Colonial America column from July 25, 2016, Weekly issue of
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
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.