The $2.50 gold “quarter eagle” was first minted in 1796, making it the last of the original denominations authorized by Congress in the Coinage Act of 1792 to be produced. The quarter eagle's small size (barely larger than a modern penny) and high value (a week's wages for an average worker) did not endear it to a public leery of carrying something so valuable that was so easily lost.
The silver dollar was preferred for everyday use, while the larger $5 gold half eagle and $10 gold eagle were used in large transactions between businesses and banks; therefore, demand for the quarter eagle languished. From the coin's introduction in 1796 through 1808, only 22,197 coins were produced. No quarter eagles were minted at all from 1799 through 1801. or in 1803. Since the coins were unwanted in circulation, they mainly were used as gifts by the well-to-do, or gathered dust in bank vaults.
Quarter eagle production was completely halted between 1809 through 1820. In 1821, production resumed sporadically, but with a diameter reduced from 20mm to 18.5mm, and a marginal increase in thickness to hold the specified weight of gold. The quarter eagle's diameter was reduced and thickness increased again in 1829, and the U.S. Mint began annual (but still very small) production of the coin.
Liberty lost her cap and gained a ribbon in her hair late in 1834, retaining this new “Classic Head” design through 1839. This new design was required to differentiate the new coins from the old, as Congress debased US gold coinage from .9167 (22K) fineness, to .8992 fineness in 1834, due to the escalating price of gold. US gold coins of all sizes until this point had been purchased en masse with equal face value silver coinage, then melted down and the gold sold at a profit. Citizens were allowed trade in their old 22K quarter eagles and receive $2.66 in return. Three years later, the gold purity for US coins was marginally adjusted to an even .900 fineness (90% purity,) where it remained until gold coins were removed from circulation permanently during the Great Depression.
1838 marked the first year that quarter eagle gold coins were minted at a branch of the US Mint, with the Charlotte, NC Mint striking 7,880 coins. The new Mint branches at New Orleans and Dahlonega, GA began striking quarter eagles in 1839. All three original branch U.S. Mints were closed down in 1861 during the Civil War, as they were located in Confederate territory. The San Francisco Mint, established in 1854, struck quarter eagles sporadically through the 1850s, and split production with the main Mint in Philadelphia until 1879. All subsequent quarter eagles came solely from Philadelphia, with the exception of 1911, 1914, and 1925, when production was split with the Denver Mint.
1840 saw the introduction of one of the longest-lived coin designs in US history: the “Coronet” design of Christian Gobrecht. The Gobrecht design had been introduced on the $10 Eagle gold coin in 1838, and the $5 Half Eagle in 1839. Changing the quarter eagle gave all US gold coins the same design. The “Coronet” quarter eagle was produced every year for 68 years with no major changes, from 1840 through 1907. It held the crown of longest-lived US coin design in history, until it was surpassed in 2014 by the Roosevelt dime.
The turn of the 20th century saw a revival in US coin design, spurred by President Theodore Roosevelt. His hand-picked artist for this renaissance in American coinage, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, died of cancer after only the double eagle and eagle designs had been completed. It fell to Saint-Gaudens's protege, Bela Lyon Pratt, to design the new half eagle and quarter eagle. Using a controversial incuse minting method, the features of the coin were recessed into the field of a thick coin. Pratt's images of an American Indian chief and standing bald eagle are actually more popular now than they were when they were introduced over 100 years ago. The Indian Head quarter eagle was minted annually from 1908 through 1915, when World War I intervened. Production resumed in 1925 through 1929, when the last quarter eagles made rolled off the presses as Wall St collapsed and the Great Depression began.
Due to the extremely low mintage for many years, and thousands of coins being melted down, assembling a full collection of quarter eagles is not for those who lack patience, or a deep wallet. The total mintage for the U.S. quarter eagle from 1796 to 1929 amounted to a little over 19 million coins. Several years have only a handful of known examples in mint state, and key date quarter eagles are considered some of the most rare of all US gold coins.
LIST OF DESIGNS
Capped Bust to Right (1796–1807)
Capped Bust to Left, Large Head (1808)
Capped Head (1821–1834)
Classic Head (1834–1839)
Liberty Head (Coronet) (1840–1907
Indian Head (1908–1915, 1925–1929)