It is common knowledge that Theodore Roosevelt brought on the "golden " era of US coins in the early 1900's by replacing the insipid designs with highly artistic ones. This led to the intoduction of such coins as the buffalo nickel, mercury dime, standing liberty quarter, walking liberty half dollar, and, of course, new gold coins. Part of this series was the Indian Head quarter eagle and half eagle gold coins, which were first minted in 1908.
Bela Lyon Pratt
The coins were designed by sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt, who was taught by Augustus St. Gaudens. His works include "Girl Dancing," now at the Brooklyn Museum and the statue of Nathan Hale. Pratt was commissioned to design the quarter eagle and half eagle. Pratt's designed featured an American Indian on the obverse, in contrast to the ten dollar eagle coin of St. Gaudens, which appeared to feature a caucasian teenager in a war bonnet. But the unique feature of the coin was that it was incuse. The coin was flat with the design pressed in.
Will Indian Head Gold coins make us sick?
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Americans became more aware of issues of sanitation and disease. The ideas of Joseph Lister, and antiseptic surgery, introduced some decades before were becoming accepted. In 1908 and 1909, the world was prepared for the arrival of Halley's comet (which we all know orbits the sun with a period of 76 years). It had been discovered that the comet's tail contained some poisonous gasses and the Earth was actually going to pass through the comet's tail. To protect the people, some entrepreneurs introduced comet pills. If people took the pills, they would be able to survive the tail of the comet. The pills did work, and everyone who took them survived. It is in this context that we must view a concern people had with the new incuse design of the quarter and half eagles. The biggest complaint was generated by my fellow Philadelphia numismatist, S.H. Chapman, who complained directly to Theodore Roosevelt that the coins were unhygienic, since the recessed areas would become clogged with filth and convey disease. (image credit: Comet P/Halley as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch (IHW) Large Scale Phenomena Network.)
American ConservativismDid Chapman really think that the nation would become ill by spreading germs through its gold coins? Probably not. Americans, as you may know, are conservative. The majority will resist any significant change in anything. Virtually the same liberty head design had been used on gold coins for over 75 years. And no coin was ever incuse. These major changes were probably too much for Chapman and many Americans to take. Chapman's complaints did not stop with the disease-spreading incuse design. He did not like the Indian portrait (too emaciated) nor the Eagle (too European).
Collecting Indian head quarter eagle gold coinsThe Indian Head gold series is brief, making it possible to assemble collections by date. For the quarter eagle, a full set comprises only fifteen coins. The mintages for virtually all of them are similar (about half a million) and the prices are virtually the same. In conditions up to MS60, they are relatively inexpensive. The prices skyrocket in MS63 as few were preserved without scratches. The one rare date is 1911D with a mintage of only 55,680 and a cost of about ten times that of the other dates.
Collecting Indian head half Eagles
The larger half eagle coins have 24 coins in a complete set. For the common dates, the prices are not much higher than the price of the gold they contain. The rarest date is actually the final date, 1929. Although 662,000 were minted, most were melted as the US was ending the era of gold coins. The other rare date is 1909O with a mintage of 34,200.
Still concerned about disease from the incuse gold coins?Between Halley's comet and the germ ridden gold coins, it is hard to believe that all Americans didn't die at the start of the second decade of the nineteenth century. If you are worried about catching a disease from germs trapped within the incuse design, please be safe and send the gold coins to me. (Or perhaps I should market a pill to keep you safe).