Depicting eagles on coins named ‘eagles’ made sense, but did all the coins need an eagle?

U.S. Mint director considered alternatives on circulating silver coins in 1859 to improve strikeability
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 10/17/16
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The designs used for United States coins were a problem dating from before the first federal coinage of 1792. The coins represented a new nation and everyone wanted them to be both beautiful and functional. Various designs came and went during the 18th and early 19th centuries. William Kneass, appointed engraver in January 1824, was supposed to improve the artistic quality of coins, but Kneass’ work was of only marginally better quality than existing designs.

Following Kneass’ stroke in the summer of 1835, Christian Gobrecht was hired as an assistant engraver in September 1835 and performed virtually all of the duties of engraver. These included revising Kneass’ designs in tandem with Franklin Peale’s mechanical improvements in minting. Gobrecht was no stranger to the Mint, having been a temporary employee to fill the place of Robert Scott: “[In 1827], when the Mint was left temporarily without an Engraver by the death of Mr. Scott, Mr. Gobrecht was employed by the Director to make the dies, and did so to the entire satisfaction of the Chief Coiner, Mr. Eckfeldt,” wrote Mint Director Robert Patterson in a letter dated Dec. 31, 1840, to Levi Woodbury, secretary of the Treasury. 

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Gobrecht’s 1835 adaptation of Thomas Sully’s Seated Liberty figure for the silver dollar in 1836 eventually became the standard obverse element for all silver coins except the 3-cent piece. But there was little change in the coinage beyond reducing the Seated Liberty design to fit other denominations, and minor revisions to Kneass’ Liberty portraits on gold pieces.

Seated Liberty dollar

Seated Liberty dollar: It was just three years after the Seated Liberty design was used on the half dime that the Seated Liberty silver dollar was introduced, and the concept of a Seated Liberty with Liberty cap, pole and shield seemed to have run its course. How much are Seated Liberty dollars worth?

With Gobrecht’s appointment as engraver following Kneass’ death on Aug. 27, 1840, Director Patterson commented:  

“I think it will not be necessary or expedient to supply the place of Assistant Engraver; as our improvements in the mechanical means of multiplying dies has greatly diminished the labor formerly required of the Engraver.”

On appointment as engraver, Gobrecht was principally employed in making new dies. He also did much of the ordinary and far easier work of the engraver’s department, which had become largely mechanical through the improvements in transferring introduced by Franklin Peale.

Longacre takes over

The concept of the engraver of the Philadelphia Mint as largely a manager of mechanical operations in die manufacture was carried forward after Gobrecht’s death in 1844. When James B. Longacre was hired as engraver Sept. 24, 1844, his flat metal engraving skills were well known and widely appreciated. It was also recognized that he was not a highly skilled die sinker or sculptor of bas relief or intaglio designs. None of this mattered until Congress approved two new denominations in 1849: a gold dollar and a gold $20 double eagle — the smallest and largest United States gold coins ever produced.

Longacre created a wax model of a Liberty portrait, had this cast in iron and then reduced to the size of the dollar. “The engraving was unusually minute, and required very close and incessant labor for several weeks. I made the original dies and the hubs for making the working dies twice over, to secure their perfect adaptation to the coining machinery,” he wrote in a letter dated Feb. 18, 1850, to Treasury Secretary William Meredith.

The double eagle obverse was handled similarly and the reverse was first electrotyped, and then cast in iron for reduction.

Critics felt the work took much too long to complete, and delay was especially embarrassing for the double eagle as it had been promised for circulation in 1849 — a means of absorbing large quantities of California gold flowing to the Philadelphia Mint.

Out of this came a renewed interest in improving coinage designs. This was accompanied by a push to replace Longacre with the experienced die sinker and engraver Charles Cushing Wright of New York. The task of redesigning the coinage was viewed not only as artistic, but mechanical. The Mint had long operated with dies that had large masses of obverse and reverse elements opposite each other. The result was persistent difficulty in bringing up the full obverse portrait. Director Snowden noted in a letter of October 25, 1859, to Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb: “The present silver coins are difficult to bring up, not only because of the full figure of Liberty, but because the eagle occupies the field immediately opposite to it.” 

Congress seemed to support design changes and included supporting language in the Act of February 21, 1853:

“…And the Secretary of the Treasury is hereby authorized to regulate the size and devices of the new silver coin, authorized by an act entitled ‘An act amendatory of existing laws relative to the half dollar, quarter dollar, dime, and half dime,’ passed at the present session; and that, to procure such devices, as also the models, moulds, and matrices or original dies for the coins, disks, or ingots authorized by said act, the director of the mint is empowered, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, to engage temporarily for that purpose the services of one or more artists, distinguished in their respective departments, who shall be paid for such services from the contingent appropriation for the mint. ...”

After taking office as director in June 1853 following the death of Director Thomas Pettit, James Ross Snowden actively sought new designs for the coinage. One of his first acts was to propose a competition among artists for new designs. His authority was based on the congressional action mentioned above. In a letter to Treasury Secretary James Guthrie, he stated: “… I am constrained to say that the evidences before me do not exhibit such artistic skill and experience as our coinage needs, or such as would satisfy the just expectations of the Department and the public.”

But contrary to expectations, Longacre’s gold $3 coin designs came out quite well as did a revised gold dollar using the same models. Complaints about Longacre’s artistic skill largely vanished and seemed to cease altogether with the removal of Coiner Franklin Peale from the Mint in December 1854. Snowden’s plan to engage “artists, engravers, and persons of taste generally” was publicized in early 1854, but produced nothing usable.

Focus turns to silver

Over the next several years attention was diverted from silver coin designs to replacement of large copper cents with smaller, more convenient coins. It was not until spring 1859 that Snowden returned to improving the appearance of silver coins. As soon as the new Liberty cent coin design was complete, Engraver Longacre was directed to produce a half dollar obverse incorporating an “ideal head of Liberty.” He also was told to make several simple, wreath-based reverse designs with the denomination in the center.

Longacre had already made numerous sketches of portraits and wreaths as part of work on the $3 coin and cent. Vines, wreaths of agricultural products and other ornamental compositions were commonplace on medals and Longacre had sketchbooks filled with variations. The results of his half dollar project were a single obverse portrait and multiple reverse variations. The portrait was described by Director Snowden in a letter dated Oct. 15, 1859.

“On the obverse, an ideal head of Liberty, crowned with oak and cotton, legend, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and the word LIBERTY on the ribbon, and the date of the piece beneath.”

There were probably many other variations that did not result in pattern pieces being struck. All three used the same reverse wreath, which was described as: “The reverse, a wreath composed of cotton, tobacco leaves, sugar cane, Indian corn, and wheat, with oak leaves, the productions of the different sections of our country.” 

Differences in the wreaths on the reverses are minor. These seem to be the result of manual retouching of the dies, excessive polishing of a master die, or omission of engraving details. On the design with a fraction, the upper left leaf is detached from the balance of the foliage, whereas it is attached on all others.

Director Snowden gave Treasury Secretary Cobb a group of silver half dollar patterns to review. A few days later Snowden recommended combining the Liberty obverse and a reverse reading “Half Dollar.”

Snowden’s letter discusses more than a simple change in design. He concentrates on revision of the concepts of American coinage, including hopes to restrict the eagle to only gold coins: 

Mint of the United States
October 25, 1859

Hon. Howell Cobb,
Secretary of the Treasury
Washington City


For the purpose of improving the silver coinage I have caused several new dies to be prepared, from which were struck, the few specimens I placed in your hands during my recent visit to the capitol.

I now am prepared to recommend the adoption of the one which I personally expressed a preference for during my interview with you. It may be described as follows: On the obverse, an ideal head of Liberty, crowned with oak and cotton, legend, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and the word LIBERTY on the ribbon, and the date of the piece beneath. The reverse, a wreath composed of cotton, tobacco leaves, sugar cane, Indian corn, and wheat, with oak leaves, the productions of the different sections of our country. Within the wreath, the inscription HALF DOLLAR. I may state that the reverse of the coin is secondary to the obverse and should be regulated as to admit of a fair and free striking up of the device on the main disk. The wreath greatly facilitates the full expression of the head. The present silver coins are difficult to bring up, not only because of the full figure of Liberty, but because the eagle occupies the field immediately opposite to it.

Again. The eagle properly and particularly belongs to the gold coinage — they are even named for it — the “eagle, double eagle, half eagle, quarter eagle.” These are the legal titles, and it is not proposed to alter the gold coinage. But to place the same devices on the silver coins seems to be a solecism although sanctioned by long usage.

The silver coins have become a subsidiary coinage, a mere matter of change, not being a legal tender beyond a limited amount; this consideration renders it less important to cover it with all the national emblems. Gold is the effective currency, and on that the eagle is stamped.

For a number of years past the eagle has been omitted on the dime and the half dime, and a plain wreath substituted. The adoption of the devices now recommended will enable us to introduce a uniformity into the silver coins, as the same head and wreath on the specimen half dollar is well adapted to the quarter dollar, and the dime and half dime.

I must beg your early attention to this communication in view of the fact that we must immediately commence the preparation of the working dies for the next year for the Mint and its branches.

I have the honor to be, with great respect,

Your faithful servant,
James Ross Snowden,
Director of the Mint 

All of the silver coins from dollar to half dime would have shared the same designs, differing only in reverse inscriptions. But contrary to expectations, Secretary Cobb decided against changing the silver coinage: “It would seem inexpedient at the present time to make so great a change as the one heretofore recommended. We will therefore make no alterations in the dollar, nor the half dollar, nor the quarter dollar.”

Cobb’s decision and the Civil War ended immediate consideration of a major design change. Nothing more was heard of the subject until Standard Silver pattern production.

Changes for 1860

Snowden was not content to scrap all the improvements he had in mind. In a letter dated Dec. 13, 1859, he advised Cobb of additional alterations he authorized for circulating coins in 1860. The letter, written in customary official style includes proper deference to the secretary. Yet, Snowden makes a final point by saying that dies were already being made, presenting Cobb with a fait accompli: 

“On the dime and half dime, the eagle has always been omitted, a wreath having been adopted which encloses the denomination of the coin. This wreath which I proposed for the half dollar, as presented in the specimen pieces, is much superior to the present wreath. I propose therefore, with your permission, to place the new wreath on the dime and half dime.

“A modification of the design on the reverse of the cent is desirable. I propose to introduce the shield upon the reverse. This will give it a new national character, and is a decided improvement .... I enclose a few specimen pieces I have caused to be struck.

“The dies for the dime and half dime, and cent are now being made, and I will be happy to have your early approval of the views herein recommended.”

Pattern pieces of some of the adopted designs are known and suggest that Snowden had the engraver working on these for some time. The new reverse was adopted for the Indian Head cent in 1860, making the 1859 coin a one-year type. The new wreaths for the Seated Liberty half dime and dime also were introduced in 1860.

Indian Head cent

Indian Head cent: Difficulty in modifying the Flying Eagle cent design to correct the problem of short die life and poor strikeability led Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre to abandon the eagle motif in favor of his new Indian Head design in 1859. How much are Indian Head cents worth?

With the dime and half dime already compliant with Snowden’s plan, it might have appeared that the dollar, half dollar and quarter dollar would follow. But Snowden’s replacement, James Pollock, had other things on his mind; removing the national eagle from circulating coinage was not among them.

Two decades passed before the silver dollar got a new visage, and more than thirty years before subsidiary silver coin designs were changed. The traditional eagle remained. 

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