You can be forgiven if you think that US gold coins were called “eagles” due to designs that featured the national bird on them. It’s not true, but it’s an easy mistake to make.
In fact, the eagle is one of the four base denominations specified in the original Coinage Act of 1792, the others being the cent, the dime, and the dollar.
The Original Eagles
While the origin of the name is murky, the eagle denomination remained in use for most US gold coins for over 141 years until they were discontinued in 1933. One eagle represented ten dollars’ worth of 22-karat gold, or approximately ½ ounce. While the coin’s gold content fluctuated slightly over the years, it never varied more than a grain or two, keeping it consistent with gold’s market value.
From the coin’s inception, fractional eagles were issued as smaller gold coins called half eagles ($5) and quarter eagles ($2.50). Those remained in production until 1929, four years before all gold coins were removed from circulation and private ownership of gold was prohibited.
While fractional eagle coins were made more or less continuously through the early years, production of $10 eagles was suspended from 1805 to 1838 due to lack of demand.
Despite their official name, the term “eagle” never appeared on the coins; instead, they carried no denomination until 1808 when they began being designated in dollars.
Double Eagles and Other US Gold Coins
A $20 gold coin was introduced in 1849 and called the Double Eagle. It was a popular coin and remained in production until all gold coins were withdrawn in 1933. Also in 1849, a $1 gold coin entered circulation without any reference to the eagle. Due to the value of gold, it was the smallest US coin ever made. Minted in small numbers, it was discontinued in 1889. A $3 gold coin was made from 1854-1889 but proved unpopular and was discontinued. It never carried an eagle designation either because of, well, the math. A $4 gold coin, known as a “Stella” due to the large star on its reverse, was proposed for international use, and a few pattern coins were made in 1879 and 1880, but never went into circulation.
While design details changed over the years, eagle coins did always portray an eagle on their reverses in one form or another. Most denominations also depicted Lady Liberty in various guises on their obverse, or face. The exceptions were the 1908-1929 half- and quarter-eagles that carried the bust of an American Indian on the face. During that period, Lady Liberty also wore a Native American headdress on the face of the $10 eagle coin.
The best-known design, however, was the Walking Liberty design of Auguste Saint-Gaudens on the $20 Double Eagle from 1907 to 1933. Produced with three minor changes, it is considered by most to be the most beautiful US coin design.
Many heavily circulated early gold coins are available for a small premium over their bullion value, which is significantly higher than face value. But some rarer dates can command spectacular prices, as do coins in top condition. A $10 Eagle sold recently for $5 million and a 1933 St. Gaudens Double Eagle brought $7.5 million at auction in 2002.
In 1985, Congress authorized production of gold bullion coins. Called American Gold Eagles, they are sold through coin and bullion dealers in 1/10, 1/4, 1/2, and 1-ounce denominations and are guaranteed by the U.S. government to contain the stated amount of gold in troy ounces. The US Mint also makes other gold collectable and commemorative coins for sale direct to the public.