USA Coin Album: Short and Sweet, Part One

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 11/8/2011

This month David discusses coins that were mass produced for just a short period of time.

One observation I’ve made about the U. S. Mint is that it oftentimes comes up with a splendid coin design that is quite appealing only to scrap it shortly thereafter for something mediocre. Anyone who has studied United States pattern coins knows that some of the very best designs were never minted for circulation at all, but I’m speaking here of those coins which did achieve mass production for just a short period of time. Sometimes there is an overriding technical problem with the design that brings it to a swift end, but more often than not these decisions are the result of meddling by bureaucrats having limited taste but possessing final authority in such matters. As a disclaimer, I will warn readers in advance that some of this rant will reflect my own particular tastes, but I hope to reveal a pattern that will resonate with other numismatists.

These seemingly needless revisions to our coinage began quite early in U. S. Mint history. The first example that comes to mind is the Liberty Cap half cent of 1793. This perfectly charming design was simple, well centered within the field and evidently practical for coining. Perhaps the reverse wreath was overly fussy, but this could have been addressed without altering the fine bust of Liberty. Instead the following year’s coinage brought a new version of the same portrait facing the other direction. This bust was much broader and in higher relief, both features which reduced die life and must have created headaches for the coiners. The Mint’s solution was to come up with a flat, lifeless interpretation of this design for 1795. This was a precursor of things to come some nearly 200 years later, when all of our coin designs would be rendered in very shallow relief that made them look more like line drawings than works of bas relief.

Another appealing design that was terminated too quickly in favor of a lackluster replacement was John Reich’s handsome Classic Head. Used for large cents only from 1808 through 1814, it was unceremoniously discarded in favor of the dumpy Matron Head of 1816. Reich’s bust did, however, survive for years afterward on the half cent, probably because the Mint didn’t consider that lowly denomination worthy of the additional work needed for a new hub. The Matron Head cent ultimately was perfected by the very talented Christian Gobrecht in the mid-1830s, but it too succumbed to a lesser example of his own work in the form of the Braided Hair cent of 1839. Adding insult to injury, the tolerable Petite Head version of this Braided Hair cent was scrapped after just five years in favor of the more severe Mature Head edition. The former’s delicate reverse legend was replaced with much heavier and oppressive lettering for the remainder of the series.

The large cent was discontinued altogether in 1857 in favor of the small, thick cents of 1857-64. These debuted with the charming Flying Eagle obverse, but problems in striking up the design fully led to its retirement after just two years of mass production. A solution existed in revising the reverse design to omit points of overlap between the obverse and reverse die cavities, but instead the design was sacked outright. I have no problem with the much loved Indian Head cent which replaced the Eagle type, but it is clearly an inferior design. No less an artist than Augustus Saint-Gaudens made this very same observation decades later.

A much more recent instance of an appealing design being retired too soon may be found in the Westward Journey series of nickels coined 2004-05. The first year of production featured the usual Felix Schlag bust of Thomas Jefferson, but for 2005’s coinage a new portrait appeared which was the work of Joe Fitzgerald and Don Everhart. Not only did this innovative design include a profile view of Jefferson, but the bust actually extended to the coin’s border. This broke from typical practice in that design elements extending to the border tend to reduce die life, this concern seeming to be the highest priority in U. S. Mint coinage of the past 30 years. Though it received high marks as a work of modern coinage art, this profile bust was replaced just the following year with a facing bust of Jefferson. Though a decent portrait in itself, this new bust lacks the boldness of the 2005 edition. It seems that the changeover was made more for political reasons than for aesthetic or purely practical ones. Virginia’s congressional delegation is very adverse to any great departure from this circulating advertisement for one of its most popular tourist attractions.

When Christian Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty design debuted on the experimental silver dollars of 1836, it was accompanied by a splendid reverse design featuring the soaring eagle which would later appear briefly on the cents of 1857-58. This bird, however, faired no better on the silver coinage, being abandoned when silver dollar coinage reached circulating levels in 1840. The Flying Eagle reverse evidently was difficult to strike up fully in the Mint’s new steam-driven presses, and an update of the old John Reich, “sandwich board” eagle of 1807 was adapted to the coinage of dollars, halves and quarters. Though too small to accommodate an eagle, the Seated Liberty dime and half dime were also abused in their early years, and I’ll examine this coinage next month.

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