The Lost Art - A Retrospective Look At U.S. Coinage September 09 2013
Let's face it, modern U.S. coins are boring. Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Washington, Kennedy—while it's important to recognize and honor our greatest presidents, I don't think anybody would argue that any of the coins within our current lineup are particularly beautiful or noteworthy. What's worse, the U.S. Mint has turned into a profit-grabbing institution with no sense of creativity. First came the 50 States quarters: a fairly interesting series with a few great designs as well as a few not-so-great ones. After that it started going downhill. Next, the Presidential Dollar Series, a series of coins that never had a chance of circulating in public but were instead created as a new product to sell to collectors for a premium. After that, the First Ladies, National Landmarks, U.S. Territories, and countless collectors' versions of each—proofs, silver proofs, reverse proofs, special uncirculated editions, and any other slight modification you could think of. Pretty soon we'll be seeing a special collector's coin for each U.S. river or lake (Minnesota's a toughie, gotta buy all 10,000!).
The U.S. Mint has lost not only its sense of creativity, but also its sense of aesthetics. Our coins used to be works of art. I'd like to use this article to point out what's been lost, by showcasing some of the most beautiful designs from U.S. numismatic history.
Indian Head penny (1859-1909)
The predecessor of the Lincoln penny. Despite its name, this coin doesn't actually feature an Indian. Rather, it is Lady Liberty making a bold fashion statement by wearing an Indian headdress. Preceded by the short-lived Flying Eagle cent series, these pennies were basically the first real modern-sized cents struck by the Mint. From the beginning of U.S. coinage in 1793 up to 1856, pennies were large half-dollar chunks of pure copper. Rising copper prices eventually forced a switch to smaller cent coins, struck in a hard copper-nickel alloy.
Buffalo nickel (1913-1938)
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt started a push to redesign the nation's coins on more artistic lines. This nickel was one of the ultimate results of his efforts. Designed by acclaimed American sculptor James Earle Fraser (who also created the famous sculpture "The End of the Trail"), this coin features the weathered profile of a Native American chief. Various Native Americans claimed to be the model for the coin and successfully exploited the resulting publicity, though Fraser maintained that he created the portrait as a composite. The identity of the buffalo was also a matter of contention, though the buffaloes themselves showed little interest in asserting their claims. Despite its name, actually made of mostly copper (as are the modern Jefferson nickels).
Mercury dime (1916-1945)
The predecessor of the Roosevelt dime. Lady Liberty decided to play dress-up again, this time wearing a winged cap reminiscent of the Roman messenger god Mercury. The reverse of the coin features the Roman fasces, a symbol of martial power and authority, along with an olive branch, the traditional symbol of peace. This coin was first struck in 1916, at a time when the U.S. had not yet entered into the First World War. The design strongly reflects America's isolationist stance— the nation wanted peace, but was powerful, unified, and prepared to fight if provoked.
Standing Liberty quarter (1916-1930)
The only coin to feature a topless Lady Liberty! The predecessor of the Washington quarter. Again, this coin strongly reflects the historical climate of its time. Liberty is looking towards the east, facing the European war, with her shield pointed in the same direction. She holds an olive branch in the other hand (she was originally designed holding a broadsword but that was deemed too overtly belligerent). In 1917, as the U.S. was preparing to enter war with Germany, the coin was redesigned to give Liberty a chainmail vest.
Walking Liberty half dollar (1916-1947)
Widely considered one of the most beautiful coins ever designed (of any country). Lady Liberty strides towards the rising sun of a new day, draped in the American flag and holding branches of laurel and oak, symbolizing civil and military glory. On the reverse, a powerful eagle perches on a mountain outcropping next to a small pine sapling.
Peace silver dollar (1921-1935)
The previous silver dollar series, the Morgan silver dollars, had last been struck in 1904. But the silver mining industry wanted a subsidy. Thanks to their tireless lobbying efforts, the Mint was forced to start striking dollars yet again. A design contest was held for a dollar that would capture America's desire for peace after the end of the Great War, and the winner was the young Italian sculptor Anthony de Francisci. Francisci's original design had the eagle holding an olive branch and a broken sword, but public outcry over what was perceived to be defeatist symbolism forced the Mint to remove the sword. Francisci had originally hoped to work from more beautiful female models for his design of Lady Liberty, but in the interest of time was "forced to settle" for his wife's profile.
When Teddy Roosevelt began pushing for a top-to-bottom redesign of U.S. coinage, he wanted the internationally-renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design all of the nation's new coins. Unfortunately, redesigning most coins required Congressional approval, and Teddy wasn't a patient man. But one coin that didn't require the approval of Congress was the double eagle, a heavy coin containing nearly an ounce of gold (currently worth $1200) and, with a face value of $20, the highest denomination struck by the Mint. Teddy quickly set Saint-Gaudens to the task. The ever-enthusiastic president encouraged Saint-Gaudens to produce a high-relief design for the double eagle, despite warnings from everybody actually working at the Mint. Saint-Gaudens wanted to use Roman numerals for the date, but again met objections from mint officials who worried that most Americans wouldn't know how to read it. These objections were quickly overruled by the president. Roosevelt also requested that Saint-Gaudens omit the words "In God We Trust" from the design, a phrase that had appeared on all U.S. coins since the time of the Civil War.
The final product you see above. Roosevelt loved it, exclaiming "It is simply splendid. I suppose I shall be impeached for it by Congress, but I shall regard that as a very cheap payment!" Unfortunately, the ultra high-relief design ended up taking 11 strikes of the dies on each coin to bring out all of the details. As all other circulated coins require only one strike, this meant the design was a bit impractical. A new lower-relief version was designed. Congress was outraged over the omission of the religious motto and forced it to be inserted. The Chief Mint Engraver quietly removed the Roman numerals in favor of a traditional date. Only 11,000 of the double eagles featuring Saint-Gaudens' intended design were ever struck. Each of those coins now sells for tens of thousands of dollars.
Unfortunately, Saint-Gaudens was in ailing health at the time and was unable to meet Roosevelt's wishes to work on the entire lineup of U.S. coins. This is one of the only coins he actually managed to design before succumbing to cancer. The Saint-Gaudens double eagle owes its existence to the quixotic enthusiasm of Teddy Roosevelt and the supreme talent of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. While it may have not been the most practical coin ever produced, it was an artistic masterpiece.