Pre-Federal coin redesign often unexplained: Colonial America

We are left to interpret little evidence aside from the coins themselves
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 07/08/16
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Colonial America column from July 25, 2016, Weekly issue of Coin World:

Changes in the designs of coins and paper currency are often con­troversial.

Few pre-Federal issues lasted long enough to see major design overhauls that attracted widespread notice. Without the sort of published public commentary that attends such modifications today, numismatists are left to interpret little evidence aside from the coins themselves.

For instance, among the Higley coppers of 1737 to 1739, numismatists have long assumed that the VALUE ME AS YOU PLEASE legend on some of these coins was a response to outcry over the previous design that suggests the halfpenny-sized copper had THE VALUE OF THREE PENCE. There’s no associated evidence of this.

The Tree coins of Massachusetts are divided by design type into Willow Tree, Oak Tree, and Pine Tree, names given them by numismatists but that were unknown while the coins were circulating.

A Guide Book of United States Coins suggests each of these types was struck for a seven-year interval, concurrent with each contract renewal given to the mint of John Hull and Robert Sanderson. I don’t share that opinion, particularly since the Willow Tree coins are hundred of times rarer than the Oak and Pine Tree coins that were ostensibly struck for the same period of time, but I can’t say I have a better suggestion for the reason behind the design change either.

The Vermont coppers started out with an ambitious and original design, the Landscape obverse paired with an all-seeing eye on the reverse. After less than two years, the coins were redesigned to look almost the same as English halfpence, Connecticut coppers, and other types that paired a head on the obverse with a seated figure on the reverse. Sometimes blending in is more profitable than being splashy.

Technological issues explain some design changes. The obverse of the Chalmers Rings shilling was cut with shallow relief; it quickly broke and was replaced with a new design entirely. The American Congress reverse design of the Fugio copper was deemed too intricate to strike large numbers of coins, but after being simplified a bit it was ready for prime time. 

Other design changes are harder to explain. Why was NOVA CONSTELLATIO left off the first 1783 Nova Constellatio silver pattern obverse? Why was a tiny bird included below the king on some St. Patrick’s coins or a little fox depicted on the reverse of some New Jersey coppers? We may never know, but it’s possible the reason was no reason at all.

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