Fractionals Are Fun: A History of Fractional Gold Coins in Letters and Published Media

Cal Fractional gold coins and the U.S. Mail

by Dr. Robert J. Chandler


OK, OK, they are formally called “California Small Denomination Gold,” or “Cals” as a dollar is a whole, and not a fraction. “Boring!” Such a designation for these whimsical coins, especially the octagonals, intrigued Californians and hence the nation. The term “Fractionals” leads to questions and then interest.

These thin stamped planchets were the California gold that Easterners knew. Gold coin did not circulate much in the paper banknote Atlantic states, so only a few New Yorkers or Philadelphians ever saw the $5, $10, $20, and $50 coins produced privately in the Golden State. Fractionals, 25 and 50 cents and $1 coins, easily obtainable from circulation, fit snugly into letters sent to the “States.” Here was actual CALIFORNIA GOLD! for the home folk to handle.

Background to Fractional Gold Research

The starting place for Fr­­actionals is Walter Breen’s and Ronald J. Gillio’s California Pioneer Fractional Gold which Robert D. Leonard, Jr., of Illinois, revised so ably in 2003 with the aid of many others. Leonard, a Fractional student since 1961, rewrote the 1983 first edition of Breen-Gillio. His inquisitive mind shines in Curious Currency (2009) making him an apt leader.

Among those scholars who aided this enterprise was Jack Totheroh (1914-2011), whose collection of more than 200 Period I (1852-1857) coins is now up for auction. His grandfather arrived in 1855, when San Franciscans minted Fractionals, and he was born in Niles during height of its movie-making. As a baby, Jack starred in a film. The tenacious Totheroh traced auction sales from the earliest records, and in 2005, this founding member of the Society of Private and Pioneer Numismatics in 1988 received its first Pioneer of the Year award.

Other notable Pioneer Fractional Gold revisers are Californian Mike Locke, the authority on later Fractionals as they evolved into souvenirs and tokens, and Dan Owens, author of California Coiners and Assayers (2000), and a diligent digger who supplied most of the following newspaper stories.

Contributor Robert H. Lande deserves his own paragraph. While a distinguished professor at the University of Baltimore’s Law School, Dr. Lande’s comments on the Professional Coin Grading Service site give good reasons to collect a complete set of high grade Period I Fractionals. It is “the impossible dream,” says this Man of La Mancha: “Many of the coins are simply too rare and seldom come onto the market.” Read his joy of discovery with Jack Totheroh’s collection in mind.

Collecting Fractionals is “proving to be a lot of fun,” Professor Lande proclaims. First, there is “the romance of collecting the small change of the California Gold Rush.” Second, “the prices of Cals are reasonable considering their scarcity,” especially with gold at $1600 to $1700 a troy ounce. Third and best, “The quest is so challenging.” Fractionals “must be diligently searched out, piece by piece, over many years.” Dr. Lande rightly concludes, “This is collecting at its finest!”

All have written for the Brasher Bulletin, the newsletter of the S.P.P.N. run by rare coin dealer Don Kagin, author of the standard Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States (1981) with a revised edition in the works. Kagin grew up in the coin business as his father Art and uncle Paul were most prominent, and Don has written his Personal Guide to Rare Coin Investments (1985).

Not to slight the other half of this auction house, Fred Holabird is an authority on bars, unfortunately not saloons, but western ingots. Of major importance, he brings more than 30 years’ experience as an auctioneer and seller of choice Western materials and an even longer entry in the gold business and mining.

We, the retired Wells Fargo Bank senior historian for 32 years, got sucked into these fascinating little coins on May 18, 1998. We walked into United States Stamp Company on Bush Street above Montgomery and bought a 25-cent 1867 Robert B. Gray & Co. Period II 25-cent piece. That did it. As a letter-collecting historian, we searched for mentions, and in 1998 purchased our first, an 1854 letter from Beal’s Bar. The Brasher Bulletin welcomes those we have found since.

Letters as Original Source Material

Always gracious, Jack Totheroh wrote us on November 8: “The letter provides the first hand, primary source information we have all been seeking to further establish California Small Denomination Gold as circulating as a medium of exchange. It is the first personal acknowledgement of the use of California Small Denomination Gold during the Gold Rush period.”

We were the first out West to find these mentions because we looked. Little did we know that Leonard had been doing it for some time. Fractionals are a very specialized field, unknown to general researchers and academic scholars. We expect, as searchers go through the great institutions with strong holdings of letters from California, more will pop up.

In the mid-1850s, the Joseph Brothers, Lionel and Josephus, the pioneer Fractional makers, struck advertising tokens proclaiming their accomplishments. This firm at 607 [current numbering] Montgomery Street, on the west side at Clay, announced they were “Watchmakers, Jewelers, Opticians, & General Importers” as well as (reverse), “The Cheapest House in California for Good Watches, Diamonds, Jewelry, Silver Ware, Cutlery &c &c.”

In the mid-1850s, the Joseph Brothers, Lionel and Josephus, the pioneer Fractional makers, struck advertising tokens proclaiming their accomplishments. This firm at 607 [current numbering] Montgomery Street, on the west side at Clay, announced they were “Watchmakers, Jewelers, Opticians, & General Importers” as well as (reverse), “The Cheapest House in California for Good Watches, Diamonds, Jewelry, Silver Ware, Cutlery &c &c.”

Fractionals and the Gold Rush

An overall history of California’s monetary problems sets the stage for the appearance of Fractionals. California had tons of raw gold, but dust was not legal tender and messy to handle. Furthermore, the U.S. Government would only accept U.S. gold coin for tariff duties, forcing commission merchants to hoard coin. On December 5, 1848, when President James K. Polk announced the abundance of gold in California, provoking a great rush the next year, he asked Congress to establish a mint in San Francisco during the coming session.

Not surprisingly, Congress did not act. Beginning in 1849, private minters began issuing coins, but some made too much in seigniorage. John Moffat came the closest to coining at the mint standard from 1837 to 1933 of $20.67 per troy ounce. In 1850 and then again in 1851, bankers drove light weight private coins from circulation.

Well, the government did set up the United States Assay Office under the capable Augustus Humbert, but in 1851 and 1852, only allowed him to strike $50, 2.5 ounce octagonal slugs. Even after 160 years of inflation, how would you like to do business with only $50 bills?

Californians were not amused by government thinking. W.E.I. Foote wrote October 31, 1851, “Gold dust is very scarce now and difficult to buy on account of the scarcity of small gold coin, and miners not being willing to take the $50 pieces of the U.S. Assay Office. Said pieces are 2% discount now on account of the scarcity of gold coin.” The discount rose to 4% or a $2 fee.

San Francisco’s gold coin shortage ended only in early 1852 when Hungarian assayers Samuel Count Wass and Augustus P. Molitor, and John L. Moffat & Co. struck full value $5, $10, and $20 coins. Their profits came from fees. Although the branch mint finally opened on April 3, 1854, lack of either acids or copper kept its coinage low, and the two private coiners supplied two-thirds of the circulating money. Finally, in 1856, Agoston Haraszthy, another brilliant Hungarian, pushed the mint beyond capacity to coin $2.1 million monthly of legal United States gold coins. Much was recoined privately minted gold and the private mints closed for good.

The same Gold Rush coin chaos encompassed “change,” or silver coins below $1 value. With so much valuable gold, Argonauts disdained them. Nothing less than a “bit” worth 12.5 cents circulated, with a dime being a “short bit.” They did not recognize copper at all.

In 1890, historian Hubert H. Bancroft, who arrived in March 1852, recalled those hectic days when coins from around the world were in great supply: “Silver was frequently raked into the drawer without counting or inspection and anything approaching in size and appearance a half or quarter dollar piece was accepted as such, and smaller pieces for a bit.”

Within the first period of Fractional coins from 1852 to 1857, journalists Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, both 49ers, and James Nisbet, like Bancroft, an 1852 arrival, affirmed in their Annals of San Francisco (1854) that “approximate values were bestowed upon the pieces.” Through 1855, shrewd operators imported French francs and Austrian 20 kreuzers worth only 18 cents and made 1/3 profit by circulating these “quarter dollars.”

To fill the demand for quarters, the most popular small coin, in 1855 and 1856, the new San Francisco mint struck 682,000, before dropping to 82,000 in 1857. At the same time, it coined 341,000 half dollars and continually increased their production. Silver dollars contained too much bullion to circulate, so firms used halves for payrolls.


Fractional Gold Coins Needed

Thus, in 1852 when the Joseph Brothers, and French jewelers Pierre Frontier & Eugene Deviercey, and Antione Louis Nouizillet began minting coins, there was a market for small change. Like high denomination privately minted gold coins, they chose standard U.S. coin designs for legitimacy.

The pioneers of 50 and 25-cent Fractionals, Lionel B. and Josephus B. Joseph, came from an eighteenth-century family of noted Liverpool silversmith, and had practiced that trade there until smitten by Gold Fever. Showing their versatility, in 1850 San Francisco they opened Joseph Brothers, jewelers, importers of watches and diamonds, opticians, and chronometer makers.

The New Orleans Picayune’s editor, obviously an authority on small change with a newspaper name commemorating a half real, remarked in June 1852 that a half dollar Joseph Brothers coin was “so much like the United States gold dollar piece, that the best judges would be completely deceived at a first glance.”

The Circulation of California Fractional Gold

The long debate between Fractionals as circulating coins or souvenirs has gone heavily to circulation. “They’re so Ugly, So They Were Probably Used as Money,” is how Professor Lande titled his argument. He declared that since their looks are “boring, repetitive, and ugly,” and “often are poorly struck,” they “actually circulated as money.”

His study of the Professional Coin Grading Service population shows that at least 2/3 of the dollar coins are worn, while their gold content approaches full value. Jack Totheroh analyzed Auction History File results to confirm dollar percentages, and add that 45 percent of lightweight halves and a third of the lightweight quarters showed circulation.

The U.S. Government certainly set precedent in 1853. It reduced the silver below face value in the U.S. 50, 25, and 10-cent pieces, so that they would circulate rather than being melted for bullion.

Out from California to throughout the United States went these little emissaries of California gold. Many Fractionals in California and elsewhere became jewelry, the additional use of small coins everywhere. Shining gold and burnished silver make a lady’s looks stand out.

The United States minted a $1 gold coin from 1849 to 1889, which make dandy earrings. The government copied the idea from private minter Christopher Bechtler who made the first U.S. $1 coin out of North Carolina gold in 1831. It took Tarheels seven years to get their mint, so San Franciscans, with tons more gold to coin, should have been happy theirs took only five years.

From 1824 to 1851, the Central American Republic, and between 1842 to 1863, Mexico, coined a tiny silver ¼ real. The U.S. copied the denomination from 1851 to 1873 with the silver “fishscale” 3-cent piece, the price of a postage stamp. The silver “Panama Pill” of 1904 is the smallest coin in the Western hemisphere. Many California Fractional types survive only holed or bearing solder mountings. The discovery 1849 Pacific Co. $1 gold piece, dug in New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1999, had been a piece of jewelry

Period Accounts of California Fractional Gold Coins

As California Fractionals appeared in the Golden State and then sailed away, they drew amazed comment from around the United States. Here is a sampling:

June 29, 1852, Louisiana. The New Orleans Picayune has the first report of a Fractional. It recorded receipt of “a private issue” California “gold half-dollar,” that had departed on June 1, either on the Pacific Mail’s Tennessee via Panama, or Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Independence via Nicaragua.

January 4, 1853, Upstate New York. The Schenectady Cabinet announced that former resident C.E. B. Howe, a passenger agent in Sacramento, sent it a quarter ounce nugget and “a California half dollar gold piece.” These would have left December 1, 1852, on the PMSS Panama or Vanderbilt’s Independence.

May 13, 1853, New York City. The Times on May 13, 1853, reported the arrival of Vanderbilt’s Prometheus with the passengers and mails that departed San Francisco on April 17, 1853, on the Brother Jonathan: “Gold coin, representing the value of one dollar and a half dollar, have recently been issued in San Francisco.”

April 29, 1853, Sacramento. The earliest mention of 25-cent gold coins. The Union reported, “A NEW COIN—A gold coin bearing the die of the United States Government, of the denomination of 25 cents, and no larger in the periphery of its dimensions than a small shirt button, has lately made its appearance as a legal tender of the circulating medium.” Although confused at the origin of the coin and thinking it a legitimate U.S. issue, the witty reporter found it “too small” for practical use. This gold quarter “could dodge a fellow’s fingers, considerably if driven unsustained into a close corner of the pocket.”

September 5, 1853, Pennsylvania. U.S. Marine James G. Hughes, aboard the 50-gun frigate St. Lawrence, wrote from San Francisco to his young friend Abraham R. Springer in Kulpsville, near Philadelphia. “The[re] is a coin heir is a cureoserty in the U.S. for the people are buying them up at 37 ½ cents and sending them home so I thought I would send you one.”  In a small packet glued to the letter, a bit of red sealing wax held a round 50 cent piece struck by Pierre Frontier & Eugene Deviercy. The wax retained the impression of the bow on the reverse, while the paper showed the impression of the coin. By now, like most small change, the tiny Fractionals were fiat money, with only three-fourths of their value in gold.

September 26, 1853. California. Murphy’s Camp. Ephraim Cutting sends four California gold dollars to his family in Boston. He had sent them because the $2.50 piece he sent in the mail on 7/23/53 were stolen out of the envelope before it got to Boston. He hoped the smaller coins would not be noticed. (Murphy’s Archive, HKA Grand Finale Sale, December, 2011)

November 16, 1853, Prussia. San Franciscan Frank Lecouvreur told his father that $1, 50 cent, and 25 cent Fractionals he handled were “too small to be practicable and are generally looked upon as curiosities.”

December 2, 1853, California. The Winfield Scott slammed into Middle Anacapa Island the day after sailing. From passenger luggage, modern divers salvaged a plentiful 51 Fractionals: Joseph Bros.: 1 1852 round half and 3 1853 round quarters; Frontier & Deviercy: 3 1853 octagonal halves and 2 1853 round quarters; Antoine Louis Nouizillet: 1 1852 and 3 1853 round, and 18 1853 octagonal halves, and 12 1853 round quarters; Hippolyte Gaime, Charles Guillemot & Co.: 1 1853 round half: and M. Deriberpie: 1 1853 round half and 6 1853 octagonal dollars.

February 9, 1854, Ohio. Gold miner Putnam J. Norton, 38, wrote from Beal’s Bar on the American River above Folsom to his daughter Cordelia, 11, in Fremont, that last fall, “I sent you and [his 22-year old brother] Charley some gold half dollars and Mr. [John M.] Smith sent some to his children at the same time.” While Smith’s grateful children thanked him, “I have not hird enney thing about those that I sent.”

March 15, 1854, Maine. Ned Hale wrote from Sacramento on March 15, 1854, wanting news from Guilford. “Tell the children to write often,” he asked his father. “You can find nuse down there that would pleas me every time, but here it is deferent for you don’t kno any boddy if I write about them.” Then came the bribe. “Here is a gold dollar for the one that write the most letters,” but Hale commanded, “Don’t quurrel for it. It is just the shape of a California Slug or $50 peace.”

June 3, 1854, Illinois. The Alton Courier’s editor reported that day he saw “a wee bit gold piece,” an octagonal quarter “passed in the city by a returned Californian.” 1854. Illinois. Miner Jacob Brown mailed a gold quarter to his sister Leah, wrapped in bluish paper inscribed “Presented from your Brother Jacob D.” As noted in a letter of R.E. Brown of Joliet Illinois, July 3, 1925, Robert Lecce Collection.

February 12, 1855, Maryland. The Baltimore Sun received four quarters in payment: “Embraced in a remittance from California for 132 subscriptions to the Sun, were four small gold coins, of octagon form.” They departed San Francisco on January 16, aboard the PMSS Sonora.

February 15, 1855, Rhode Island. James F. Eddy had enough of the mines. He decided to wind up his business and join his wife. From San Francisco he wrote to relatives, “I shall probably be at home in the course of 2 months. I send Martin a gold ½ of a Dollar and ¼ of a Dollar for Ann P’s Baby. Rather a poor present, but hope it will be acceptable.”

March 15, 1855, Maine. San Franciscan Mary Bonestell sent her brother “a little gold piece for Mother.”


1850s, Birmingham, England. In 1844, die sinker Joseph Moore began making miniature “model” coins, usually encased in small metal boxes, which became highly collectible. One boxed Gold Rush-themed set contained tiny tokens possibly modeled on fractionals, dated 1849, and labeled California Model” before the denominations os $1, 50 and 25 cents. Today they are rare.

(1857) January 23, 1879, Ohio. Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. “Wants to Know. Millford, O. January 21, 1879. To the Editor of the Commercial: Gold Bug, of Zanesville, is inquiring about twenty five cent gold pieces. If the Government

did not put them out how does it happen that I received three of them for change between the years 1855 and 1857, and have one now as bright as ever! (signed) GOLD QUARTER.

September 12, 1857, Virginia. The Central America sank with at least four of Antione Louis Nouizillet’s 1856 octagonal quarters that came aboard with passengers from the PMSS Sonora, sailing August 20, 1857. That salvors recovered 13 times as many Fractionals on the 1853 wreck of the Winfield Scott than on the 1857 Central America tells the tale. In 1856 when the private mints closed down, the French jewelers stopped making Fractionals. Although California’s population grew during the late 1850s, they did not see a demand for non-circulating souvenirs. Fractionals disappeared leaving writers in 1859 to apologize for their scarcity.

January 30, 1859, Vermont. Davis I. Durnham, 33, was a successful farmer in Penn Valley, near Grass Valley, Nevada County, while his wife, 29-year-old Lucinda, was expecting their first child as she wrote this letter to her husband’s relatives.

“Dear Sister Lucy,” Lucinda wrote, “Here are some [space for four] gold quarters for the children. We cannot get them eney whare in California, only in San Francisco, and they do not coin them there now at the Mint.” Intriguingly, like the Sacramento Union’s reporter in April 1853 who printed the first news of the quarters, Lucinda Dunham felt they were regular U.S. coins. This belief furthered their acceptance during the earlier 1850s.

“They only ceep them to a Jewelers shop there to sell for Specimens for people to send home,” she continued. “I sent by Moses when he went home [to San Francisco] for 10 of them. He sent them back to me in a letter and I have sent them all away but 2. When I sent these I sent one to Martha’s boy and one to Sophie’s girl and 4 to your children. I don’t know as I will ever have a chance to get any more.” Lucinda’s implication is that earlier, fractionals were everywhere, common and in good supply.

November 21, 1859. Pennsylvania. Eli H. Cope wrote from Virginia Town, Placer County, to returned gold miner G. Hoopes Matlack in West Chester acknowledging the scarcity of Fractionals: “I have not been able to get you that gold half dollar until last week, when Jack Shepperd and I went down to Sacramento City, and I found one, and got it for you. We had an old fashioned time of it, went to the Theatre and seen the elephant generally.”

Fractionals are FUN. They are affordable privately-minted gold coins from a numismaticly tumultuous era when Californians, ignored by the Government, struck gold coins from 25 cents to $50. They are remembrances then and now of the greatest Gold Rush in history.

Joseph Brothers storefront from an 1854 illustrated lettersheet

Joseph Brothers storefront from an 1854 illustrated lettersheet

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