US Coins

Did a ‘typo’ ruin 1891 design contest?

Collectors are generally familiar with the failed 1891 silver coin design competition. The Mint issued a circular requesting designs from the public and also invited 10 well-known artists to participate. Ten days before the due date of June 1, the invited artists objected to terms of the competition, which included payment of $500 for each accepted design, up to all five requested.

After June 1, the public submissions were all rejected and none of the invited artists participated, largely due to the paltry compensation offered. However, that $500 figure might have been an error — a latter-day “typo” caused by the Mint director’s office.

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A copy of the proposed circular was sent to Treasury Secretary Foster on April 4, 1891. Item number 5 of the rules states: “An award not to exceed five hundred dollars ($500) will be made for each design accepted.” That seems perfectly clear.

But, in Leech’s cover letter to Foster, the director says: “… the best method of obtaining suitable and artistic designs would be to offer a reward of say five thousand dollars ($5000) for each design accepted, five in all.”

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If the copy book entries are correct, Leech intended to offer “$5,000” for each accepted design, but he, or his clerk, dropped a zero in the amount and put “$500” in the circular for Foster’s approval. It is possible the entire fiasco occurred because Foster approved the circular and it was printed and distributed without that award amount being corrected.

If Leech’s intention was to pay $5,000 per accepted design ($25,000 total), it is likely additional highly skilled artists would have participated. Rather than Charles Barber’s stuffy, crowded designs, our subsidiary silver coins of 1892 might have had a completely different appearance.

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