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THE STELLA

By Ed Reiter


It was a time of great technological breakthroughs. The telephone, the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb were all newly arrived on the national scene.

It also was a time of charlatanism and quackery. Patent medicines – many laced with liberal sloshings of alcohol – promised relief from rheumatism, sciatica, dyspepsia, catarrh and just about anything else that ailed the pain-wracked populace.

Given this climate of quickening scientific advancement amid uncontrolled indulgence in frivolous (even reckless) panaceas, the stella – or $4 gold piece – was a coin that reflected the times. Beneath its veneer of sober scientific aspiration, it was at heart an exercise in the impractical – not exactly poppycock, but surely Pollyanna.

But, in tune with the times, it evidenced a willingness to try something new and different, however unpromising its prospects might be.

The times were the late 1870s.

The War Between the States was a fresh and bitter memory, but more than a decade had passed since the South gave up the ghost at Appomattox and the deep, painful wounds were beginning to heal. The reunited nation had just marked the centennial of American independence. And the country’s collective consciousness was turning more and more from North-South divisions to the ever-growing migration from East to West.

U.S. coinage also had been moving in new directions. During the 1870s, Uncle Sam had abandoned three denominations – the two-cent piece, the silver three-cent piece and the silver half dime – and dropped the silver dollar temporarily. He had introduced two others – the twenty-cent piece and the Trade dollar. And the U.S. Mint’s engravers had devoted countless hours to preparing pattern coins for real or imagined production needs.

On the very face of it, a $4 gold piece should have been regarded as a dubious proposition. Except for the double eagle, or $20 gold piece, existing U.S. gold coins had been at low ebb through most of the 1870s, with yearly mintages falling below 10,000 for much of the decade – and sometimes below 1,000.

Americans weren’t crying out for yet another gold coin to carry out their commerce. On the contrary, two of those already being minted, the dollar and $3 gold piece, were barely a decade away from history’s dustbin.

But then, the $4 gold piece was conceived not so much as a way to serve the public, but rather as a means to give U.S. coinage a more important role in international commerce. In much the way the Trade dollar was envisioned as a tool for expanding U.S. trade in the Orient, the stella was seen as a wedge to widen America’s presence on the Continent.

Beyond that, it was meant as a showcase for a new coinage alloy: a patented mixture of gold, silver and copper known as “goloid.” And the man who devised that alloy can be credited (or blamed) for the fact it was minted at all.

The man in question was William Wheeler Hubbell, an inventor who saw goloid as the answer to a long-standing problem: the fact that fluctuations in the value of gold and silver led to periodic hoarding and melting of coins whose intrinsic worth exceeded their face value. If both metals were mixed in the same coins, he reasoned, they would be more likely to remain in circulation. Under Hubbell’s formula, gold and silver were mixed in equal amounts by value.

In truth, what Hubbell had done was simply to refine a metallic combination as old as coinage itself. Gold and silver had co-existed since ancient times in the form of the natural compound known as electrum – and that was what Lydia used more than 600 years before Christ to strike the earliest coins in recorded history. The inventor added copper, to be sure – but minters had used copper since ancient times as well to produce a harder alloy for precious-metal coinage.

Despite all this, Hubbell was awarded a patent for his process in 1877, and he soon beat a path to Washington, D.C., to seek formal tests with an eye to getting Congress to authorize goloid coins. In this quest, he found a powerful friend in Alexander H. Stephens, the chairman of the Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures in the House of Representatives.

At Stephens’ behest, Treasury Secretary John Sherman ordered preparation of trial coinage in goloid. The first coin produced was a goloid dollar with a Liberty head obverse by Chief Engraver William Barber and a reverse that served as a billboard for its contents: GOLOID – 1 GOLD – 24 SILVER – .9 FINE – 258 GRS (indicating a weight of 258 grains).

Mint officials, including Mint Director Henry R. Linderman and James Pollock, superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint, took a dim view of goloid’s merits and initially succeeded in getting the project sidetracked. They did so by showing that the goloid dollar and a trial strike made of silver were virtually indistinguishable. But Hubbell was persistent and convinced Chairman Stephens that the first goloid strikes had been sabotaged by the Mint. Accordingly, Stephens arranged for a new round of tests, whose results were similarly unencouraging.

The matter might have ended there, but the ever-tenacious Hubbell refused to let it die. With an eye on world affairs, he reconstituted his formula and came up a new blend of goloid tied to the metric system. What’s more, he obtained a new patent covering this “invention.”

The metric system, developed in France in the early 1790s, was all the rage in Europe at the time. France had applied metric standards to its coinage, and a number of other nations had followed suit, forming what they called the Latin Monetary Union – a kind of precursor of today’s European Union, where coins of the member nations could be exchanged with little or no confusion or complication. The participants included France, Spain, Greece, Finland, Italy and Venezuela.

Hubbell saw this as a possible reprieve for goloid, whose metric version might serve as the alloy for a U.S. trade coin. He prevailed upon Stephens yet again – this time for tests on a $20 coin made of goloid instead of gold. To make it as convenient from a metric standpoint as possible, he specified that its weight should be 35 grams – an even number – rather than the 33.436 grams in the regular double eagle. Its breakdown then would be 30 grams of gold, 1.5 grams of silver and 3.5 grams of copper.

Stephens outdid himself this time, arranging for goloid trial strikes of not only a metric $20 but also metric dollars and $4 coins.

For many years, the idea of a $4 U.S. coin has been credited to John Kasson, a former member of Congress who was serving at the time as U.S. ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kasson was well informed on monetary matters; in fact, while in Congress he had been chairman of the House committee on coinage – the same position later held by Stephens.

Kasson, so the story goes, saw potential uses for a U.S. metric coin – and specifically for a coin with the odd denomination of $4. He supposedly pointed out that two gold coins circulating widely in Europe at the time – the Vienna Mint’s 8-florin coin and France’s 20-franc piece – both were worth about $3.85, so a U.S. coin of roughly equivalent value would facilitate trade with France, Austria-Hungary and other nations using the French standard.

This makes a good story, but respected numismatic researcher Robert W. Julian says there’s just one problem: It probably isn’t true. According to Julian, Kasson did speak favorably of U.S. metric coinage some years earlier, but the goloid coins – and particularly the stella – almost certainly arose entirely from Hubbell’s fertile mind.

The components of the stella were exactly one-fifth of those laid down by Hubbell for the $20 goloid piece. And here, as on earlier trial-strike goloid pieces, the breakdown was displayed right on the coin: 6G – .3S – .7C (6 grams of gold, .3 gram of silver and .7 gram of copper).

The coin is called a stella because of the five-pointed star on its reverse, “stella” being the Latin word for star.

There are two distinct varieties of the stella, and both come in two different dates. They share a common reverse, but one has a flowing-hair portrait of Miss Liberty on the obverse while the other shows Liberty’s hair bound in a coil.

Charles E. Barber is listed as the designer of the flowing-hair version, but his portrait may well have been based on an earlier design by his father, William Barber, who was chief sculptor-engraver at the Philadelphia Mint prior to his death in 1879. Charles Barber succeeded to the post a short time later.

The “coiled-hair” portrait is the work of George T. Morgan, then an assistant at the Mint. His involvement may be yet another instance where Mint Director Linderman pitted Morgan against the younger Barber in design situations. This, in turn, may have been motivated as much as anything by Linderman’s desire to acquire new coins for his growing collection of patterns.

All of the coins were struck in 1880. Most, however, are dated 1879. The flowing-hair stella of 1879 is considered to be the “regular” coin in the group, a status that is underscored by its mintage of approximately 425 pieces – a very high number for a pattern. This coin was made available to members of Congress at cost, while the other three were not, and this accounts in large measure for the unusual quantity. The others, by contrast, have minuscule mintages: 10 each year for the coiled-hair stella and 15 for the 1880 flowing-hair coin.

Although it is clearly a pattern, the stella is widely collected along with regular-issue U.S. coins. Interest in the coin undoubtedly has been heightened by its offbeat denomination.

The metric goloid dollar has similar mintage figures, but has never been collected to nearly the same extent. The goloid double eagle, on the other hand, exists in far smaller numbers, more in line with most U.S. patterns, and that has kept a rein on its market potential.

The stella has long ranked as one of the most famous – and most valuable – of all U.S. pattern coins. On the infrequent occasions when specimens come on the market, they routinely bring prices with five or six figures.

That doesn’t quite put it in a class with the greatest U.S. rarities – the 1804 silver dollar and 1913 Liberty nickel, for example.

Still, it’s a pretty good record for a coin that had no business being made.