We begin a new series of personal articles written by Dennis
Tucker, publisher of Whitman Publishing and a member of the Citizens
Coinage Advisory Committee, providing insight to the CCAC’s
deliberations as its members review designs for U.S. coins and
medals. As way of introduction, Dennis explains: “My intent is to
educate the hobby community; there are a lot of collectors who just
don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to how coin programs come about, how
coin designs are made, etc. I think a behind-the-scenes look will be
very helpful for the hobby.”
This past Tuesday, September 19, 2017, I enjoyed a leisurely
breakfast with fellow Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee members
Thomas Uram and Erik Jansen on H Street in downtown Washington, D.C.
We were in the nation’s capital for a meeting of the CCAC. The
committee’s main agenda item: to review design proposals for five
upcoming America the Beautiful quarter dollars and one Congressional
U.S. Mint welcomes a fourth metal to the
American Eagle bullion program.
Also in this week’s print issue of Coin World, we teach our readers
about what a “weak-fatty” gold coin is and why you don’t want one in
Breakfast was relaxed because we’d started the morning early, well
before our 8:30 administrative meeting, giving us time to visit and
catch up over eggs, bacon, and steel-cut oats. Tom, a financial
adviser by trade, showed us photos of a large silver 1935 Met Life
medal that he’s going to research. It was awarded to a life-insurance
agent who sold a remarkable $100,000 worth of policies six years into
the Great Depression. Erik had shown us some “condition rarities” from
Ecuador — U.S. Presidential and Sacagawea dollars in very worn
circulated grades. These coins are rarely spent as cash in the United
States, so here we typically see them in nothing less than lustrous
Mint State or About Uncirculated condition. In Ecuador and El Salvador
they’re actually used as day-to-day currency, so they get worn down
like any other pocket change. I shared with my breakfast companions
the story of a small collection of Franco-Prussian War satirical
tokens I recently bought. They lampoon the defeated French emperor
Napoleon III, showing him wearing a German spiked helmet, or chained
with a collar marked SEDAN (the scene of his military defeat and
capture). Some of the tokens depict him with a cigarette in his mouth
— the emperor was a notorious chain-smoker, said to have been seen
nervously puffing tobacco as his armies were routed by the Germans.
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After coffee we walked a couple blocks down to United States Mint
headquarters on Ninth Street. The entire committee (except for member
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had a schedule conflict) assembled with Mint
acting deputy director David Motl, Mint counsel, program managers, and
others in the eighth-floor board room, for our 8:30 to 9:30 admin
meeting. At 10:00 we moved to the second-floor conference room where
we were joined by members of the press and public, with Mint medallic
sculptors Phebe Hemphill and Joseph Menna on the phone line from
Philadelphia, and several National Park Service and other liaisons
present as well.
After some introductory business, we jumped right into our review of
the America the Beautiful coin design proposals for 2019. The sketches
were made by Mint artists (and Artistic Infusion Program artists)
based on earlier guidance from the CCAC, the U.S. Commission of Fine
Arts, and liaisons from the national parks and other sites involved.
The first portfolio we reviewed was for Lowell National Historical
Park in Massachusetts.
This site was established as a national park in 1978 to protect
local history and interpret Lowell’s important role in U.S. industry.
In the 1820s and 1830s the recently incorporated mill town grew into
the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution. Its waterways and
canal systems provided the power to run textile mills — innovative
“integrated” factories that housed their entire operations under one
roof, instead of spread out in several buildings or locations. New
machinery was developed. Cloth manufacturing was revolutionized at
Lowell, moving away from its cottage-industry origins into a new world
of mass production. Providing the manpower — or womanpower — to
run the machines were the so-called Mill Girls, most of them from the
nearby farms of New England, recruited to Lowell to work in the
factories. They stayed in company-owned boarding houses, with
supervised educational and cultural opportunities and organized
living. The Mill Girls became a social force in America, encouraging
labor reform and education for workers.
Interpretive Park Ranger David Byers, who joined us in person at the
meeting, discussed three important components for the coin design: It
should include the human element, telling the story of the Mill Girls;
it should capture the idea of technological innovation; and it should
feature the “built environment” of the mills. The National Historical
Park’s preferred design was MA-04.
In my own review of the Lowell portfolio, which included 18
sketches, I discounted those designs that don’t feature the Mill
Girls, because their specialized labor was such an important
transition from the artisanal hand-work of the past to the full
automation of today. That took MA-02, 03, 05, and 06 off the table.
They each have their strengths and weaknesses; these are the notes I
made as I studied them:
➤ In MA-02, I like the bold legend of AMERICAN INDUSTRY, and the use
of the factory buildings to represent the new age of industrialization
moving away from the cottage industries of the past. But the absence
of the human element is a detraction for this design.
➤ In MA-03, as with MA-02, the bold legend (AMERICAN INDUSTRY) and
the architecture tell the viewer what they’re looking at. These aren’t
warehouses or office buildings, but industrial factories. However, the
absence of the Mill Girls leaves an important part of the story
untold, or at most just hinted at.
➤ MA-05 tells the story of textiles from cotton farm to factory, but
I discount it because it lacks the human element of a worker in action.
➤ MA-06: Yes, the raw cotton is important, and the shuttles and
bobbins are important. But take the worker out of the equation and you
end up with threads — you don’t get whole cloth.
Among those designs that do feature the Mill Girls, I preferred
those that give an expansive view of their work in the mills, showing
more of the textile machinery (rather than focusing on individual
elements such as shuttles and bobbins).
MA-01 and 01A feature a Mill Girl, and also textile machinery, but
to my eye her stance is too posed and static. She appears to be
displaying the loom, rather than working at it. The design
looks like an old-fashioned museum diorama and not a living, breathing
activity. There has been a lot of CCAC discussion recently about
avoiding “pictures on coins” and moving toward more symbolism in
American coinage art.
Design MA-04 has a storytelling combination of machinery and
humanity. It’s also one of only two designs that include a text
reference to spindles, which adds another layer of understanding for
21st-century viewers looking at 19th-century technology. My only
concern was that the spinning machine might be too finely detailed for
a quarter-sized coin. On the silver three-inch coin the design would
enjoy greater depth and more visible detail, but the circulating
quarter offers less than a one-inch canvas.
MA-07 and MA-08 use the same Mill Girl figure — 07 as the coin’s
main motif, and 08 as part of a bigger scene. The figure of the woman
handling a bobbin and shuttle is well drafted, but without a legend to
accompany it (as with AMERICAN INDUSTRY in some of the other designs),
it would be ambiguous and mysterious to a 21st-century viewer. Modern
Americans won’t recognize the threaded bobbin or the shuttle,
especially reduced in size to fit on the quarter dollar. On a one-inch
canvas, it would look like the Mill Girl is shucking an ear of corn.
Design MA-08, however, is an improvement with its combination of the
human and machine aspects of Lowell’s textile industries. The loom
gives context. Also, the Mill Girl isn’t just pressing levers, but
she’s interacting with the machinery in a very intimate, literally
“hands on” way. This is a good depiction of the transition from
artisanal cottage-industry work to mass production. The machinery
might be finely detailed, but we’ve seen fine detail work in some
recent America the Beautiful quarters, for example, the 2017 Frederick
Douglass and Ellis Island coins. It would be up to the Mint’s engraver
to make MA-08 work, but I think it could be done. MA-08 was my #1
preference from the Lowell portfolio of designs.
Committee member Jeanne Stevens-Sollman (representative of the
general public, and herself an accomplished sculptor) noted the
importance of showing Lowell’s architecture, and called out designs
MA-16 and 17A. Member Dr. Herman Viola (specially qualified in
American history) supported our liaison’s preferences and brought
attention to the quote in MA-14: “Art is the handmaid of human good.”
Conversation quickly centered around MA-10, 11, and 12. These
designs (three variations of the same motif) show a Mill Girl with
thread stylized as if it were being spun from water, symbolic of the
importance of Lowell’s canal system in powering its textile mills.
These eye-catching designs ultimately were the ones that won the
committee’s recommendation. Personally, I appreciate the artistry of
the water being turned into thread, and I like the intervening force
of the Mill Girl in that transformation (she’s literally the central
figure in the designs), but to me this is too stylized of a depiction
of the textile production process. It captures the importance of the
waterworks, but reduces the loom machinery to a single element (the
bobbin and shuttle). I feel that reduction goes too far. Committee
member Robert Hoge, our member specially qualified as a numismatic
curator, agreed, saying that “the water and thread doesn’t work” and
critiquing the halo or nimbus effect of the water-wheel in MA-12.
Other committee members, however, were quite taken with the artful
nature and symbolism of MA-10, 11, and 12. Mike Moran, a numismatic
researcher and published author, said he was drawn to them as a civil
engineer who appreciates that “water power drove these mills.” He did
rhetorically ask, though, if they would resonate with the man on the street.
Heidi Wastweet, our member specially qualified in sculpture and
medallic arts, called this suite of three designs “what we’ve been
asking for” in the CCAC’s recent push for more symbolism and less
literalism. She called them “beautiful, symbolic, but
representational.” In contrast, she addressed design MA-04 as one that
is “adequate, informative, very literal, utilitarian,” and asked, “Is
that the bar we want to set?”
Member Thomas Uram also spoke about MA-10 and 11 as being among his
preferences, noting that they would “really let you see more than just
Member Erik Jansen noted that “the face imparts emotion on a coin,”
and for that reason MA-17 and 17A can be discounted, since the Mill
Girls’ faces are turned from the viewer. MA-10, 11, and 12 don’t have
Member and former committee chair Mary N. Lannin, an expert in
ancient coinage, was emphatic: “My heart is with number 11.” She
praised the way MA-11 actually shows the water turning the mill wheel,
and spoke about the stance of the Mill Girl: “She’s proud. This is her work.”
Acting Chair Donald Scarinci, a specialist in art medals, called
MA-11 “clearly the nicest.” “It gives us everything we’ve been asking
for” in terms of a movement toward artistic symbolism on American
coinage. “The artists are listening to us.” He pointed out that the
design has all three elements desired by our liaisons at Lowell
National Historical Park. It focuses on the individual Mill Girl, it
makes use of negative space, and it has a hint of abstraction in the
thread depicted as water. It shows motion rather than photography,
Our Vote for Lowell, and Our Recommendation to the Treasury
The mission of the CCAC is to study and review coinage design
proposals and make our recommendations to the secretary of the U.S.
Treasury, who ultimately decides what designs will be used. In our
first round of voting for the Lowell sketches, each candidate could
earn up to 30 points — 10 members of the committee were present, and
each member could assign 1, 2, or 3 points to each design. Our voting
➤ MA-10, 11, and 12, grouped for the purpose of voting, got 18 points.
➤ MA-15 and 16, grouped, got 12 points.
➤ MA-04, our liaison’s first preferred choice, got 11 points.
➤ MA-07, 08, 13, and 14 each got 4 points or fewer.
➤ MA-01, 1A, 02, 03, 05, and 06 each got 0 points.
Since our most points were voted in a block, to MA-10, 11, and 12 as
a general motif, we voted in a second round among the three. In the
➤ MA-10 earned 0 votes.
➤ MA-11 earned 6 votes.
➤ MA-12 earned 1 vote.
This voting is not a final act itself, but a springboard for further
conversation as we circle in on “final.” A bit more discussion led to
a closer study of the wheel buckets shown in MA-11’s machinery, at the
left of the design. Our recommendation to the secretary of the
Treasury: adoption of MA-11, with the wheel buckets modified, as the
reverse of the 2019 Lowell National Historical Park quarter.
Mr. Byers from Lowell agreed with our recommendation, appreciatively
noting that MA-11 interprets the textile story from left to right,
starting with the force of moving water, then the Mill Girl holding
machine parts, and finally to woven thread.
Next: the American Memorial Park (Northern Mariana Islands) quarter dollar.