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Coin Collecting: Designs On Coins

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( Published 1963 )



Some 2,500 years ago, when metallic money was just beginning its long life as a medium of exchange, the metal in the coin itself represented full value. Thus, a gold coin was worth just as much as the gold itself was worth, a silver coin was worth no more nor less than its silver content, and so on.

Only one thing was lacking: a guarantee that the gold or silver was of standard purity and proper weight. The average person was not expected to carry along scales and assay equipment to prove or check the worth of this or that metal disk.

Ancient authorities sought to guarantee weight and purity by stamping into the coins a readily identifiable emblem or symbol or portrait. Thus, a rose with a bud meant that this particular silver didrachm had been issued by the Greek city of Rhodus on the Island of Rhodes; an owl and the Greek letters alpha, theta, epsilon indicated that the city of Athens guaranteed the weight and purity of the silver in its tetradrachm.

The Greeks were content at first to use portraits of gods and goddesses and mythological creatures-such as the Pegasus or flying horse, symbol of Corinth-on the obverse sides of their coins. This continued until the time of Alexander the Great of Macedon. During his world-conquering exploits (336-323 B.C. ), Alexander issued silver coins which allegedly showed the head of young Hercules, or Herakles as he was called then, wearing a lionskin.

Now Alexander said that it was a picture of Hercules on his coins, but those in the know whispered that Alexander himself had posed wearing the lionskin. So it may be said, with a degree of accuracy, that Alexander the Great was the first man in history whose portrait appeared on any coin.

The practice was continued with the rise of the Roman Empire. Coin engravers of the Empire usually were not as gifted artistically as the earlier Greeks, but they did their best. And the Caesars of Rome permitted them an unusual amount of unflattering accuracy-the portrait series of Emperor Nero shows him from handsome youth to fat middle age, with apparently little compromise with the truth.

Thus the designs of coins, whether symbols or portraits, were intended to assure whoever handled the money that he was getting more or less full value.

When the United States of America. started its mint in the 1790s, the struggling new nation leaned over backward to make certain its coinage would be acceptable. The early large cents contained a full cent's worth of copper. In the case of the first silver dollars, the mint went slightly overboard and put more silver of greater purity into them than was necessary. They were, in fact, worth more melted down as silver than the dollar value stamped on them. Early gold coins also had too much, too fine gold in them.

Today, coins issued by the United States are more or less tokens, with no attempt to insure that a silver half dollar has 5o cents' worth of silver in it, or that a bronze Lincoln cent contains anything near one cent's worth of copper. But they are definitely legal tender-completely acceptable at full value by the American people.

In the early days of the American Republic, there were those who wanted the portrait of George Washington placed on United States coins. Despite many Washington pieces which appeared (many minted in England) during the period i783-1795, the first President frowned on having his portrait used. Even as he declined to become "King" of the new nation, he refused to permit his likeness to appear on the new American coins.

(Not until more than 100 years later-in 1900-did the likeness of George Washington appear on an authorized United States coin. In that year, the Commemorative Lafayette dollar carried the conjoined portraits of Generals Washington and Lafayette. )

The first official production of the newly opened mint in 1793 was divided between half cents and the large copper cents. Exactly who designed these first coins is not known for certain, but it is believed that the half-cent design was a copy of the Saratoga-Yorktown medal made by the French artist Dupre.

There were two types of the 1793 large cent: the chain type and the wreath type. Dies for the chain design are said to have been cut by the Swiss artist Jean Pierre Droz. Public reaction to this first design was not at all friendly: "The American cents... do not answer our expectations." The chain on the reverse side met objections: "The chain... is but a bad omen for Liberty, and Liberty herself appears to be in a fright."

The wreath type of copper cent design of 1793 was probably cut by Joseph Wright, the first draftsman and diesinker of the U. S. Mint, although it's possible that Droz suggested the design. The reverse bore a circular wreath instead of the objectionable linked chain, but Liberty appeared to be quite as frightened as before.

The next type of large cent, coined from 1793 to 1806, is called the Liberty Cap type, and the dies are believed to have been cut by Robert Scot, newly appointed first engraver of the mint.

This fellow Scot was probably the busiest and most prolific engraver ever employed by the U. S. Mint. Not only did he design the large cent but, starting in 1794, his designs appeared on the half cent, the half dime, half dollar and silver dollar.

Two years later, changes were ordered. (After all, the new mint was doing some experimenting.) For this series, Scot based his design on a portrait of Liberty by Gilbert Stuart, famed for his many oil paintings of Washington.

The new Scot designs appeared first on the dollar late in 1795 and on the large cent, half dime and half dollar in 1796. Two new silver coins were issued for the first time by the mint in 1796-both designed by Scot-the dime and the quarter. A new design for the half cent had to wait until 1800.

Gold Eagles and Half Eagles ( $10 and $5 respectively) were first issued in 1795, and the Quarter Eagle or $2.50 gold piece appeared in 1796. All three were designed by Scot.

The Turban head large cent, 1808-1814, is so named because the broad ribbon with "Liberty" lettered thereon, plus the curled hair above it, has the vague appearance of a turban.

Concerning the so-called Indian Head cents, long a popular series with collectors, there is a legend which still persists. It is a pleasant story, possibly based on fact to an extent. Sarah Longacre, age iz, one day went to visit her father at the mint in Philadelphia. Her father, James B. Longacre, was then chief engraver. A small band of Indians and their chief were visiting the mint that day.

The chief is said to have permitted little Sarah to put on his feathered bonnet. So striking was the effect (the story goes) that Father Longacre sketched her portrait. He later used that sketch as a model for the famed Indian head which appears an United States cents from 1859 to 1909.

Designers of United States coins usually have included their initial or initials somewhere on the coin. Longacre may have been the first when he included a tiny letter "L" on the ribbon of part of the Indian Head cent issue of 1864. In doing so, he made a collector's item of those 1864 cents bearing his initial; the cent with the "L" is worth approximately 6 times as much as one without it.

Other coin designers have signed their work. Charles E. Barber parked his "B" on designs for dimes, quarters and halves of 1892-1916. George T. Morgan got away with placing an "M" on each side of the silver-dollar design of 1872-1921.

In 1907, Augustus St. Gaudens placed his monogram - ASG - under the date in his design for the Double Eagle ($20 gold piece), and Bela L. Pratt next year included "B L P" under the Indian's head on the Quarter Eagle and Half Eagle ($2.50 and $5 gold coins).

But Victor D. Brenner, who designed that favorite of so many collectors, the Lincoln Head cent, got into genuinely hot water when he sought to do likewise.

When the first Lincoln cents were issued in 1909, there appeared on the reverse three tiny letters: "V D B:" Brenner was not prepared far the storm of protest that broke about his head. He was accused of advertising, braggadocio, impertinence, and so forth and so on.

The mints at Philadelphia and San Francisco were ordered to halt production of the new Lincoln cents until the offending initials could be removed. While Philadelphia had minted nearly 28 million of the V D B cents by that time, the San Francisco branch

Thus, the 1909-S with Brenner's one of the key coins-and hence, tire Lincoln cent series.

Federal law today says that the design of a coin cannot be changed oftener than once every 25 years. Thus, there are only two coins which are eligible for a new design: the Lincoln cent of igog and the Washington quarter, first issued in 1932. But there seems to be little inclination to abandon either.

A "new" Lincoln appeared in 1959, but the only thing new about it was a reverse side which featured the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Thus far, there has been no hint that the Washington quarter will be replaced by a new design.

The Jefferson nickel design, adopted in 1938, became eligible for a change in 1963, but the Roosevelt dime (first issued in 1946) and the Ben Franklin half dollar (adopted in 1948) probably will be around at least until 1971. and 1973 respectively.

There are those who think the Roosevelt dime is a particularly unattractive coin, and they'd like to see it changed. But, no matter how unpopular a particular design proves, the mint is stuck with it. Unlike other manufacturers, who try to improve their product each year, the mint can't change models more often than once in 25 years, except by act of Congress. When a coin has been in issue longer than this, the Director of the Mint, with approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, may put out a new design.

Mint officials, unlike those in the Post Office Department, dislike coin-design changes. United States postage stamps may startle you with their bizarre colors and lackadaisical design, but a coin must be as familiar as an old shoe.

Once, in his message vetoing a bill which would have authorized a new commemorative coin, President Eisenhower said:

"Multiplicity of designs of United States coins would tend to create confusion among the public, and to facilitate counterfeiting."

(Of course, with the exception of Columbian half dollars, Stone Mountain halves and some of the WashingtonCarver series, almost no commemorative coins ever reach actual circulation-they're fast gobbled up by dealers and collectors.)

There have been a number of two-design coins issued by the mint in the last hundred years or so; that is, coins which after the first issue were soon modified to some degree.

The Indian cent of 1859 underwent such a design modification on its reverse side. The following year, the original laurel had been replaced and an oak wreath with a small shield at top decorated the reverse side.

The Lincoln cent had only that minor change in its first year of issue-the removal of Victor D. Brenner's initials from the reverse side. While seemingly unimportant, the presence of those three initials on a 1909 Lincoln cent minted at San Francisco can add a whale of a lot of value to it from the collector's standpoint.

Restoration of the initials in igi8 was of no particular importance to the world of coin collectors, except it has often helped identify the 1944-D Lincoln which has been altered to resemble the more valuable 1914-D.

When the Lincoln Memorial reverse side, designed by Frank Gasparro, was introduced in 1959, a distinctively new series of Lincoln cents was started.

Those 5-cent pieces, familiarly called "nickels," actually have only a fourth part of nickel in their alloy-the other three parts are copper.

In World War II, when nickel was a critical item in the war economy, the alloy was changed materially. In the 5-cent pieces of 1942 through 1945, the alloy was 56 per cent copper, 35 per cent silver and 9 per cent manganese.

When the Liberty Head nickel first appeared in 1883, the word "Cents" was omitted from the design. In this first type, there was only a large Roman numeral "V" with no definite answer to "Five what?"

Dishonest persons (and there were such even in the 1880s) would have these nickels gold-plated and then pass them off to gullible rural characters as 5-dollar gold pieces. Of course, the weight wasn't right, but who's going to stop to weigh United States coins that "look" all right?

Because of this nineteenth-century racketeering in nickels, everyone seems to have saved that first type and promptly to have spent the nickels issued later in 1883, which had the word "Cents" prominently displayed on the reverse side of the coin.

The result is that today the 1883 nickel with "Cents" is worth from 4 to 6 times as much as the 1883 nickel without it. Despite rumors that ran regularly across the country, this 1883 centless nickel was never recalled by the U. S. Mint.

The next nickel was the Indian Head or Buffalo design, issued from igig to 1938. James E. Fraser was the designer. While at various times an Indian chief might come forward and stoutly declare and admit that he was the model for the design, Fraser actually used g different Indians as model-Irontail, Two Moons, and a Cheyenne chief.

The portrait of the bison, popularly miscalled a buffalo, has a more succinct history. A bison named "Black Diamond," in the New York Zoological Gardens, was the model here. A popular attraction for many years, "Black Diamond" passed on to the Happy Hunting Grounds in 1935. His head was preserved and mounted.

The Indian Head nickel underwent a minor revision in its very first year of issue. The bison first appeared standing on a mound on which was stamped the coin's value. But it wore out much too rapidly. The new type had a base redesigned to provide a thinner straight line, with a recessed area for the value.

The Standing Liberty quarter, issued in 1916 and for part of igy, underwent considerable modification in that second year. Not only was the reverse side changed, but the obverse side underwent considerable modification-exactly why, no one appears to know.

In the original design, the figure of Liberty was tall and straight. A shield covered the left upper half of her body, but her right breast was bare. The new design modestly gave her a coat of mail. No one knows for sure, but it's a good guess that some bluenoses and do-gooders decided that the original design was "indecent:" And everyone knows how a vociferous minority sometimes gets its way.

The real and legitimate drawback of the coin was that on the series 1916 through 1924, the dates wore off rapidly and completely. In 1925, part of the pedestal on which Liberty is standing was recessed. The coins dated 1925 through 1930 proved much more durable. In fact, the coins often were well into the "Fair" condition before the date became undecipherable.

It's possible that designers of United States coins are becoming so expert, or they think things through so well, or their designs are so safe and obvious, that changes are never required after the first coin appears. At any rate, there hasn't been a major change in any United States coin series since the Standing Liberty revamp of 1917.