Benjamin Franklin's Fugio designs appear on coins, notes: Colonial America

Motif served on several forms of pre-U.S. Mint currency
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 12/18/15
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This is the time of year we could all probably use a little more sun.

The sun appears within the familiar Fugio iconography, used on Continental paper money, the 1776 Continental dollars, and the 1787 coppers issued at the behest of the Continental Congress. The Fugio motif was designed by Benjamin Franklin for use on the fractional denominations of Continental Currency that were authorized in February 1776.

Hundreds of thousands of notes with the Fugio designs were printed, all in denominations from a ninth of a dollar to a half dollar. The face of the note shows the sun over a sundial with the inscription FUGIO / MIND YOUR BUSINESS. The word “fugio” is Latin for “I fly,” evoking passage of time and need to accomplish your tasks. 

The rising sun peeks over mountains on two beloved early American coin designs: the Vermont landscape coppers of 1785 to 1786 and the 1787 Brasher doubloon. While the design for Ephraim Brasher’s famous gold coin was borrowed from the New York state seal, the evocative wide-eyed sunrise scene on the Vermont coppers was an original composition by an unknown artist. The Vermont landscapes remain among the most popular of all pre-Federal coppers today. 

Sun motifs appear on several issues of early American paper money. The Massachusetts Rising Sun notes, engraved in 1779 by Paul Revere, are among the most well known. The depiction of the sun varies by denomination. Some show a pleasant face, while some renditions look more like a sea urchin. Just so the symbolism would be evident, each of the suns on these notes is captioned RISING.

On Continental Currency, identical design elements incorporating the sun appear on the backs of the rare May 10, 1775, $20 issue and the Nov. 2, 1776, $30 note, with a caption reading CESSANTE VENTO CONQUESCEMUS, or “when the storm relents we shall rest.” 

Smaller suns also appear on the Massachusetts notes of 1744, New Jersey notes of the 1750s through 1770s, and the back of several Pennsylvania notes of the 1770s. The 1744 Massachusetts notes are so rare that most collectors will never encounter one, but the New Jersey and Pennsylvania notes are both available in plenty. The New Jersey notes depict a single sunface on the £3 note, two for the £6 note, and a half a sunface on the 30-shilling note as a graphic means to discourage fraud, perhaps the first numismatic indication of the truism that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

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