades
The table shows that the San Francisco mint struck a total of 2,550,700 coins from five silver denominations and four gold denominations during 1872. Interestingly enough, 86.1% of these coins are from only three denominations, these being half dimes, half dollars and double eagles. Not surprising is the fact that the half dollar was the largest circulating silver denomination at this time and the double eagle was the largest circulating gold denomination of this period.
The 1872-S half dime was the smallest silver coin struck in San Francisco during this year and had the highest mintage of the nine denominations struck at the branch mint in 1872. Half dimes were first struck in San Francisco in 1863 and they were produced every year through 1873. The mint mark was placed below the wreath beginning in 1863 and continued in this position through 1869. The unique 1870-S half dime has a mint mark within the wreath while all of the known 1871-S half dimes have their mint marks within the wreath. The mint mark was again placed below the wreath on 1873-S half dimes making the 1872-S half dime the only branch mint issue of this denomination for which both In Wreath and Below Wreath coins were produced. Both varieties are common and readily available in all circulated grades to the interested collector. This denomination is the least expensive of the nine issues produced in San Francisco in 1872 and both varieties are listed at the same prices in Coin Values.
The 1872-S dime is more difficult to find in average circulated grades than its mintage would seem to suggest but nice examples can be found with some searching. This coin becomes scarce in grades above VF and rare in grades approaching mint state. The mint mark is located below the wreath on all examples of this issue. A nice AU coin would be difficult to obtain but original VF coins would be available to the interested collector. It is possible that a number of mint state examples of this issue still on hand at the San Francisco mint were melted after the weight of the dime was slightly increased by the Mint Act of February 12, 1873. This would account for the scarcity of this issue from a relatively large original mintage.
The 1872-S quarter is a very rare issue that is seldom available to the interested collector in any grade. It is the rarest issue from the San Francisco mint produced in 1872 despite an original mintage of 83,000 pieces, a figure that ranks in the middle of the mintages for the nine denominations produced during this year. This issue is one of the rarest San Francisco quarters and a prized rarity in the Seated quarter series. Its surprising rarity is again most likely a result of the Mint Act of February 12, 1873 which slightly increased the weight of this denomination. After the passage of this act the mints were ordered to melt uncurrent coins on hand to meet the requirements of the new law. It is certainly possible that the San Francisco mint had a large supply of unreleased 1872-S quarters that were melted and re-made into quarters of the new standard. A few gem uncirculated examples of this issue are known to exist but a specimen in an average circulated grade would be a valuable addition to any collection.
The 1872-S half dollar is readily available in all circulated grades to the interested collector and is the second least expensive issue of this year after the 1872-S half dime. In their Complete Guide to Liberty Seated Half Dollars published in 1993, Randy Wiley and Bill Bugert list two varieties for this issue, one with a Small Wide S mint mark and the other with a Medium-Small S mint mark. Examples of both varieties would be available to the interested collector in all circulated grades. In his new reference book A Register of Liberty Seated Half Dollar Varieties, Volume I, San Francisco Branch Mint published in 2009, Bill Bugert lists four die marriages for this issue, two with Small Wide mint marks and two with Medium-Small mint marks. None of these die marriages appear to be particularly difficult to obtain in nice circulated grades.
The 1872-S Seated dollar had a mintage of only 9000 coins, the smallest mintage of the nine issues from this branch mint in 1872. Even with such a small mintage it is likely that some of these pieces were melted as a result of the Mint Act of February 12, 1873. This date is scarce in average circulated grades but nice examples can be located with some searching. This issue becomes rare in XF and higher grades and extremely rare in mint state. Any example in mint state would be a treasured addition to a numismatic collection. Prices are reasonable in grades up to VF but higher grade pieces command a nice premium.
The 1872-S quarter eagle had a mintage of only 18,000 pieces and is available in VF to XF grades. This issue however becomes scarce in AU grades and is very rare and seldom seen in mint state. An example described as AU-55 appeared in Part II of the Bass Collection Sale by Bowers and Merena in October 1999. A total of four examples of this issue appeared in the Bass Collection Sales by Bowers and Merena in 1999 and 2000, none of them in mint state and none in a higher grade than the piece listed above as AU-55.
The 1872-S half eagle has a higher mintage than the quarter eagle but this issue is the most difficult to obtain of the four gold issues in the higher circulated grades. Nice VF examples can be found with some searching but pieces grading XF and higher are rare. This issue is very rare in AU grades and prohibitively rare in mint state. An example certified as PCGS AU55 appeared in Part III of the Bass Collection Sale by Bowers and Merena in May 2000.
The 1872-S eagle is scarce in VF and XF grades but it becomes rare in AU and prohibitively rare in mint state. Two pieces described as AU-55 appeared in Part IV of the Bass Collection Sale by Bowers and Merena in November 2000. Six additional examples of this issue appeared in various VF and XF grades in the two previous parts of the Bass Collection Sale.
The 1872-S double eagle is by far the most common of the four gold issues of this year from the San Francisco mint. In fact with its large mintage coins grading VF and XF are listed at prices just a few hundred dollars above the value of their gold content. There are a number of uncirculated coins from this issue but most of them are in the lower mint state grades. Pieces in grades of MS-62 and higher are very rare and command a significant premium. An example certified as PCGS MS62 appeared in Part III of the Bass Collection Sale by Bowers and Merena in May 2000.
Forming a set of nine coins representing one example from each of the nine denominations produced at the San Francisco branch mint in 1872 would represent a significant challenge. By far the rarest issue and the most expensive coin in the set would be the 1872-S quarter. The Seated dollar from this year is scarce but more readily available than the quarter. Finding nice circulated examples of the half dime, dime and half dollar coins would not represent a serious challenge. The four gold coins are all available in the VF grades but all become much more difficult to obtain when you get into the AU and higher grades. I might even suggest a ten piece set that would include Below Wreath and In Wreath examples of the 1872-S half dime.
The table shows that the five silver 1872-S coins could be obtained in a VG-8 grade for about $2101 while the cost of the same five coins in a VF-20 grade would be about $6102. The cost of the four gold coins in a VF-20 grade would be about $4000. Interestingly, the listed value for the 1872-S quarter in a VF-20 grade at $4500 is more than the $4000 price for the four gold coins combined in the same VF-20 grade. Surprisingly, the total listed price for the four gold coins in VF is only several hundred dollars more than the current gold content of the pieces. However, premiums for the gold pieces increase dramatically when you examine the prices for these pieces in AU-50 grades.
1. Bowers, Q. David. Adventures with Rare Coins, Bowers & Ruddy Galleries Inc, Los Angeles, California, 1979.
2. Bugert, Bill. A Register of Liberty Seated Half Dollar Varieties, Volume I, San Francisco Branch Mint, 2009.
3. Wiley, Randy & Bill Bugert, The Complete Guide to Liberty Seated Half Dollars, DLRC Press,Virginia Beach,Virginia, 1993.
4. Coin World’s Coin Values, October 2012.
5. The Red Book, A Guide Book of United States Coins, by R.S. Yeoman, edited by Kenneth Bressett, 61st Edition, 2008.
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The Liberty Seated Collectors Club is a group of over six hundred collectors and dealers dedicated to the study and attribution of the American silver Liberty Seated coinage of the 19th century. The Gobrecht Journal is the official publication of the club and is published three times each year. Issues are 52 pages in length and are distributed to club members in March, July, and November.
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