Patterns for an International Coinage

The following is excerpted from Stacks October 2000, 65th Anniversary Sale pages 160-161 and is reprinted here courtesy of Harvey Stack.

There is a series of very special pattern coins that have always appealed to collectors for their beauty and intrigued them by their history. These noteworthy patterns include the 1874 Bickford $10.00, the 1879 Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair Stellas, the 1880 Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair Stellas, and the 1879 Quintuple Stella, as well as a series of metric issues during the same time period.

They were all designed and struck in response to the desire to create an international currency that would be good in all countries at all times. These patterns, struck more than a century ago, were like prophets in their own time. They remained patterns, never moving from that status into full coinage production, principally because the world was not yet ready to accept the fact that it needed them. It would not be for more than a century before today's European Union would adopt a common currency, the Euro, to be current among all member states.

Each of these three pattern designs, the 1874 Bickford $10.00, the 1879 and 1880 Stellas, and the 1879 Quintuple Stella was designed as the United States mint's response to international monetary conferences that were being held at the time in Europe. As such, each response was to a wider coinage need that just national purposes. Without understanding something about international finance in the 1860's and 1870's is it really impossible to appreciate the depths of importance that are offered by these designs.

The great discoveries of gold in California in 1848 and Australia in 1851 caused a serious dislocation in the value of silver as compared to gold and the effective displacement of silver as the base currency in world trade. No country suffered this dislocation between the two metals more than France, which struck hundreds of millions of dollars of gold coins between 1848 and 1860 while equivalent amounts of silver coins were exported to India and China. Most economists of the time believed that gold would eventually completely displace silver for circulation, and argued for the creation of a single gold standard for all the world currencies. France, having suffered the most from the dislocation, was the first to take steps toward creating a single currency based upon a gold standard.

The Latin Union was formed 1865 principally at the urging of France. The European countries of France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Romania, Serbia (asit was, then), and Spain all agreed to adopt the French currency system. Coins were still struck by the member states using the names of their countries traditional denominations, but the units of value were based upon those of the French Franc and Centime and were backed by gold. Two years later, at the Paris Exposition of 1867, France sponsored an international monetary conference to which all the chief countries of the world sent delegates. At the conclusion of the conference, a resolution was adopted which called for all members to adopt the same single gold standard, a decimal coinage system, and to coordinate all the member states' coinage with the French system. The following three years saw the resolution debated, and rejected, by many conference member states for reasons of national prestige and entrenched political interest. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and France's defeat by Prussia in 1871 effectively put an end to all the enthusiasm that remained for a French-led monetary union.

As David W. Akers wrote in his important United States Gold Patterns: "As a result of this convention, the U.S. Mint struck a pattern half eagle in copper and aluminum dated 1868 whose denomination read 5 Dollars 25 Francs. Editors note: To view the French equivalent of this coin, click here. No other monetary units were utilized in the design by Paquet, because the convention agreed to make the French Franc the basis of value. This necessitated lowering the value of both the U.S. five dollar gold piece and the English sovereign. (The British delegate, by the way, opposed the idea and wanted the U.S. gold dollar to be the standard). This lowering of value required reducing the weight of the half eagle from 129 grains to 124.9 grains so that it would conform exactly to 25 francs. Other gold coins would have been changed accordingly as well. The bill introduced in Congree to effect this change was defeated and the matter dropped, only to be revived again in 1874."

The practical experience of Mr. Dana Bickford, an American inventor who had influential friends at the United States Senate, led to the creation of the 1874 Bickford $10.00 pattern. Finding it extremely difficult to change his American dollars into the currencies of the European states through which he traveled, and mindful of the continuing existence of the Latin Union, Mr. Bickford personally designed a coin he hoped would be the American component of a revived Latin Union. Although he had the right political connections and was able to circumvent the usual pattern proposal process and appeal directly to mint director Henry R. Linderman, Bickford's pattern was not adopted. In some ways, it was doomed from the start. Although Bickford's pattern $10.00 helpfully gave its weight and fineness on the reverse, it adhered to the United States gold and silver ratio and expressed its gold value in the currencies of some countries, Great Britain and Prussia principally among them, which had never ratified the Latin Union and were not members of it. Bickford's $10.00 pattern was a good start, and although it was unable to prevail, its example was to be picked up and carried further five years later.

As long as the production of gold from the western mines and its transmutation into coins could continue at the pace of 1848-1860, the Latin Union and its single gold standard made sense. However, the late 1860's and early 1870's saw forces mobilize that were exactly the opposite to those that had allowed the rise of the Latin Union. Vast discoveries of silver in the American west, principally in the Comstock district of Nevada, resulted in a fall in the gold price of silver. This had exactly the opposite effect, resulting in a further fall of the gold price of silver, making the Union's finances precarious and resulting in uncertainty in international trade circles. More and more voices began to be raised in favor of a bimetallic standard, in which both silver and gold would qualify as standard currency metals and no one would reign supreme. In the United States, Congress passed the Bland-Allison Act (February 1878), guaranteeing the coinage of a certain amount of silver each month as an artificial way of maintaining its price.

At the insistence of the United States, a second monetary conference was held in Paris in 1878. Intended to force the delegates to face the necessity of allowing for the circulation of both silver and gold in world currencies, the conference failed due to the intransigence of vested European interest, principally those of Great Britain and France, in maintaining a single gold standard. Failure to adopt a bimetallic standard in 1878 led directly to a further conference in 1881, which was similarly scuttled by the refusal of Great Britain and Germany to abandon the gold standard. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 tried to alleviate the downward pressure on silver, but the public only perceived the measure as a sop to western silver interests. The candidacy of William Jennings Bryan in 1896 can be seen as a response to the failure of the monetary conferences of the previous decade to resolve the problem of the price of silver and the tyranny of the gold standard.

The famous $4.00 Stellas and the Quintuple Stella owe their inspiration to the very forces that inspired the United States to call the 1878 Paris Monetary Conference.

The $4.00 Stellas owe their immediate origin to the proposal of Mr. John Kasson, who was the United States Minister to Austria in 1879. While in Austria, Kasson found that none of his U.S. gold coins were accepted in the shops without a lot of tedious and complicated figuring of exchange rates. Kasson had once been chairman of the Congressional Committee on Coinage, and he was familiar with the coins of most major nations in the world. Kasson thought about the problem he had with the exchange rates and came up with a numismatic idea that fit the need for an international coinage and that would make his name famous among collectors. When he returned to the United States, Kasson suggested that the Mint should strike a special gold coin, whose intrinsic value would be nearly equal to the Austrian 8 Florin gold coin. The closest United States equivalent to the Austrian coin, by intrinsic value, would be a gold piece valued at $4.00. Kasson sent his suggestion to the coinage committee, which ordered the Mint to strike samples of a $4.00 gold coin for the committee's approval. Kasson's suggestion received Congressional approval and was even backed by the Secretary of State, who thought Kasson's idea was a good one.

Intimately related to the $4.00 Stellas is the magnificent Quintuple Stella. Woven into the story of the Quintuple Stella is another one of the principles of the Latin Union, namely, the universal adoption of the metric system of weights and measures. First created in France following the revolution, later imposed upon most of Europe by Napolean's conquests, the metric system of weights and measures underlay the coinage systems of each of the member nations of the Latin Union. In other words, it was not enough to simply make a coin that would have an easy exchange value in many different countries. Also required was that such a coin adhere to a weight standard that was based on the metric standard, as well.

In the United States, the efforts of Dr. Wheeler Hubbell, patent owner of the metric goloid metal, bore fruit in the creation of the 1879 quintuple stella. As David Akers writes, "Dr. Hubbell's quintuple stella pattern was enthusiastically endorsed by the Congressional Coinage Committee." Akers goes on to say that in their report, the committee stated that "the advantages of this metric gold coin are that the gold is an even 30 grams, the silver an even 1.5 grams, the copper 3.5 grams. The gold therefore is standard .9 and the silver .9 in the coin, and the total weight is an even 35 grams, and is precisely $20 in value."

Unfortunately, neither the $4.00 Stella nor the Qunituple Stella was ever approved for regular coinage production. While the United States has struck coins for other countries, it has never officially struck an international coin for regular production purposes. The 1874 Bickford $10.00, the 1879 Quintuple Stella, and the 1879 and 1880 $4.00 Stellas represent the beautiful patterns filled with intriguing possibilites.