World Coins

World coins imitate, inspire designs for U.S.

Editor's note: this is the first part of a series about the intersection, influence and imitation between American and world coins. The story originally appeared in the February monthly edition of Coin World

No art is created in a vacuum, and as with art, no coins are made in a vacuum.

World coins have exerted a profound effect on American coins and, likewise, American coins have influenced their worldly brethren.

This influence is seen from the French Libertas Americana medal to the seated allegory of Britannia and the confident striding Sower, and in reflections from numerous points across the globe. Here’s a quick review of three of the most fascinating intersections, imitations and inspirations between world and American coins.

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French from the beginning

That America and France owe much to each other is no surprise to the casual historian.

From their role in the American Revolution and the gift of the Statue of Liberty, the French created bonds of friendship that Americans later repaid in the battlefields of Marne and the Argonne, to the beaches of Normandy and beyond.

But America’s debt to France and France’s debt to America also include the early coinage issued during the 1790s.

The early coinage of the United States was widely influenced by the famous 1782 Libertas Americana medal, which was created with the intervention of the great American Francophile, Benjamin Franklin.

The obverse of this seminal medallic work showcases the engraver’s art, according to Cornelius Vermeule, writing in Numismatic Art in America, with Augustin Dupre’s design of “streaming hair on a Hellenistic bust of Artemis or a maenad. Greek helmet or pileus on a small pole.” 

The design “exerted its influence on Philadelphia’s first heads of Liberty once the national coinage was commenced,” he added.

The Flowing Hair cent of 1793 begat the Liberty Cap half cent and cents beginning in 1793.

Joseph Wright’s design, executed by Robert Scot, for the 1793 Liberty Cap cent, is the most obvious ode to the Libertas Americana obverse.

According to Vermeule, writing about the Wright-Scot design, “Liberty’s face is stronger, the neck thicker, and the bust below the neck deeper and less metallic or less like an engraving in appearance. The whole presentation resembles an 18th-century version of a Greco-Roman marble bust rather than a linear profile copied from some printed broadside of the French Revolution.”

That reference to the French Revolution is critical, because upon the successful completion of the French Revolution, a new French nation issued new coinage, beginning in 1794. And what did it feature but an allegorical Liberty wearing the Phrygian cap found on the American coinage of the same period.

This design would appear on several denominations before the Napoleonic reign of error/terror began, and the megalomaniacal ruler replaced Liberty with his own imagery. 

Plenty of scholars and other sources explore in depth the connections, similarities and differences between the American and French revolutions, and some of the consequent results (Napoleon, for instance, and the American Civil War, for another). 

But the similarity in timing and design of early American and First French Republic coinage cannot be mistaken.

Read the rest of this feature on how world coins inspired notable U.S. coins:

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