1877 $50 Fifty Dollar, Judd-1547, Pollock-1720, Low R.7, PR63 Gilt NGC....
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Perhaps the Only Gilt Specimen Available to Collectors
The story of the origin of this extraordinary piece has been told many times, but never completely. The specimen itself came to the numismatic market in the early years of the 20th century, by trade from the national coin collection, held in U.S. Mint archives. That much is familiar to relevant collectors. Beyond that, writers and catalogers have generally gone on to examine the coin itself. All have proclaimed its beauty, but few if any have ever questioned its existence. The plain fact is that it never should have been made. The answer to the question of "Why not?" lies in the history of the times.
Commentary for patterns of the year in the ninth edition of Judd's reference book (on page 211) contains this telling sentence: "Somewhat similar to the situation for 1876, the pattern coins of 1877, although extensive in variety, are exceedingly rare, as such pieces were made as numismatic delicacies, not for distribution to congressmen, numismatists, or other outsiders." Garrett and Guth, on page 544 of their gold encyclopedia, simply list the gold version as unique and note that William Barber designed it. Their color illustration demonstrates its exquisite appearance. Nothing could be more valid than calling this beautiful piece a "delicacy" lacking in any commercial intention. While this and many of the other patterns of 1877 are gorgeous in execution, most of the larger pieces (of the era, not just of 1877) came into being under the excuse that they were examples of coinages that might be needed should the United States enter into metric trade with Europe. That does not apply to either version (Large or Small Head) of the 1877 half union.
Both the storied Large Head and Small Head gold versions of these patterns are unique, and firmly ensconced in the Smithsonian Institution where they are unavailable to collectors. According to www.uspatterns.com, the copper Judd-1547 patterns number less than a dozen extant specimens, but several of these, as well, are locked up in museum collections, including the Smithsonian, the Connecticut State Museum, and the Bass Foundation. That website further mentions that only "a couple of the known copper examples have been gilted." If that is indeed so, this copper-gilt piece is perhaps the only such piece available to collectors.
The year in which this piece was created had its conflicts, and in some of them may be seen the reason that no excuse could be made to justify this coin's existence. The only other time in our history previous to 1877 when a fifty dollar coin was minted was in the mid-1850s, in California during the Gold Rush. There was so much ore, and inflation was so rampant in the boom towns, that a coin of this value and size was useful. Not so in 1877, and not so ever again either. In 1915, commemoratives of this denomination were minted for sale at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, but even then most of the struck pieces went unsold and were melted. In 1915, the average income for Americans was in the range of $1,500 a year. In 1877, it was even less, in fact considerably less. There was no need for a circulating coin of this value in 1877, and none was forthcoming.
It was, as we said, a year of conflict, and much of it was ugly. Rutherford B. Hayes entered the White House in January, after a stinging political battle known as the Compromise of 1877, which brought an official close to the era of Reconstruction following the Civil War, but also ratified Hayes as president despite the fact that his opponent, Samuel L. Tilden, had won a majority of the popular vote in the presidential election of 1876. Throughout the year, disaster upon disaster struck the American natives as the infamous Indian Wars resulted in deaths and losses of land and their inherent freedom: Crazy Horse and his Oglala Sioux fought the U.S. Cavalry in Montana but soon surrendered to avoid starving to death, Sitting Bull herded his Lakota tribesmen to Canada to avoid being decimated by the military, the Nez Perce Indians who refused to move onto a reservation defeated the cavalry in Idaho at the Battle of White Canyon but two months later were defeated at the Battle of Big Hole River in Montana, and by autumn Crazy Horse lay injured in an Army stockade at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The defeated chiefs would soon be paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, D.C., in disgrace, having finally surrendered their lands and their dignity.
Even harsher, however, was the government's treatment of American workers when The Great Railway Strike of 1877 erupted in July. The infamous bank panic in the fall of 1873 dragged the nation into a depression that steadily worsened through the decade. Breadlines, wage cuts, evictions, and small strikes occurred in many cities. Unions could not compete against the reality of fewer jobs. By 1877, a quarter of the work force of some 12 million were out of jobs, and wages had fallen, for many who still had work, to as little as one dollar a day. On July 16, railroad workers exploded with rage at forced pay cuts and greatly increased work schedules for fewer hours of pay, against their wealthy employers, who showed no sympathy, and much contempt, at their plight. Immigrants were blamed for scabbing, and the capitalists who owned the railroads feared the ensuing rage and street fights of their workers. They called upon President Hayes to bring in the Army to quell disturbances.
The railway strike stretched from coast to coast but paralyzed certain Eastern and Midwestern cities. The worst riot took place at Martinsburg, West Virginia, when workers stalled the trains and left them standing still on tracks, bringing all rail movement to a halt. Fifteen hundred freight cars stood still. The governor of the state responded to pressure from the railroads and he called President Hayes, who sent federal troops armed with both rifles and Gatling guns to Martinsburg on July 19. So many strikers had been shot to death in other actions, at earlier strikes, that the workers relented. It ended with the railroads restoring some of the wages they had taken away, and with workers determined to unionize more strongly in the coming years. The great strike and the clashes of strikers with federal troops underscored the desperation of the times, centering on the year 1877.
Could there, then, have been any real need for a gold coin of fifty dollars in value, in an America struggling to come out of depression, and when the average annual income for millions was only several hundred dollars? The half union patterns of 1877 perhaps underscore the growing disparity between America's rich and its masses of laborers. It was not a pretty year, 1877, but this coin is a sort of symbol of its time, a copper piece lightly coated in gold--a base metal of ordinary purpose, but gleaming on its surface. Students of our history could want little more, in point of fact, than an emblem such as this.
From The Pacific Rim Collection. (PCGS# 61891)
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