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.