Ugly duckling coins may mark the low points of design, but they have their charm

However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to these U.S. coins
By , Coin World
Published : 07/15/16
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It seems that among U.S. coin designs, some are universally praised and some seem to enjoy consistent disdain from collectors.

From the soaring heights of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ 1907 High Relief double eagle — considered by many to be the finest U.S. coin design — to the lowly Anthony dollar, the more than two centuries of coins produced by the U.S. Mint have seen high points and low points.

Perhaps the finest text on the aesthetics of U.S. coinage is Cornelius Vermeule’s 1971 book Numismatic Art in America. Vermeule spent much of his career as a curator of Greek and Roman art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. In the first page of his book Vermeule writes, “Most persons, including numismatists who specialize in other areas or ages, regard the United States Series as devoid of artistic interest. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

The high points of American coin design — the period often called the Renaissance in American Coin Design in the first two decades of the 20th century — is perhaps the most published area of American numismatics. We often celebrate the peaks of accomplishment, but what about the valleys?

Many collectors despise simplicity in their coin designs. The silver 3-cent piece of 1851 to 1873 is frequently noted as being plain and unimaginative, though with a diameter of just 14 millimeters and a thinness that allows even basic usage to render it bent, one wonders what a better design might look like on this denomination.

Whitman’s publisher Dennis Tucker calls the issue “something of a ‘Sarah Plain and Small’ even in Mint State, and from there physical wear and tear takes them down a notch further.” He acknowledges, though, that this opinion may make him unpopular with trime collectors.

Others point out the Anthony dollar as a missed opportunity in creating an interesting design. Orlando coin dealer Don Bonser calls Frank Gasparro’s portrait of Susan B. Anthony “rather stern and grim.” George Cuhaj, former editor of the Standard Catalog of World Coins added, “The coin depicted her in older age, rather plainly.”

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The American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum curator Doug Mudd concluded, “The portrait does no justice to the great lady — she may not look like Elizabeth Taylor, but she did have character, and that does not come out in the portrait used on the coin, which likely contributed to its unpopularity.”

The Anthony dollar has its fans. Sculptor Heidi Wastweet wanted to defend the small-sized dollar. She shared, “I always thought it sad that this modest coin was that target of so much hatred. I don’t think the coin was sculpted badly. I think people were, at that time, just used to the only women on coins being idealized and beautiful. Beauty doesn’t seem to be a criteria of coin portraits of men. I say it’s time to let up. Susan had much more to offer than looks.”

A look at the catalogue raisonné of any artist, even those considered to be at the top of their game, reveals they didn’t always paint masterpieces. Just as the work of artists has ups and downs, so do American coin designs.

What follows is the result of an informal survey I conducted with more than 50 of my coin collecting friends. I asked a simple question: What is the least attractive U.S. coin. The results allow us to have a discussion on aesthetics and ways of seeing and helps us evaluate what design elements work on a coin (and what ideas don’t work.)

Early efforts in Philadelphia

The first years of the Philadelphia Mint were busy ones as the United States transitioned toward producing its own money and away from relying on foreign money, copper pieces struck by states and tokens to meet the needs of commerce.

Among the first coins struck, and the only denomination struck in quantity, was the silver 1792 half disme. The portrait of Liberty — labeled Parent of Science and Industry on the coin — was described by Vermeule as “an unflattering cross between Martha Washington and one of the wild-eyed harridans who knitted while heads rolled during the French Revolution.”

He was no kinder to the reverse of the half disme, writing, “The eagle on the reverse is an ailing barnyard fowl, with undersized wings spread at odd angles, curving neck, and oddly foreshortened body, a creature nowhere better than on the small surfaces of the dime and half dime.”

The masculine quality of Liberty on these early issues is recognized by many observers, especially non-numismatists who aren’t swayed by the rarity or high price of these coins.

Perhaps tops on people’s list of the homelier 18th century U.S. coins is the 1793 Flowing Hair, Chain cent. The Chain cent was the first coin produced for widespread circulation by the Philadelphia Mint and a relatively substantial mintage of 36,103 pieces were struck by early March 1793.

The obverse depicts Liberty with wild hair and the chain on the reverse is spare and simple. From a circulation standpoint, the chain design held up well and it is visible on even the most-worn examples grading Poor. The design has European precedents, but is remarkable considering, as Vermeule points out, “The men who cut America’s first dies were German bondsmen, local mechanics and watchmakers.” Set within this framework, the ugliness of America’s first coins can be viewed as somewhat charming, in the way that we look at “primitive” and “naïve” early 19th century painting.

As Tennessee collector Karen Rehder points out, “While some folks may take issue with the chain on the reverse, I find the representation of Liberty on the obverse unappealing. First, she’s either depicted with very mannish features or a very weak chin. Second, she’s always having a very bad hair day. Maybe the flowing hair is supposed to represent a release from oppression or a nation in its youth (young girls didn’t bind their hair); however, it misses the mark and makes Liberty seem frenzied. Perhaps her mannish countenance is supposed to represent strength of character and fortitude, but in my opinion, it just makes her look hard. I’m glad that later versions and later designers did a much better job of softening Liberty’s portrait. Liberty should be beautiful because liberty is beautiful.”

It is the very flaws in these earliest coins that make them charming for collectors today.

Keep reading our breakdown of the U.S. Mint's ugliest coins:


Susan B. Anthony dollar

  • — Coin Values estimates (as of July 20, 2016): 1979-D EF-40 - $1; MS-65 - $15; MS-67 - $200
  • — What U.S. coin can claim these firsts?: 1. The first circulating coin to depict an actual woman instead of an allegorical representation. 2. First circulating coin to bear a non-circular rim device. 3. First circulating dollar coin to bear the "P" Mint mark and only the second denomination to bear the "P" Mint mark. 4. First dollar coin struck strictly in a non-precious metal alloy. Read all about the Anthony dollar.

1792 half disme

  • — Coin Values estimates (as of July 20, 2016): AG-3 - $12,000; AU-50 - $175,000; MS-63 - $550,000
  • — If the United States Mint were to issue a coin today that bore absolutely no reference to its denomination, Congress would likely launch an investigation. However, the Mint did issue a coin that for its first nine years of production, despite several design changes, bore no denominational markings of any kind. It was the half disme.

1793 Flowing Hair, Chain cent

  • — Coin Values estimates (as of July 20, 2016): AG-3 (No Periods) - $5,000; AG-3 (Periods) - $5,250; AU-55 (No Periods) - $150,000; AU-55 (Periods) - $160,000
  • — The large cents of 1793 to 1814 – referred to as the Early Dates by their fans – underwent what might seem to a neophyte collector a bewildering series of rapid design changes, particularly when compared to the design stagnation that has affected the cent from 1909 to 1958 and from 1959 to 2008. Read more.
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