When I’m not being a home hobbyist, I’m directing a journalism
school at one of the country’s leading research institutions, known
for science and information technology.
My job requires that I do research following certain procedures
and methods to ensure that my studies can be replicated by other
What would be the result, I wondered, if I applied the same
procedures to numismatics?
Earlier this year I presented my research to the Citizens Coinage
Advisory Committee, of which I am a member. This was a study on coin
design, analyzing the placement and number of devices on each
denomination of U.S. circulating coinage from 1792 to the present. (I
omitted “special” series such as the State quarter dollars.)
In all, I analyzed more than 275 coin types. My type count
includes design changes in certain types, such as different reverses
of Flowing Hair large cents.
I noted whether the following conventional devices appeared on the
obverse or reverse (or not at all): denomination, date, UNITED STATES
OF AMERICA legend, Liberty insignia, eagle symbol, arrows, olive
branch, stars, wreath emblem, mottoes such as IN GOD WE TRUST and E
PLURIBUS UNUM, and the number of devices on each side of the coin.
My research questions concerned:
On which side of the coin did any of the listed components appear?
Which coins and series had the fewest and most devices?
What design trends could be discerned throughout the decades?
What characteristics (if any) did our most popular coins share?
The study yielded amazing results, not only about categories of
coins like older versus modern commemorative coins, but on individual types.
Who would have thought that the Morgan dollar would emerge as
unique among circulating coinage?
The Morgan dollar is one of America’s most beloved and collected
coins. Designed by engraver George T. Morgan, the obverse is
considered by many to feature the profile of schoolteacher Anna
But what makes the Morgan dollar unique, apart from those
attributes? It is the only circulating type that contains all the
conventional devices of American coinage listed earlier.
Perhaps that is the allure!
Granted, the Morgan dollar’s large planchet size plays a role in
providing a large enough canvas for all these devices; but they are
also artistically placed, with “Liberty,” for example, wearing a cap
rather than standing alone and the wreath on the reverse acting as a
frame for the olive branch and arrows held in the eagles talons.
The date and the E PLURIBUS UNUM motto on the obverse and UNITED
STATES OF AMERICA and the spelled out denomination on the reverse
encircle the main design features while the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, in
a smaller font size, is above the wingspan of the eagle.
And yet, the coin has ample fields to add depth — so much so, in
fact — that Proof and Deep Mirror Prooflike Morgan dollars dazzle the
eye in watery reflectivity. The design is a work of art.
Michael Bugeja, a coin collector since childhood, is a professor
at Iowa State University and also a member of the Citizens Coinage
Advisory Committee. He is a nationally known author, journalist and educator.