Recently I fielded a riddle of my own from another department. Actually, it wasn’t a riddle, but a genuine question: why do numismatists call the big gold coins “double eagles” when there’s only one eagle on the back?
I giggled a little. I hadn’t thought about the term “double eagle” that way. Then I put on my Serious Professional cap and typed my reply. The word “eagle” in “double eagle” doesn’t actually refer to the bird on the reverse, but rather a denomination of ten dollars.
The usage dates back all the way to 1792, when the Second Congress passed the Mint Act, which laid the groundwork for the United States Mint and is followed (albeit with much modification) to the present day. The term “eagle” appears in Section 9 of the Act, which starts:
The section continues from the eagle through the half eagle (one-half of ten dollars or five dollars) and quarter eagle (one-quarter of ten dollars or two and a half dollars), before going on to silver. When the discovery of California gold inspired calls for a coinage denomination larger than the eagle, the Act of March 3, 1849 authorized the striking of “double eagles, each to be of the value of twenty dollars, or units …”
While terms like “dollar,” “cent,” and “dime” (originally (“disme”) are in common use today, “eagle” is not. Even when gold coins were made with regularity, they weren’t used much except by bankers and the wealthy. While many Americans grew up with cents and parts of a dollar, even in the early 1800s, gold coins were simply irrelevant to everyday life.
When the eagle denomination went back into production in 1838 after a 34-year hiatus, the denomination was written as “TEN D.” (for DOLLARS) instead of “ONE EAGLE.” Similarly, the early double eagles read “TWENTY D.” instead of “DOUBLE EAGLE.”
All too often, numismatists can be impatient with others who don’t understand the jargon, and I’m no exception. When I thought about it from the asker’s point of view, though, the question was perfectly logical.