History of U.S. coinage: Designs

By , Coin World Almanac: Eighth Edition
Published : 06/10/15
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Allegorical Liberty figures with similar themes but somewhat different details were used on the early gold coins. A Capped Bust, Heraldic Eagle design was used from 1796 to 1807 for the quarter eagle, then replaced in 1808 with the one-year-only Capped Draped Bust type. The Capped Head quarter eagle was struck between 1821 to 1834. On the half eagle, the Capped Bust design was used from 1796 to 1807; the Small Eagle reverse was used from 1796 to 1798, and a Heraldic Eagle design was used from 1795 to 1807, concurrently with the Small Eagle at first. The Capped Draped Bust was used on the half eagle from 1807 to 1812, and the Capped Head, from 1813 to 1829. The Classic Head design was used briefly, from 1834 to 1838. For the $10 eagle, the Capped Bust design was used from 1795 to 1804, when production of the denomination ceased. On the reverse of the $10 coin, the Small Eagle was used from 1795 to 1797, and the Heraldic Eagle design was used from 1797 to 1804.

Several events took place in the mid-1830s that were to affect coinage designs for decades. Among them was the Act of Jan. 18, 1837, which eliminated the need for an eagle on the reverses of the half dime and dime. The other event was the resumption of coinage of the silver dollar in 1836, and the adoption of a new design that eventually would appear on six different denominations, used on some of them for more than half a century.

Production of the silver dollar resumed in 1836 with the Gobrecht dollar. The obverse depicts a Seated Liberty figure on a rock, her body draped in robes. The reverse depicts a Flying Eagle design. The Seated Liberty dollar was the first of several coins that would use a similar Flying Eagle theme.

With the creation of the Seated Liberty design, a new age of uniformity ensued on U.S. coins. The Seated Liberty obverse design was introduced on the half dime and dime in 1837, the quarter dollar in 1838 and the half dollar in 1839. Wreaths were placed on the half dime and dime in 1837; eagles appeared on the new quarter dollar and half dollar; and the dollar received a new eagle design in 1840, with the Flying Eagle replaced by an eagle similar to those on the quarter dollar and half dollar.

Gold coins, too, entered the uniform age of coin designs when the Coronet (sometimes called Liberty Head) design was introduced in 1838 for the $10 eagle, in 1839 for the $5 half eagle and in 1840 for the $2.50 quarter eagle. When the gold dollar and $20 double eagle were introduced in 1849 and 1850, respectively, the Coronet design was used for both. Like the silver coins, the gold coins would not break out of uniformity until the early 20th century, except for the dollar.

A new theme was introduced in 1854 on the gold dollar, replacing the Coronet figure. An Indian Head portrait by James B. Longacre was introduced, the first in a series of medallic tributes to Native Americans that would last until shortly before the beginning of World War II. (An American Indian theme reappeared in 2000, on the new dollar coin. The coin depicts a woman as Liberty, inspired by Sacagawea, the teen Indian guide of Lewis and Clark.)

Ironically, the first use of an Indian as a symbol of Liberty occurred even as the American movement to push the Indians into decreasingly smaller portions of the West accelerated. However, the gold dollar portrait was not a true Indian; Longacre simply placed an Indian headdress on the same Liberty figure he would use in many different versions of the design. A slightly larger, slightly different rendition of the Indian Head portrait was used beginning in 1856 on the gold dollar. The gold $3 coin depicts an Indian Head portrait by Longacre, and the reverse depicts not an eagle but a wreath.

When the large cent was abandoned in 1857 for a smaller cent (see section titled “specifications”), a Flying Eagle design was placed on the obverse (the 1856 Flying Eagle cents are patterns, struck before Congress authorized a change in composition and size). The obverse design was changed to an Indian Head design in 1859. Wreaths of various types appear on the reverses of both small cents. A Cornucopia Wreath was used on the reverse of the Flying Eagle cent. For the Indian Head cent, a Laurel Wreath reverse was used in 1859 only; that reverse was replaced in 1860 with an Oak Wreath With Shield design.

Several nonallegorical designs began to appear on U.S. coins in the 1850s. On the silver 3-cent coin, a six-point star appears as the central obverse design; the reverse depicts the Roman numeral III inside what resembles a large letter “C.” Shields appear on the obverses of the 2-cent coin and the first copper-nickel 5-cent coin. The authorizing acts for all three of these coins granted broad authority to the director of the Mint and secretary of the Treasury to select design devices (superseding earlier requirements that all coins had to depict an image of Liberty).

A Liberty Head design replaced the Shield design on the 5-cent coin in 1883. The silver dollar, abandoned in 1873 and reinstated in 1878, depicts a Liberty Head and an eagle (the coin is called the Morgan dollar). A version of the Seated Liberty design modified by William Barber was placed on the short-lived 20-cent coin of 1875 to 1878.

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