United States Pattern Coins:
A History and Overview

Harry Bass and the Pattern Series

Often the path to collecting a numismatic specialty begins by reading. In the case of Harry Bass, he obtained a copy of Dr. J. Hewitt Judd’s United States Pattern, Experimental and Trial Pieces, perhaps by chance in the course of gathering books for his immense library. On an unrecorded day he sat down with the book, looked through it quickly, then settled down to study the text.

The field of patterns is so vast that Harry, like other collectors of the past, zeroed in on items that he found to be of special interest. Later, he determined that his favorite pieces were those associated with the year 1877, particularly the pattern half dollars which were made in a wide number of die varieties and combinations. He also contemplated acquiring patterns and trial pieces in many other series, preferably in the metal in which related regular coins were issued. That is, for patterns of silver denominations, from the tiny three-cent piece to the large dollars and trade dollars, he sought impressions made in silver, paying less attention to off-metal strikes in such compositions as bronze or aluminum. For the gold denominations he sought impressions actually made in gold, although such pieces were scarcely ever available.

Although along the way he acquired many patterns in copper and bronze, he did not like these as much "because they were more readily susceptible to tarnish." The preference for one metal over another is not particularly unusual in numismatics, and while in the main thrust of his efforts Bass collected regular gold coins, other collectors with equal fervor have gathered large copper cents of 1793-1857 or some other copper or bronze specialty.

Casting idealism aside—for it was simply not possible to achieve completion or even near-fulfillment of such lofty goals as acquiring one each of the 1877 half dollars or of gold patterns actually struck in gold—Bass seems to have collected here and there, not necessarily with a goal in mind. This was in the period when he also acquired assorted tokens and medals, certain paper money, and other items that caught his eye. Later, he made no efforts to complete his pattern holdings or make them definitive, although he did add certain classic pieces he found to be of interest as they came up for sale, particularly in auctions.

The core collection of pattern coins retained by the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Research Foundation includes many of the "rarest of the rare" pieces in the series, among which are many that are renown for their extreme beauty, the 1872 "Amazonian" quarter, half dollar, and silver dollar, and the 1879 "Schoolgirl" dollar being among many examples. The 1879-1880 $4 Stella coins are often discussed in print, but are so rare that they are seldom seen in the flesh, save for the 1879 Flowing Hair issue; the Bass Collection includes strikings of all. The Gobrecht silver dollars of 1836, 1838, and 1839 are the stuff of numismatic dreams, and the Bass Collection includes some of the finest. The complex Standard Silver patterns of 1869 and 1870 are represented by selected specimens, as are experiments with the creation of the commercial dollar, later called the trade dollar.

Just as in geography there must be valleys and lowlands to properly showcase nearby mountains, in the pattern series there are quite a few "ugly ducklings," which serve as a foil or contrast to such beautiful pieces as the "Schoolgirl" dollar. Perhaps the paradigm of unattractiveness is a curious three cent piece attributed to the year 1849, with the design consisting simply of the figure 3 on one side and the Roman numeral III on the other.

Experimental mottoes on United States coinage in the 1860s are illustrated on several different issues, including GOD OUR TRUST, these pieces being the precursors to the adopted IN GOD WE TRUST.
Various experimental Liberty Head coins of the 1881-1883 years include not only the familiar 1883 nickel five-cent piece, but interesting cents and three-cent pieces as well. The innovative goloid metric coins of the late 1870s and 1880s are likewise represented.

Patterns are diverse, and a row of a dozen different issues will likely reveal a dozen different designs and concepts. Such provide the fascination for which the pattern series is famous.

Although by the early 1990s the numismatic interests of Harry W. Bass, Jr., had long since turned to early gold coins 1795-1834, he continued to share his pattern coins. In no instance was this more generous than in the early 1990s when he provided a guest house, car, and other arrangements for Andrew W. Pollock III and Cathy Dumont, of the Bowers and Merena Galleries staff, during their week-long stay in Dallas to study and photograph his cabinet. His generosity was a major building block in what became the latest and most comprehensive text on the series, United States Patterns and Related Pieces, by Pollock, published in 1994.

Introduction to Patterns

Nineteenth century poet John Greenleaf Whittier mused in "Maud Muller" that the saddest words of tongue or pen are these four words, "what might have been." Readers of those romantic lines came to wish that Miss Muller, of low social station in life, had been able to fulfill her life by becoming the wife of a high-ranking judge, who could not entertain such a thought, despite his inner desires, as he was caught up in the swirl of society.

Somewhat similarly, in the field of numismatics patterns tell the story of "what might have been," but never came to pass. Today, when gazing at the aforementioned "Schoolgirl" pattern dollar in the Bass Collection, we can only muse wistfully how nice it would be if this beautiful design had been adopted for regular coinage, and millions had been minted for the masses. However, that was not to be.
Under the all-inclusive term of patterns are gathered over 1,500 different coins that can be divided into other categories, some of which overlap. Many patterns are members of more than one group. The classification of patterns has never been an easy task, and no system ever developed has been pleasing to all.

Major categories include these:

Trial Pieces
Coins struck to test the dies, the coining process, or some other aspect of coinage production are known as trial pieces. There is some overlap between this category and experimental pieces. Also, certain trial pieces—indeed, most of them, were really made as numismatic delicacies. Such is the nomenclature with which specialists contend.

Experimental Pieces
Experimental pieces, just as easily called experimental coins, include those struck to test new concepts, such as different alloys of silver and copper, the feasibility of aluminum for coinage, the use of holes in the center of a coin to enlarge the diameter while retaining the same weight (experiments with holed coins were made in 1850-1851 and 1884-1885), etc.

In the truest form, pattern coins illustrate new designs produced by Mint engravers (usually), different from those currently being used, or, in some instances, proposals for forthcoming designs intended to replace those currently in use. Also, from time to time patterns were made to display variations in inscriptions such as the Motto IN GOD WE TRUST, which had as antecedents in pattern coinage such mottos as GOD AND COUNTRY and GOD OUR TRUST. Thus, such concepts as the 1858 "skinny eagle" used on certain cents, the 1859 "French Head" employed on half dollars, and the seated Indian Princess motifs of the late 1860s can be called patterns, as can be the Standard Silver issues of the 1869 era. Often, if a pattern proved to be of numismatic interest it was restruck, or combined with an irrelevant die, to create a restrike or numismatic delicacy, both of which are addressed below.

Numismatic Delicacies
Numismatic delicacies, called pieces de caprice by numismatic historian Don Taxay, comprise the largest category in the pattern series. In a phrase these are pieces made not to illustrate unusual metallic compositions or new designs or some other forward-thinking concept of mintage, but, instead, to provide rarities for sale to the collector trade. These coins include strikings of gold denomination dies and other metals such as copper and aluminum, the illogical combining of dies not intended for each other (such as a two-headed half dollar pattern of 1859), the extensive Standard Silver coinage of 1869 and later (which was made with plain edges and reeded edges, and in metals including silver, copper, and aluminum), etc.

Restrikes are coins struck from pattern dies, but produced for collectors at a later date, such as Gobrecht silver dollars dated 1836, 1838, and 1839, restruck at the Mint circa 1859 and later; restrikes of 1836 2-cent patterns and gold dollars of the same date, etc.

Pattern Distributions
Click this link to view the distribution of patterns by year in the Harry Bass Core Collection.


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