Some of us got hooked on the hobby because the design of a coin moved us emotionally. We beheld an image of an eagle, wreath, flag or shield and felt patriotic, proud or blessed.
We may even have assembled a special type set based on a certain image and what it represents, such as the bison and its association with the Plains Indian or the American West.
Icons are powerful symbols that bestow identity and endure through the ages. Coins are among the few everyday items that remind us about our heritage in a modern world teeming with product brands and celebrity images.
“Iconography” is an art history term. It is based on Greek words that mean “image writing,” which is what sculptors, engravers and designers do on our coins. When we interpret those images, we decode their meaning (or iconography).
The most prevalent icon in our coinage is the eagle, which represents our country and is often found on the reverse with the legend “United States of America.” When we place an olive branch (peace) in one talon and arrows (power) in the other, we are writing images on our collective conscience and retelling the American story.
The iconic eagle is not alive as if in a zoo. It’s an emblem. Neither is the eagle personified as a citizen, even though it represents all of our citizens. It may stand aright on a branch; but that eagle really stands for our values.
The design of a coin conveys those values, as on the reverse of the 1995-W Civil War gold $5 commemorative coin, featuring one of the most elaborate constellations of icons produced by the U.S. Mint.
The eagle stands on a slanted Union shield, a branch in the talons of one foot, arrows in the other and a liberty ribbon in its beak inscribed let us protect and preserve, which is what the Civil War achieved in unifying our country.
A few of our coins are less effective in expressing core values, especially in the gold $5 series. Two examples come to mind: the 1987-W Constitution and 1991-W Mount Rushmore commemoratives.
The eagle on the Constitution coin holds an ink feather as if writing the charter document. That personifies the eagle, placing it outside of our iconography. Such an image might work for the Writer’s Guild of America but not for the United States of America.
The eagle on the Mount Rushmore coin holds a chisel in one talon and a mallet in the other, as if sculpturing the mountain. That also personifies the eagle, placing it outside of our iconography and more within the iconography of Austria (where I lived and studied as a youth).
Austrian coins such as the gold 100-shilling series from 1926 to 1934 feature a black eagle with a hammer in one talon and a sickle in the other, representing agriculture and industry.
Interpret the meaning
Learning to interpret the meaning of icons is a surefire way to immerse oneself in the hobby, not only to critique coin design as I have done here but also to learn the iconography of world coins. I’ve found that especially instructive when teaching numismatics to youth.
Kids like to travel imaginatively to other lands, and helping them interpret the symbols of other countries is a way to transport them there numismatically.
In fact, I’ve invented my own hobbyist term for “image writing” and interpretation. I shifted the “I” in “Iconography” so that the term reads “Coinography,” mapping meaning of coinage so as to treasure it even more.
Michael Bugeja, a coin collector since childhood, is a professor at Iowa State University and also serves as president and Webmaster of the Ames, Iowa, Coin Club. He is a nationally known author, journalist and educator.