Size Matters

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 11/1/2005

In describing United States coin varieties, the terms "small," "medium" and "large" oftentimes are used to describe different sizes of lettering…

David LangeIn describing United States coin varieties, the terms "small," "medium" and "large" oftentimes are used to describe different sizes of lettering in the legends and mottoes. The legends commonly seen on our coins include "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" and "E PLURIBUS UNUM", while "LIBERTY" and "IN GOD WE TRUST" are more properly described as mottoes. In either instance, the size and shape of the lettering may vary, particularly within the early coin types.

Until the late 1830s, most of the numerals and lettering on USA coins was applied to the individual working dies with the use of hand puncheons. While the central lettering, such as the value "ONE CENT" on the reverse of the cent, is believed to have been included in the master die, even these letters required some touching up with hand tools before the die was ready. A complete set of such letter and numeral puncheons would last ten years or more, though a few of the individual pieces could suffer partial failures, such as the breaking of a serif. The engraver would then have to decide whether to touch up each working die with a graver after punching in that letter or simply let it go, as is. Examples of both actions may be found on our early coinage.

In most instances, a single matching set of puncheons would be used to complete a working die. There are, however, exceptions. In the dime series, for instance, one reverse die used to coin 1823 dimes features a letter 'E' in the national legend that is obviously too large and belonged to a different set of puncheons. Whether the correct puncheon had failed or was otherwise not available has been lost to history. The engraver simply may have been careless and neglected to select the correct letter size, though this is doubtful. It may be just a coincidence, but future Mint employee Christian Gobrecht was contracted about this time to supply a new set of letter and numeral puncheons.

Another glaring example of mismatched characters is the 1840 cent variety in which the first two numerals of the date initially were punched into the die with a large font, only to be overpunched with a complete date of much smaller size. Since cents of this date are known with dates that are entirely large or entirely small, it may be that the engraver made a conscious decision to change the date size on a die that had been partially complete at an earlier time. It was a common practice at the U.S. Mint to impart the first two or three numerals of the date in anticipation of completing the date when it came time to actually use the die. This policy cut down on the instances of overdated dies that were so common in the earliest years of the Mint's operations. Dates and mintmarks remained the only features hand-punched into each working die after the introduction of new coin types beginning in the 1830s.

In looking through popular coin catalogs, it becomes apparent that some confusion may arise from the manner in which different lettering sizes are labeled. For example, the national legend on 1828 half dollars is transitional from the earlier Large Letters style to Small Letters. Both sizes also appear on coins dated 1829, 1830 and 1832, as older reverse dies continued to be used until they failed. For half dollars dated 1834, the Small Letters reverse of these dates is now renamed Large Letters in most catalogs, because yet a third and still smaller size debuted that year, and it is labeled Small Letters for that date. This is often a source of confusion for collectors attempting to learn about early United States coinage, and the terms are sometimes misapplied.

There are several other instances of different names being applied to the same feature for different dates. In more recent years, the old 'S' mintmark puncheon retired midway through 1979 coinage has come to be labeled "Type 1," while the mintmark that replaced it is known for that year alone as "Type 2." Oddly enough, the Type 2 mintmark was itself withdrawn from use midway through 1981 and replaced with a third style. For 1981, however, the Type 2 of 1979 is called Type 1, while the third mintmark puncheon is now called Type 2. I've witnessed more confusion over the distinguishing and labeling of these transitional varieties than for any others, primarily because there are now so many collectors of modern USA coinage, and these individuals tend to be the least well-versed in minting technology and terminology.

In a perfect numismatic world, the solution to all this confusion would be a master encyclopedia of all puncheons ever used for United States coinage. Each numeral and letter would bear a unique catalog number that relates it to others of the same font and readily distinguishes all characters of that font from those of other fonts. Numismatists could simply identify any coin's legends and mottoes by these numbers, eliminating the overlapping usage of terms such as Small Date versus Large Date and Small Letters versus Medium Letters versus Large Letters. I'm confident, however, that such a system will never come to pass. Few collectors and dealers will want to study something so clinical, and our confusing labels seem here to stay.

David W. Lange's column USA Coin Album appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.