Indian Head Eagle (1907-1933)
The eagle was one of the classic denominations of U.S. coinage, created in the Coinage Act of 1792. Its subsidiary denominations the quarter and half eagle were commonly coined from the beginning of U.S. coinage through the early 20th century. The double eagle was struck from the 1850s through the early 20th century.
The Indian Head eagle ran from 1907 to 1933. The design was created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the personal urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, and though he died in 1907 the legacy of this and his famous double eagle would change U.S. coinage forever. Saint-Gaudens’s design was not easy to strike and took some modification, but when he died the president insisted that they finish the design that month so it could be struck.
Indian Head Eagle Design
Gold coins were mandated by the Coinage Act of 1792, with the quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle finding their genesis in that act. These coins were struck from 90% Gold and 10% Copper.
Saint-Gaudens only designed the eagle and double eagle, as he died before he could approach the others. The quarter eagle and half eagle were originally meant to be the same as the double eagle design, but the inscriptions were a challenge to fit on the smaller coins. Saint-Gaudens’s design was made for the larger coins, and as he had died not long after completing his work on the eagle and the double eagle, it fell to one of his students to complete it. Bela Lyon Pratt was directed to finish the smaller denominations.
The design features Liberty wearing a Native American headdress on the obverse and a standing eagle on the reverse. Saint-Gaudens’s original design was far too high of relief for the coin press, and even modified designs he provided later were too high, so Chief Engraver Barber and Saint-Gaudens’s assistant Henry Hering went back and forth until they could come up with an acceptable compromise.
There are a few known prototypes of 1907 as they were dialing the die in. These include the “wire rim” (so named because of the lip at the edge which was not meant to be part of the strike), then the rounded rim which came later. There were some minor design details like periods between words that changed as well.
There was no real need for the coin to be struck during World War I, as demand was low and supply was high as Gold came back from Europe to pay for the war. Striking stopped in 1916, then in 1920 they were made for one year at San Francisco, again in 1926, then 1930, 1932 and 1933. Circulation was low enough that if coins were not struck one year it would not be a huge deal.
The quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle were foundational coins for commerce, though high-value. The value of these coins was linked to the Precious Metal used for the main coin of the denomination, with the eagle being the base coin for Gold, the dollar being the base coin for Silver and the cent being the base coin for Copper.
This continued until base metal coins became a part of American coinage, which marked the beginning of the end for Precious Metal coins. Though the nickel came in the mid-19th century, it marked the beginning of a trend that would make its way through the middle of the 20th: the removal of Precious Metal from circulating coins. Eagles became a thing of the past earlier than other denominations, but they were not the only coin to fall by the wayside.
Eagles of all types have a high value due to their Gold content, but some have a very high premium. Indian Head eagles are not that rare before 1920 except for 1907 high relief pieces struck at the very beginning, but the 1920S and 1933 are key dates. Branch mints generally cost more.
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