As coin imagery goes, lettering is typically among the least interesting elements. But it is nevertheless essential in a literate society.
Ancient coins typically included few, if any, words, as they were used by mostly illiterate populations more easily impressed by illustrations of gods and emperors. It appears that what lettering was included — usually in abbreviated form — was applied to the dies with single-character punches rather than by engraving. Even the ancients realized that this saved time and promoted consistency of style. The letters and other characters were often crude, emphasizing straight lines and broad strokes, and it was not until after the Middle Ages that great artistry was seen in the creation of letter and numeral punches. This coincided with the elaborate titles claimed by kings and nobles as they acquired multiple possessions through war, marriage and treaty.
By the time the US Mint began its operations in 1792, there were artisans who specialized in the creation of letter and numeral punches for the printing and engraving trades, among other skills. A good example may be found in the set of punches future mint engraver Christian Gobrecht created for the US Mint in 1825, while he was still self-employed.
The problem with having a complete matching set of such punches is that a few will fail at some point. Replacements for these damaged tools were not always obtained from the same source, and the result was an obvious mismatch in the mottoes and legends on subsequent dies. Collectors of early federal coins can point to numerous examples, such as the 1803 dimes having letter A's that are narrower than both the remaining letters and the A’s in other dime varieties of that date. Numerals, too, suffered from the loss of a single punch, as seen in the half dollars of 1828. Most of the several obverse dies used that year have small 8s that are clearly not from the same set of punches as the larger 1s and 2s.
With the arrival of the Contamin portrait lathe in 1835, the US Mint was able to create master dies that included all characters aside from the date and mintmark, thereby confining such variations in style to those features alone. While the lettering was thereafter consistent from one date to the next, it was still applied to the master die with hand punches and could thus be a bit irregular. The master dies created by James B. Longacre are notorious for their drunken lettering, which was poorly spaced and failed to follow a single arc. This may be seen most clearly in the gold dollars of 1849-89.
Later US Mint chief engravers perfected the placement of lettering. Both Barbers — Charles and William — were skilled in maintaining neatly aligned legends and mottoes. William still punched his characters directly into the die steel at the master die stage, but son Charles worked in clay or plaster to create most of his designs. After sculpting the main devices in relief, he would then make a negative cast into which the lettering was either punched or sculpted. Another casting would result in a completed positive model that could then be reduced mechanically to create a master hub. Charles Barber did vary from this technique in one notable exception—the Lafayette Dollar. For some reason he punched the legends into each of the several working dies used. This resulted in slightly irregular (and sometimes repunched) lettering that makes the various dies distinctive and collectible.
The 20th century brought with it the more powerful Janvier portrait lathe, which permitted the complete mechanical reduction of all features of a design, including the date and, when desired, mintmark. From this point onward, all US Mint engravers and outside artists submitting models to the Mint sculpted their lettering into negative casts of their designs, resulting in complete consistency throughout a coin series.
In the 21st century, technology has brought still further changes, with all lettering now applied to a design through computer graphics. The mint’s artists create finished designs at the electronic stage, which are then cut into master hubs by computer-guided robots. The style of lettering employed by modern artists lacks some of the grace found in earlier coinage, as it typically features simple sans-serif fonts. While this may be suitable to modern coin designs, it is quite jarring when applied to the several vintage coin types revived in recent years. These include the American Eagle and American Buffalo bullion coins and the 2009 Ultra High Relief Saint-Gaudens double eagle tribute coin. All supplemental lettering not part of these coins’ original designs was applied with computer graphics using very plain fonts entirely at odds with the existing style of lettering.
Another new technology being utilized at the US Mint is laser-cutting lettering. This is seen on the lettered edges of the current presidential dollar series. While each individual coin has its edge lettering impressed into it mechanically, the relief dies that impart this incuse lettering are the result of a transfer process in which the master lettering die was cut incuse with a laser.
David W. Lange's column, "USA Coin Album," appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.