The Nation's $4 Coin
By Tom LaMarre (Coins Magazine, October 2005)
 

Several prominent men from different fields were involved in the development of the rare U.S. gold $4 piece known as the Stella, the Latin name for the large, five-pointed star on its reverse. The coin’s purpose, design, and metallic composition were all innovative. But the beautiful Stella never made it past the experimental stage, instead becoming more famous as a collector’s item.

An International Monetary System

Throughout the late 1800s, there was intense interest in an international coinage system that would facilitate world trade. The Stella reflected that interest.

Meeting in Paris in 1867, 20 nations agreed to adopt a gold standard based on the French franc. In England, in 1868, a report from the Royal Commission on International Coinage summarized the situation:

“In the early ages of European States, silver was the general coin and standard, but as gold came into more general use, gold coins were more extensively introduced, and the value for which they were to pass current being fixed by the government of each country, from time to time, probably without any anticipation of the effect that would follow from so doing, a double standard of value was generally introduced. It is still retained, according to law, in Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States.… “As with a double standard of two metals, only coins made of one of them can be retained in circulation, the countries in which it exists are liable not only to a change in the standard of value, but also to a change in the coins which practically form the great mass of the circulation.

“Coins of small value cannot be conveniently made of gold, nor large coins of silver. If silver coins form the great mass of the circulation there is generally a deficiency of the means of conveniently paving large sums in coin; and if gold is retained, there is a deficiency of the means of obtaining convenient coin for small payments.” In the United States, interest in an international coinage resulted in the striking of patterns such as the $4 Stella, approximately equal in value to the coins of several other nations, and participation in several international conferences.

But with an ongoing political battle involving the Free Silver Movement, and attacks on the gold standard itself, there was little hope of reaching an agreement internally, let alone one with other countries. Maurice Muhleman, in his 1896 book Monetary Systems of the World, wrote, “The much-to-be-desired international unit or coin remains still a thing of the future.” Never having passed beyond the pattern stage, the Stella survives as an example of what “might have been.”

John A. Kasson

Born in Vermont in 1822, John A. Kasson graduated from the University of Vermont in 1842 and studied law in Massachusetts. Eventually he moved to Iowa. In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed him Postmaster General.

Kasson resigned to take a seat in Congress from 1863 to 1867. He was the U.S. postal commissioner at the international Paris conferences of 1863 and 1867. In 1877, after another four years in Congress, Kasson was appointed U.S. Minister to Austria. Aside from its intended role in international trade, the Stella reflected Kasson’s belief in the metric system. In 1866, he wrote in a report of the Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures, of which he was chairman:

“The metric system is already used in some arts and trades in this country, and is especially adapted to the wants of others. Some of its measures are already manufactured at Bangor, in Maine, to meet an existing demand at home and abroad.

“The manufacturers of the well-known Fairbanks scales state: ‘For many years we have had a large export demand for our scales with French weights, and the demand and sale is constantly increasing.’ Its minute and exact divisions specially adapt it to the use of chemists, apothecaries, the finer operations of the artisan, and to all scientific objects. It has always been and is now used in the United States coast survey.

“Yet in some of the States, owing to the phraseology of their laws, it would be a direct violation of them to use it in the business transactions of the community. It is therefore very important to legalize its use, and give to the people, or that portion of them desiring it, the opportunity for its legal employment, while the knowledge of its characteristics will be thus diffused among men.

“Chambers of commerce, boards of trade, manufacturing associations, and other voluntary societies, and individuals, will be induced to consider and in their discretion to adopt its use. The interests of trade among a people so quick as ours to receive and adopt a useful novelty, will soon acquaint practical men with its convenience.

“When this is attained—a period, it is hoped, not distant—a further act of Congress can fix a date for its exclusive adoption as a legal system. At an earlier period it may be safely introduced into all public offices, and for government service.”

The Metric Act of 1866, also known as the Kasson Act, legally recognized the metric system of measurement in the United States, although popular acceptance proved to be another matter.

Still, metric pattern coins like the Stella reflected Kasson’s ideal, even if they were far ahead of their time. The obverse of the Stella has an inscription expressing its metallic content in metric terms—six grams of gold, three-tenths of a gram in silver, and seven-tenths of a gram of copper. This was far different than the inscription on another coin, the Trade dollar, with its silver content stated in the traditional English system of grains.

Alexander H. Stephens

Championing the gold $4 piece was congressman Alexander H. Stephens, former vice president of the Confederate States of America. It was Stephens who suggested the name “Stella” for the coin.

Stephens was a small man, weighing only 100 pounds, but he cast a large shadow in the political world. Although he opposed Georgia’s secession, he agreed to serve as vice president of the Confederacy. In that position, he often opposed the policies of Jefferson Davis, an example being Stephens’ attendance at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference, where he met Abraham Lincoln.

After the Civil War, Stephens was imprisoned for six months at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. He was paroled in October 1865, and Northerners and Southerners alike cheered him as he returned to his Georgia home.

Stephens was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1865 but was denied a seat because Georgia had not satisfied all of the requirements for readmittance to the Union. In 1870, after a sweeping amnesty act was passed, Stephens was elected to the U.S. Congress.

The April 1879 issue of the American Journal of Numismatics reported Stephens had prepared a bill for a new gold coin “worth 400 cents, of the metric system, for which he proposed the name of Stella (star). The value of this approximates more uniformly to the gold coin of the metric system in the European countries than our five-dollar gold piece.

“The Committee on Coins, Weight and Measures of the last House favored the adoption of the Stella. Mr. Stephens has apparently accepted the metric system wholly for our coinage in place of the Troy system of weights.…”

Although the Stella never made it into regular production, Stephens had other successes, including his election as governor of Georgia in 1882. He died in 1883.

William W. Hubbell

According to A Guide Book of United States Coins, the pattern Stellas suggested by Stephens came into existence through the efforts of William Wheeler Hubbell. In 1877, Hubbell obtained a patent for goloid, an alloy of gold, silver and copper that was intended to replace the normal 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper alloy used to make denominations from the dime to the dollar. Many pattern goloid dollars were struck in 1878-1880.

But there were problems with goloid, including the fact that only an experienced chemist could tell the difference between goloid and the regular alloy. As a result, goloid coins could easily have been counterfeited of silver, and few people would have known the difference. This was one of the reasons goloid was never used in circulating coinage. The $4 Stella was a separate situation from the goloid question, and would have been made in the normal alloy for American gold coins—90 percent gold and 10 percent copper.

Designs and Mintages

Stellas were struck with two different obverse designs—one depicting Liberty with Flowing Hair, and another portraying her with Coiled Hair, a popular style of the day. The Flowing Hair design was the work of engraver Charles Barber. George Morgan was responsible for the Coiled Hair design.

Beginning in 1879. pattern Stellas were struck in a variety of metals—gold, copper, aluminum and white metal. Over the years, many of the Stellas that had been struck in non-precious metals were plated with gold.

In early 1880, members of the congressional Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures requested additional Stellas. “We should be gratified to learn for what purpose these patterns will be used in such great quantities,” the American Journal of Numismatics said, “and just how long the committee men will be able to retain them after their constituents hear of this.”

Hundreds of Stellas were made available to congressmen and other insiders, creating a furor in the numismatic world. To avoid further criticism, the Mint struck additional Stellas and made them available to collectors.

No one knows exactly how many Stellas were struck, but estimates put the number of 1879 Flowing Hair originals at around 15 and the restrikes at as many as 700 or so—by any standard, a very large quantity for a pattern. Additional Flowing Hair Stellas were struck in 1880, but they were not openly distributed. Around 20-30 were made.

The Coiled Hair Stellas, made in 1879 and 1880, were another matter. They were struck without publicity and were not made available to either congressmen or coin collectors. As with the 1880 Flowing Hair Stella, about 20 to 30 were made.

Values

Back in the days when there were no coin collecting publications available at newsstands, and annual price and reference guides were not yet published, many people were unaware the Stella existed.

In the late 1890s, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported “a curiosity” in the form of a gold $4 coin had been turned in at the local subtreasury. The coin was brought there from the Fifth National Bank of Cincinnati, where a depositor had taken it to find out what it was worth. The bank’s tellers were unable to answer the question, so the Stella was taken to the Cincinnati Federal Building.

According to the article in the Enquirer, “…no one there would accept it for the Treasury for its face value.” George F. Heath, founder of the American Numismatic Association, saw the story and sent a clipping to the superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint, asking for his comments. The superintendent responded that only “a few” Stellas had been struck and that they were worth up to $10 as collectors’ items.

What may have been the first published photos of both dates and designs of Stellas appeared in the March 1911 issue of The Numismatist, accompanying an article by gold-coin expert Edgar H. Adams. “No United States pattern or regular gold pieces seem to have acquired anything approaching the interest and popularity of the Stella,” Adams wrote, “and that this popularity is not diminishing by the advance of time is well proved by the steady increase in the premium that is paid for specimens, no matter how often they are put up for sale.”

In October 1935, at the sale of the Richard De Silva Santos collection and other collections at the J.C. Morgenthau Galleries in New York City, an 1879 gold $4 piece described as a Brilliant Proof sold for $127. That does not seem like much today, but in 1935 it was considered a newsworthy price and was written up in the New York Times.

At Heritage’s Long Beach sale in 1998, an 1879 Flowing Hair Stella graded Proof-64 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. realized $61,900. In September the same year, at Heritage’s Long Beach sale, an 1879 Coiled Hair gold $4 piece, graded NGC PR-63, brought $161,000. Even a very low grade Stella can be expected to sell for $50,000 or more.