The gold dollar was a United States dollar gold coin produced from 1849 to 1889. Composed of 90% pure gold, it was the smallest denomination of gold currency ever produced in the United States. When the US system of coinage was originally designed there had been no plans for a gold dollar coin, but in the late 1840s, two gold rushes later, Congress was looking to expand the use of gold in the country’s currency. The gold dollar coin was authorized by the Act of March 3, 1849, and the Gold Liberty Head type began circulating soon afterward. Because of the high value of gold, the gold dollar coin is the smallest coin in the history of US coinage.
The gold dollar coin had its origins more than a decade before the Act of March 3, 1849, in the Carolina gold rush of the 1830s. The sudden availability of gold caused the US government to make several changes to its coinage system. Gold coins were minted in considerably larger quantities, and new mints were opened at Charlotte and Dahlonega solely for the production of gold coins. It was around this time that the first gold dollar coins were minted in the United States, but not by the government. A North Carolina jeweler by the name of Alt Christoph Bechtler capitalized on the gold rush, by offering to turn prospectors’ raw gold into coins. He began offering this service in the early 1830s, and by 1840 he had produced over $2.2 million in gold coinage. Nearly half of this was in the form of gold dollar coins.
Bechtler’s actions were perfectly legal at the time, but his success attracted the attention of the US government. It was suggested by members of the government that the US Mint take part in this new, profitable, venture and begin minting gold dollar coins of their own. In 1836, Congress authorized the US Mint to do just that, but Mint Director Robert Patterson opposed the idea, and nothing came of the matter for the time being. In 1849 however, things changed. A new gold rush in California had sparked demand yet again for more gold coinage. Director Patterson still objected, but was unable to dissuade Congress. The Act of March 3, 1849 authorized production not only of gold dollar coins, but another new coin, the gold double eagle.
Production of both denominations would soon begin in U.S. Mints.
Designed by James B. Longacre, the first type of gold dollar coin is known as the “Liberty Head” type or the “Type I” gold dollar. The obverse of the coins depicts Liberty's head circled by thirteen stars. She faces to the left and wears a coronet inscribed with the word "LIBERTY". The reverse depicts a simple wreath encircling the date and value of the coin, and the inscription “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA”. Weighing 1.672 grams, the coin had a composition of .900 gold and .100 copper. It therefore contained .04837 ounces of pure gold. Starting in 1849, a quantity of the Liberty Head gold dollar coin was minted each year at Philadelphia and Dahlonega. The coin was also minted at Charlotte, New Orleans, and San Francisco. The quantity minted in total each year ranges from 511,301 in 1850 to 4,384,149 in 1853. However, a problem soon arose with this type. The Liberty Head gold dollar coin had a diameter of only 13 mm. At less than three-quarters the size of the present-day dime, it was the smallest coin in U.S. history. Because it was so small, it could be easily lost despite its high value. As a result of this issue, many people were highly critical of the new coin. In response to their objections, the US Mint began experimenting with new designs. It was important that the weight of the coin remain the same because of gold values, so they soon began experimenting with putting a hole in the middle of a larger coin. These plans were scrapped when James Snowden became Mint Director in 1853. His idea was that the coin simply be made wider but thinner, and that James Longacre redesign its faces.
Small Head (1854-1856): In 1854 the US Mint issued the redesigned gold dollar coin with an increased diameter of 15 mm. As planned, neither its weight not its composition was changed. James Longacre designed a new obverse for the coin based on his work with the three-dollar piece. The head depicted on the obverse has commonly been described as an "Indian princess," and gave this type its name. However, historians have suggested that the design is actually based on a Roman marble figure, to which a headdress was added by Longacre. More specifically, it has been suggested that he based the design on “Crouching Venus” a statue on display in the Philadelphia museum. In addition to the obverse, the reverse of the gold dollar coin was also modified somewhat, and the inscription “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” was moved to the obverse. The overall wreath design remained unchanged however. In the few years of this type's production, only six date mint mark combinations were created: 1854, 1855, 1855C, 1855D, 1855O, and 1856S. The quantities minted in total each year were 783,943 in 1854, 824,883 in 1855, and 24,600 in 1856. Although the diameter of the gold dollar coin had been considerably improved, the new Indian Head type was not free from problems. The height of the relief was such that very few of the coins produced were fully struck, and as a result the design was not sturdy enough for circulation. The Mint would have to redesign the gold dollar coin once again.
In 1856, a newly durable gold dollar coin was released by the Mint. Dubbed “the Large Head type,” Longacre's new design was very similar to that of the Small Head type, but the size of the Indian head on the obverse increased, while at the same time it became more flat. The headdress changed location as well, and the details of the face were slightly altered. The new type was minted continuously at Philadelphia, but in certain years quantities were also produced at Charlotte, Dahlonega, and San Francisco.
In addition, proofs were minted at Philadelphia from 1859 on. The quantity of proofs minted each year ranges from 20 in 1874, 1875, 1877, and 1878 to 1,779 in 1889. In total, the quantity of dollar gold coins minted each year ranges from 420 in 1875 to 1,764,396 in 1856. Production of the gold dollar coin was discontinued in 1889.