History of U.S. coinage: Designs

By , Coin World Almanac: Eighth Edition
Published : 06/10/15
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The story behind the designs of U.S. coins is one of artistic experimentation and drone-like uniformity; of political necessity and political favoritism; of beauty tempered by the realities of the coining process.

The members of Congress who approved the U.S. monetary system created design parameters that affect new U.S. coin designs even in the 21st century, nearly 220 years after that initial legislation. The Mint Act of April 2, 1792, specified that certain design features and legends appear on the coins that were authorized. On one side of all coins was to be an impression symbolic of Liberty, plus the word liberty and the year of coinage. For the silver and gold coins, an eagle and united states of america were to appear on the reverse. The denomination was to appear on the reverses of the half cents and cents.

For more than 115 years in the history of U.S. coinage, Liberty was portrayed by allegorical female figures, appearing either as a bust or a full-length portrait. Liberty’s changing face through the years says a lot about the artistic abilities of the craftsmen employed on the Mint staff and the artists hired from outside to design certain coins. Some of the most attractive U.S. coins were designed by non-Mint employees, often in the face of opposition from a Mint engraving staff that had to worry about the practicalities of coinage production, sometimes requiring compromises affecting design relief and the placement of design elements. Beautiful designs created by Mint staff engravers never went beyond the pattern stage in favor of the uniformity that characterized U.S. designs from the mid-1830s into the early 20th century.

The changing portrait of Liberty also reveals the embodiment of the “ideal woman” by the physical standards set by the American men of the time, and men had always dominated U.S. coinage design until the 1980s. (The Mint engraving staff was exclusively male until President Reagan appointed Elizabeth Jones chief sculptor-engraver.) The first coinage portraits of Liberty are “Rubenesque.” Among the most recent allegorical Liberty figures to appear on U.S. coins are the Liberty on American Eagle gold bullion coins—a reproduction of a design released in 1907, “slimmed down” to resemble the trimmer woman championed by American advertising and dietary standards in the 1980s and 1990s—and on the 2000 golden dollar coin, Liberty as portrayed by Shoshone guide Sacagawea.

The 1793 half cents and cents introduced the allegorical themes used on U.S. coins: The half cent depicts a bust of Liberty with her hair flowing free. A Liberty Cap on a pole, a familiar symbol of Liberty in the American and French revolutions of the latter 18th century, rests on her right shoulder, giving the design its name: the Liberty Cap. On the first cents of 1793, another Flowing Hair Liberty appears. Con temporary reports claimed Liberty looked frightened on the cent. The designs are somewhat crude by modern standards. However, the Liberty busts were cut directly into steel by hand. Mint technicians had no access to the modern equipment and techniques available today.

Since the Mint Act of 1792 required only the denomination to appear on the reverses of the copper coins, the Mint engravers had a free rein. The first half cents have a wreath on the reverse, a device used as late as 1958 on the reverse of the Lincoln cent in the form of two stalks of wheat. The reverse device on the first cents was used about a month. A 15-link chain meant to represent the unity of the 15 states appears on the first 1793 cents. The public believed the chain was a symbol of enslavement perceived to represent “a bad omen for Liberty.” Changes in the design of both sides of the cent came rapidly; the first cent designs were used for a only a month in early 1793 before being replaced. A Wreath reverse replaced the Chain reverse, with a more refined Flowing Hair Liberty portrait created. Then the second Flowing Hair portrait was replaced with a Liberty Cap design similar to that on the half cent. Thus, three distinct cents were struck with the 1793 date: the Flowing Hair, Chain cent; the Flowing Hair, Wreath cent; and the Liberty Cap, Wreath cent.

Additional design changes were instituted for the cent in 1796, when a Draped Bust design was introduced and used through 1807. Liberty appears without a cap, her hair falling over bare shoulders. Loose drapery covers Liberty’s bust. Another Liberty Head design called the Classic Head design was used on the cent from 1808 through 1814. It differs considerably from the earlier allegorical motifs, with Liberty wearing a ribbon inscribed with liberty around her hair.

The Coronet design was introduced in 1816 on the large cent. This design would prove one of the most versatile of the 19th century. A variation of the Coronet design would appear on both copper coins until 1857 and on most of the gold denominations from the 1830s to the first decade of the 20th century. The design is similar on all of the coins, depicting Liberty wearing a coronet inscribed with liberty.

Designs for the half cent were similar to the cent’s designs, although the timetable for introduction was often different. The half cent used a Liberty Cap design until 1797, and from 1800 through 1808 a Draped Bust design was used. The Classic Head design was used on the half cent from 1809 through 1836 and the Coronet design was introduced in 1840.

The silver coins of the 18th century feature designs similar to those on the copper coins. The silver coins used a Flowing Hair design in 1794 and 1795, and in 1795 and 1796 a Draped Bust design was introduced on all silver coins. The Capped Bust design was used first for the half dollar in 1807, with the dime following in 1809, the quarter dollar in 1815 and the half dime in 1829. The eagles appearing on the reverse of the silver coins appeared in several forms, first in a Small Eagle design that some critics likened to a pigeon. A Heraldic Eagle was used on the dollar beginning in 1798, the half dollar in 1801 and the quarter dollar in 1804.

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.

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.

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.

The next members of the bullion coin family, the platinum American Eagles, stay near the tried-and-true designs of the past although the renditions are new. On the obverse, John Mercanti rendered a medium close-up view of the Statue of Liberty, but deliberately thinned Liberty’s lips and made other cosmetic changes. The reverse depicts a fairly realistic rendering of an eagle in flight with the sun in the background. In an interesting decision, Mint officials decided that beginning in 1998, the Proof versions of the platinum coin would depict a new reverse design every year for five years. The original reverse design remains in use on the bullion versions of the coins.

As the 1990s came to a close, the most exciting news for collectors was a decision to introduce new designs into circulation on a regular basis. For years, hobbyists and others had called for new designs on circulating coins. However, for decades, Mint officials had publicly opposed the idea, stating that to change coinage designs would cause hoarding of the old designs, thus generating a coinage shortage. However, that policy briefly changed in April 1988 when Mint Director Donna Pope, appearing before the Senate Banking Committee, reported that the Treasury had no major objections to a bill calling for the redesign of all circulating U.S. coins.

Congress had split over the redesign issue. The Senate had supported the measure for years, having passed redesign legislation more than a half dozen times. Redesign advocates found a champion in Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif. Cranston made the coinage redesign issue his last great issue. He retired at the end of the 102nd Congress at the end of 1992.

The House of Representatives, however, long opposed coinage redesign as unnecessary and unwanted by a majority of the American public. Again and again the House voted down redesign legislation. At one point in early 1992, it appeared as though the Senate and House had reached agreement on coinage redesign. The measure was added to an omnibus coin bill seeking a variety of commemorative coins for 1992 and beyond. However, on the day the vote was scheduled, someone on Capitol Hill began spreading the false rumor that the legislation would eliminate “In God We Trust” from U.S. coinage. The House defeated the bill because of the false rumor.

Finally, however, Congress changed its mind and authorized limited coinage redesign through the 50 States circulating commemorative quarter dollar program. Fifty new reverse designs were introduced over a 10-year period beginning in 1999 at a rate of five per year, one approximately every 10 weeks.

New designs were used on the new dollar coin introduced in January 2000. An unusual mixture of allegorical and historical themes were used, with the coin depicting an allegorical image of Sacagawea, the teenaged interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and her baby. This design concept was selected after unprecedented public discourse on the subject on June 8 to 9, 1998, in Philadelphia. Members of the public were invited to speak before a panel empowered to recommend coinage designs for the dollar coin. Artists, coin collectors and others recommended such subjects as Eleanor Roosevelt, allegorical portraits of Liberty and other themes, with the Sacagawea-inspired theme selected by the panel. The decision was controversial, since no portrait of Sacagawea exists. (The reverse depicts an eagle.)

Additional design changes were made during the first two decades of the 21st century, as circulating commemorative coin programs became something of the norm. (See the U.S. Commemoratives chapter for details.)


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