In 1879, the average price of "love" — the kind that comes by the hour — in Washington, DC was about four dollars.

The United States arsenal of coinage contained nothing worth that. (Although France, Spain and other important European countries did. Hmmm.) We had the three dollar gold piece, though they weren't seen much because everybody used them to buy three-cent postage stamps. Next up was the five dollar half eagle. While the practice of the world's oldest profession might be thought to have engendered significant artistry in making change, it could be considered unseemly to the more refined of these businesswomen, and to their clientele. Something had to give.

Fortunately, a few folks plying the trade of the world's second oldest profession, always eager to please in exchange for campaign contributions and the like, had heard the call of the silver miners in their districts. When Germany went to a gold standard and divested the government's hoard of silver, the world price of silver dropped dramatically. Some from the House of Representatives went to bat by sponsoring a new coin. But a four dollar silver coin would have been huge, and silver had lost favor with some people, so two new bimetallic coins were proposed: a one dollar "goloid" with 96% silver and 4% gold, and a 90%/10% gold and silver four dollar piece.

The four dollar coin was to be named the Stella, and would be the baseline for a family of multiply- and fractionally-denominated coins to parallel the Eagles. Two big names in the coin design biz, Charles Barber and George Morgan, submitted similar designs[1], and patterns of each were struck; a total of 435 in 1879, all but ten of which were Barber's, and 25 more in 1880, again with ten being Morgan's "coiled hair" design. These proof patterns tended to find themselves in the possession of Congressmen, who would decide which design would be chosen to be coined for circulation; they were charged the cost of production, which was about $6.50 I'm told.

For whatever reason (perhaps related to the bimetallic composition of the coin, which has never worked out well, or maybe just poltical infighting), Congress decided not to issue the coin after all.

As the only evidence of the coin that never was, these Stella proofs were highly sought after by collectors, most of whom were destined never to own one. But in the few years after they were made, some of them were to be found adorning the decolletage of the high-end madams in town.[2]

I don't know what becomes of pattern proofs of new coins these days, but I would guess they don't get spent at face value. (Though perhaps the Honorable Members did get more than the normal treatment for their four dollar gelt.) On the other hand, our elected leaders aren't known for caring overmuch how they spend their loot.

Obviously, their rarity makes all Stellas very valuable today, the Morgan design even more so, being super-rare even within the 460 total ever made. Folks who believe in the value of hard money like to say that an ounce of gold would buy a man a suit in the time of Julius Caesar, would buy one in the Middle Ages, and will still buy one today. For these folks, buying the temporary affection of a dedicated craftswoman with a Stella, the price of love today ranges from thirty five thousand to half a million dollars.

[1] The designs were very similar, a left-facing profile of a woman; Barber's had "flowing hair" loosely hanging around her neck, Morgan's "coiled hair" was in a bun and gave the impression of a frumpy housewife. I don't know if the general idea was dictated to them or what. The reverse design was identical on both, and probably created by someone else. (It is not unheard of for the obverse and reverse designs to come from different people.) The odd thing about the reverse of the Stella, and as far as I know it was unique in this, is that the value was described not only as "Four Dollars" but also "400 CENT".

[2] The female busts on United States coins are not generally archetypes of feminine beauty, but between the two types of Stellas, the Barber "flowing hair" looks much better than the Morgan. Fortunately, since more than 95 percent of them were Barbers, the bordello proprietor walking the streets with a Stella on her necklace probably was wearing the more flattering of the two.

I've just found out that, if you'd like to get a piece of history at a somewhat lesser price, you can search out one of the Stella tribute coins made by the Republic of Liberia in 2002, using .999 fine gold in a 1/5 ounce coin. A total of 790 were made, and you'd think they would be split between the Barber and Morgan designs in the same proportion as the originals, but, alas, no. There are 380 of the Morgan design and 410 of the Barber. Who thought that up, I have no idea. The reverse is similar to the original except for having mottos of Liberia rather than of the United States. The star design is the same, but it says 4000 CENT to go along with the FORTY DOL. face value.


  • Conversation with a coin dealer
  • "A Guide Book of United States Coins" (The Red Book), Whitman Publishing