Many are surprised to find that, as recently as the 1930s, the United States minted and distributed gold coins to be used in regular commerce. In fact, the U.S. Mint had an entire category--or denomination base--of coins called “eagles” that were introduced in 1795 and continued to be produced until 1933.
After 1837, the “eagle” group of U.S. coins were all made of 90% pure gold. (This is also expressed as .900 fine gold.) During the 19th century, U.S. coinage used four different denomination bases: In ascending order of value, these were the cent, the dime, the dollar, and the eagle. The cent base included the half-cent, cent, and double-cent coins, all of which were made of copper. Similarly, the dime base was made up of the half-dime, dime, and double-dime, and these were made of 90% silver*. The dollar base was comprised by silver coins (the quarter-dollar, half-dollar, and dollar) as well as, for relatively brief intervals, $1, $3, and $4 gold coins. There were, of course, a few exceptions, such as the nickel 3-cent piece and the 5-cent nickel.
*As an aside, the dime base may also be construed to include the silver 3-cent piece, commonly called a “trime,” which circulated during the second half of the 19th century to facilitate the purchase of stamps, which were 3 cents at the time.
Breaking the different denominations of coins up into these groups made plenty of sense in a decimalized coinage system. For instance, ten cents equaled a dime; ten dimes equaled a dollar; and ten dollars equaled an eagle. There was also the organization of coinage metals: copper was used for the lowest value coins, silver was used for the dime and dollar bases in the middle of the spectrum, and gold was used for the highest value coins. This system gave American coins a quant uniformity and organization--one that was lost completely with the changeover to copper-nickel clad coins.
Until 1850, the gold eagle was the largest denomination coin circulating in the United States, with a face value of $10. It was joined in the eagle group by quarter-eagle ($2.50) and half-eagle ($5) gold coins. Later, following the California Gold Rush, a larger denomination gold coin was needed with the great influx of freshly-minted gold, leading to the creation of the gold double-eagle ($20 face value).
Nonetheless, the gold eagle was the standard circulating gold coin throughout much of its lifetime. This does not mean, however, that it saw a lot of “commercial action.” Generally, gold coins of any denomination migrated between banks and customs houses, never actually reaching the pockets of average citizens. It was simply not practical to carry your money around in heavy, gold coins; people preferred to use gold and silver certificates (paper notes) in practice. It is probably true, however, that the gold eagle was used as tender more often than its double-eagle brethren.
Five different designs appeared on the gold eagle denomination coins over the years. The first two featured a “Turban Head” Lady Liberty, the first with a large eagle on the reverse, the second with a smaller eagle. There were also two types of the Coronet Head design--one without “In God We Trust,” and one including the religious motto. The last iteration of the $10 gold coin featured one of the oddest designs in American numismatics, but one that has an endearing principle behind it nevertheless.
The Indian Head gold eagle was first introduced in 1908 to replace the long-standing Coronet Head design, which was unchanged (other than adding the motto) for nearly seven decades. Designed by the famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who also created the artwork for the new $20 gold double eagle, the Indian Head version of the gold eagle began as a simple depiction of Lady Liberty. In fact, it was a rather similar portrayal of Miss Liberty as appears on the Peace dollar. President Teddy Roosevelt was adamant that the new gold eagle design include some iconic feature of the American Indian, something “picturesque and uniquely American.” Roosevelt suggested that Saint-Gaudens add a traditional Native American war bonnet to Liberty’s head, flowing feathers and all. The artist obliged the president, and the new design was born.
Many numismatic historians have hurled stones at this Frankensteinian creation, citing its lack of historical accuracy--no woman would have ever worn the headdress--and the artistic meddling by an elected official. These criticisms notwithstanding, contemporary observers seemed to catch Roosevelt’s drift, viewing the design as a novel fusion of European-American and American Indian cultures. In this author’s humble opinion, the composite image is, at minimum, an endearing attempt at cultural fusion in spite of its historical incongruity.
The circulating Pre-1933 gold coin known as the gold eagle should not be confused with the modern bullion coin, the American Gold Eagle. Colloquially, these .917 fine (22-karat) gold bullion coins are often called “Gold Eagles,” but they share virtually no commonalities, whether lineal or physical, with the original gold eagle coins.
Between its intriguing design alterations and its hefty bullion value--even in the 19th and early-20th centuries--the $10 Gold Eagle occupies a centrally important place in the history of American numismatics. These gold coins continue to be prized by collectors and studied by numismatists, reserving their memory for successive generations to enjoy.