Seeing Stars: Part Two

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 5/1/2005

I received a number of favorable comments about my column regarding the use of stars on United States coins. These included the suggestion that there was much more yet to be covered, so this month's installment will feature a further look at this "brilliant" subject.

David Lange

I received a number of favorable comments about my column regarding the use of stars on United States coins. These included the suggestion that there was much more yet to be covered, so this month's installment will feature a further look at this "brilliant" subject.

Among the more inventive uses of stars on our coins appear on the gold eagles and double eagles issued 1907-33. Both coins were designed by famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who incorporated stars in both conventional and innovative ways. Among the former are the traditional 13 stars arrayed in an arc above Liberty's portrait on the obverse of the eagle. For the twenty-dollar piece he placed 46 stars inside the obverse border to represent the number of states in the union at the time (two more were added with the admission of New Mexico and Arizona in 1912). A clever edge device was applied to the eagle by placing 46 raised stars spaced evenly in place of the conventional reeding (likewise raised to 48 beginning in 1912). A similar concept saw 13 stars arranged on the edge of the double eagle spaced to serve as stops between the words of the legend E PLURIBUS UNUM. This provided the added benefit of keeping the fields of the coin from being cluttered, a notion I wish would be applied more frequently with our commemorative coins. Both edge devices were achieved through the use of a three-piece, retractable collar whose joints are visible as raised lines at 120-degree intervals around the edges of the two coins.

A favorite trivia question of mine is to ask how many stars appear on the Saint-Gaudens double eagle. The few respondents who remember to count those on the edge are usually quite pleased with themselves until it's pointed out that they forgot to include the sun, which appears on both the obverse and reverse of the double eagle.

The sun's disk appeared previously on the very first coins authorized by the USA—the Fugio cents of 1787. It then was forgotten as a design element until being revived by Saint-Gaudens in 1907. Nine years later it was employed by a favorite pupil of his, Adolph A. Weinman, in his winning design for the half dollar of 1916, wherein it is the only star to appear. Though the sun's disk is not visible on Antonio de Francisci's silver dollar of 1921, the rays projecting upward on the reverse of this coin clearly reveal its presence.

Another distinctive use of stars was employed by Charles Barber and George Morgan in their respective designs for the pattern four-dollar pieces dated 1879-80. Indeed, this highly sought denomination is popularly known as the "stella" (Latin for star), after the main device appearing on the common reverse die—a large, five-pointed star. A much more awkward use of stars is seen on the obverse of each stella, wherein they are used as stops between the abbreviated components of the coins' composition. As a means of including the desired figure of 13 stars, Barber and Morgan broke up each letter of the word GRAMS with a star, making it quite difficult to read the legend. Of course, these coins were never produced for circulation, so this flaw is of minimal concern.

The United States commemorative coin series has employed stars liberally in a variety of ways. From the simple legend stops seen on the Columbian Exposition half dollar and the Lafayette dollar, to the complex symbology of the 17 stars arranged on the Arkansas Centennial half dollar, this device has found nearly universal application. The half dollars coined to honor Illinois, Daniel Boone and York County feature a rising sun disk, while those for the Oregon Trail and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition presumably show a setting sun, as these themes look westward. The Delaware Tercentary coin displays only the rays of the sun, its disk being implied behind a cluster of clouds, while the sun's rays similarly project from behind Independence Hall on the American Independence quarter eagle.

The lone star of Texas has an eagle superimposed over it on that state's centennial half dollar, but perhaps the most distinctive use of stars is reserved for the Cleveland-Great Lakes Exposition half dollar. Nine cities fronting the Great Lakes are identified by stars in a seeming satellite view of the region.

The modern series of commemoratives, dating from 1982, has employed stars in manners similar to those described above, with only a few of these later issues being distinctive in their use. One that comes to mind quickly is the Smithsonian half eagle. This institution's logo features a 16-pointed star of antique fashion, similar to the graphic depictions found in medieval texts. The silver dollar from this same commemorative issue includes rays of light emanating from the lamp of knowledge, but these easily may be mistaken for the rays of the sun.

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