History of U.S. coinage: Designs

By , Coin World Almanac: Eighth Edition
Published : 06/10/15
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Coinage designs came under stricter congressional control with passage of a new law in 1890. Previously, design changes could occur at whatever frequency Mint officials determined to be appropriate. As long as the new designs met earlier requirements of law (incorporating a portrait of Liberty, for example), Mint officials could change designs whenever they wanted to. As noted earlier, designs sometimes changed after being used only a month.

The new law, approved Sept. 26, 1890, prohibited the Mint from making design changes unless the designs had been used for at least 25 years. Congress had to authorize changes to designs in use for less than the required period.

The Seated Liberty design, used on most of the silver coins since 1836, was finally abandoned at the end of 1891. By that time, it was in use only on the dime, quarter dollar and half dollar, the other Seated Liberty denominations having been legislated out of existence or redesigned. Chief Mint Sculptor-Engraver Charles Barber replaced the Seated Liberty design in 1892 with a Liberty Head design. Barber also created a Heraldic Eagle for use on the reverse of the quarter dollar and half dollar; the reverse wreath appearing on the Seated Liberty dime was maintained on the reverse of the “Barber” dime. The Barber designs were used through mid-1916 for the dime and quarter dollar, and through 1915 for the half dollar. (Interestingly, Mint officials interpreted the December 1890 law as requiring design changes every 25 years, not permitting them. Thus they sought replacements for the Barber designs in 1916.)

The first two decades of the 20th century resulted in two major design trends for U.S. coins. One, beginning in 1907, resulted in what can be called the “Golden Age of U.S. Coin Designs.” The other, beginning in 1909, was the first step away from the allegorical depictions that had characterized most U.S. coins since 1793, in favor of coinage tributes to prominent political figures from American history.

The Golden Age began with the election of Theodore Roosevelt as president of the United States. Roosevelt did more to improve the aesthetics of U.S. coins than any other politician. He invited Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the premier U.S. sculptor of the day, to create coin designs Roosevelt hoped would relive the beauty of ancient Greece. Saint-Gaudens submitted designs for the cent, $10 eagle and $20 double eagle. Roosevelt choose from the submissions the designs for the two gold coins. The $10 coin depicts an allegorical Liberty Head wearing an Indian headdress on the obverse and a Standing Eagle design on the reverse. The double eagle depicts a Striding Liberty facing the viewer on the obverse and a Flying Eagle design for the reverse.

The Mint engraving staff, led by Charles Barber, was not happy with the hiring of outside talent, even though Saint-Gaudens’ double eagle design is considered by many collectors to be the finest ever portrayed on a U.S. coin. Experimental Ultra High Relief $20 patterns were struck in 1907; they are considered some of the finest U.S. coins ever produced in terms of artistic merit. The relief was lowered somewhat for first $20 coins struck for circulation, though the coins contain high relief features, which caused problems in production. The Ultra High Relief and High Relief coins required too many strikings for efficient production, so the relief was lowered again later in 1907. (Saint-Gaudens, who had been ill from cancer during the design process, was dead before his $20 designs were completed.)

The Golden Age continued in 1908, with new designs for the $2.50 quarter eagle and $5 half eagle by Bela Lyon Pratt: an American Indian on the obverse, and a Standing Eagle on the reverse. These were the first true Indians to appear on U.S. coins. What made the designs so unusual, however, was their placement on the coin. The designs were created in the oxymoronic “incused relief.” Often incorrectly referred to as incused, the designs are raised, but sunken into the fields so the highest points are level with the flat fields. This design feature was criticized, with some suggesting that the “incused” portions would permit enough germs to accumulate to prove a health hazard.

In 1913, the designs for the 5-cent coin were changed. An American Indian was placed on the obverse and an American bison was placed on the reverse. The coin is known variously as the Indian Head, Bison or Buffalo 5-cent coin (also nicknamed the Buffalo nickel). The Indian design appearing on the obverse is probably the finest to be placed on a U.S. coin. Three Indians, Iron Tail, Two Moons and Chief John Tree, posed for designer James Fraser, who created a composite portrait. The model for the bison was Black Diamond.

More design changes were made in 1916, when the Barber designs for the dime and quarter dollar were replaced in mid-year.

The new dime features a Winged Liberty Head portrait on the obverse. The design is often and incorrectly called the Mercury dime; however, the artist never intended the figure to represent Mercury. The reverse depicts a fasces.

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