History of U.S. coinage: Designs

By , Coin World Almanac: Eighth Edition
Published : 06/10/15
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(Page 4 of 5)

The quarter dollar design introduced in 1916 proved short lived. The Standing Liberty figure had an exposed right breast. Liberty’s bare breast was covered with a coat of mail in 1917 (both subtypes of the 1917 coin exist). Although many numismatic books claim there was a hue and cry over Liberty’s bare breast, no contemporary evidence exists that backs that theory. Research indicates artist Hermon A. MacNeil added the coat of chain to signify the nation’s preparation to enter the war in Europe, a common allegorical theme in some of the sculptor’s other contemporary artwork. The reverse depicts a Flying Eagle design; its position was modified slightly in 1917 at same time changes were made to the obverse. Interestingly, correspondence between Mint officials and designer MacNeil refer to changes in the placement of the eagle but apparently do not mention the change to Liberty. The coat of mail was added very quietly. The obverse change may have been illegal, since Congress did not authorize it as required by the 1890 law, although it did approve the changes made to the reverse of the coin.

The Walking Liberty half dollar was also introduced in 1916. The obverse depicts a Walking Liberty figure. The reverse depicts one of the most attractive eagles on a regular issue of U.S. coins.

The Peace dollar replaced the Morgan dollar in 1921, which had been briefly resurrected in 1921 (coinage had ceased after 1904). The Peace dollar commemorates the peace that followed the end of World War I. Coinage of the dollar ceased at the end of 1935 when the denomination was temporarily abandoned.

The second coinage trend to begin in the early 20th century appeared in 1909 when a portrait of Abraham Lincoln replaced the Indian Head on the cent. For the first time, a historical, nonallegorical person was depicted on a circulating coin of the United States. Lincoln’s 100th birthday was celebrated in 1909. His 150th birthday in 1959 resulted in the Lincoln Memorial replacing the two stalks of wheat found on the Lincoln cents of 1909 to 1958; the Lincoln Memorial design was used through 2008. In 2009, four different reverse designs were used to commemorate stages of Lincoln’s life in celebration of the bicentennial of his birth: the Childhood design, marking his youth in Kentucky; the Formative Years design, marking his life in Indiana; the Professional Life design, for Lincoln’s career in Illinois; and the Presidency design, marking his last years, in the District of Columbia. A new, Union Shield design was introduced in 2010 as the coin’s standard reverse (by law, the design will have to be used for at least 25 years unless Congress orders otherwise). The Victor D. Brenner portrait continues to be used on the obverse of the cent, with the design returned to its original form in 2010 in appearance if not in relief (the Mint engraving staff had modified the portrait’s features over the decades).

The trend of depicting actual historic figures continued in 1932, when the Standing Liberty design on the quarter dollar was replaced with the Washington portrait on the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. A portrait of Thomas Jefferson replaced the American Indian in 1938 on the 5-cent coin (the Treasury Department held a design contest). Franklin Roosevelt’s portrait was placed on the dime in 1946, a year after his death (the first time a newly dead president’s portrait was placed on a circulating coin). A portrait of Benjamin Franklin was placed on the half dollar in 1948, replacing the Walking Liberty designs. Franklin was replaced in turn in 1964 by a portrait of John F. Kennedy in a numismatic tribute to the assassinated president; Congress had to authorize this change since a span of 25 years had not passed.

Tributes to the newly dead continued in 1971, when a copper-nickel dollar coin was introduced bearing President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s portrait on the obverse and an allegorical figure of an eagle landing on Earth’s moon, commemorating the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 brought changes to the reverses of the quarter dollar, half dollar and dollar. The reverse of the 1976 quarter dollar depicts a Revolutionary War drummer; the half dollar depicts Independence Hall in Philadelphia; and the dollar depicts the Liberty Bell superimposed over the moon. Although Mint officials avoided the word “commemorative” in their descriptions of the three coins, they are clearly commemorative in nature and should be classified thusly. The designs reverted to their original versions in 1977.

In 1979, a new copper-nickel dollar sized between the quarter dollar and half dollar was introduced, replacing the Eisenhower dollar. The new design depicts feminist Susan B. Anthony and a reduced version of the moon-landing design. Anthony was the first nonallegorical U.S. woman to appear on a circulating coin. The choice was not a popular one, since many collectors had hoped Flowing Hair Liberty, Flying Eagle designs by Chief Sculptor-Engraver Frank Gasparro would appear. Many letters from collectors focused on the supposed unattractiveness of Anthony, who was shown in her later years on the coin. However, those same writers apparently had never criticized the physical attributes of Lincoln (who, after all, was referred to as an ape by the press of his time, before he achieved martyrdom upon his assassination). Ironically, a descendant of Anthony was critical of an early version of Gasparro’s Anthony portrait as too “pretty” and not at all indicative of the woman’s strong character; Gasparro modified the design before it was placed on the coin. However, the coin did not circulate well, mainly because of its similarity in size to the quarter dollar (many found the two coins too close to each other in diameter) and because the dollar bill remained in production. Poor public usage of the smaller dollar resulted in none being struck for nearly two decades after 1981. The 1979 to 1980 coins were struck for circulation, and the 1981 coins were struck for collectors only. More were struck in 1999 after the vast inventory of 1979 and 1980 coins sitting in government vaults was gradually released into circulation.

The reintroduction of commemorative coins and the American Eagle bullion coins has brought renewed interest in coinage designs, and renewed controversy. Collectors and others have been critical of some of the designs on the commemorative coins. The two torchbearers on an early version of the 1984 Olympic $10 eagle were lampooned as “Dick and Jane running” by congressional members. Others, most notably the obverse of the 1986-W Statue of Liberty half eagle, designed by Chief Sculptor-Engraver Elizabeth Jones, have been praised.

When the American Eagle gold and silver coins were introduced in 1986, Treasury officials selected older designs for the obverses, matched with new designs on the reverses. The obverse of the silver dollar depicts Weinman’s Walking Liberty half dollar obverse, enlarged for placement on the larger coin. A new Heraldic Eagle appears on the reverse. Changes made to the designs chosen for the gold bullion coins were controversial. Saint-Gaudens’ Striding Liberty for the double eagle was chosen for the obverse, but not until Treasury Secretary James A. Baker ordered Liberty on a diet in 1986. The Mint engraver assigned to the project was ordered to reduce Liberty’s apparent weight, slimming her arms and legs. Members of the Commission of Fine Arts decried the changes to what is considered a classic design. CFA members were also critical of the reverse, a Family of Eagles design by Dallas sculptor Miley Busiek. The legislation authorizing the gold coins mandated the Busiek design. Busiek had been an untiring champion of her design, which shows two adult eagles and two younger birds. She lobbied members of Congress and officials at the Treasury Department for months in a politically successful attempt to have her design placed on the bullion coins. She says the design reflects the values of the American family.

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