Dancing with Dates, Part One

Posted on 10/9/2008

This month, David W. Lange takes us back to the days of date punching at the US Mint and discusses the peculiar results, and how the process has evolved over the centuries.

For the first 115 years of the US Mint’s operation, dates were added to coins by punching the numerals into the softened steel of each working die. In the years of Bust type coins, these numerals were applied one at a time. The die sinker typically utilized numeral puncheons of uniform style and size for any given die, but there were times when mismatched figures were employed with somewhat comical results. Perhaps the most startling example is the 1798 / 7 dime, in which a feeble little 8 struggles in vain to obscure the underlying 7 of much greater size.

With the more modern coin types introduced beginning in 1836, it appears that multiple-digit or gang puncheons were utilized. This wasn’t consistent, and some exceptions can be found with a bit of study. The dates still varied in size or style from one year to the next, but rarely so within a single year and even more rarely within a single die. A notable exception is the 1840 cent, having a uniformly small date punched over the previously applied numerals 18 of larger size.

With the introduction of the Saint-Gaudens Eagles and Double Eagles in 1907, the date was included within the artist’s sculpted model. It was then transferred mechanically through the various stages of die preparation so that all working dies carried dates of identical size, style and position. When the time came to prepare the next year’s dies, the engraver would grind away the obsolete numerals from the hub, sink a new die from the altered hub and then hand-engrave the new numerals into it, mimicking the size and style of date created by the sculptor. This then became the master die for that year, and all working hubs and dies were generated from it.

This technique was applied only to new designs as they were introduced, so coins such as the Liberty Head nickel and the Barber silver coins did not have sculpted dates. The one concession the Mint made to progress was to apply their dates to the single master die for the year, rather than to each working die, as had been the practice in the past. This is why it was possible for the Barber silver coins of 1915–16 to have a date style that looked so different from that employed in 1914, while those on newer coins such as the Buffalo nickel and Lincoln cent looked similar from one year to the next. The old technique of punching dates became a thing of the past for US regular issues by 1917, though it survived for years afterward on some of the Mint’s other coinage, such as that for the Philippines. Though in theory the new United States coins adopted from 1907–21 should have maintained absolute uniformity of date style throughout their years of production, this was not always true. It was the responsibility of the Mint’s chief engraver to cut the replacement numerals for each new year’s master dies. It was at this stage of the process that human fallibility played a role, along with the artist’s natural desire to imprint his own personal style onto work inherited from others.

Perhaps no other coin series illustrates how much date styles varied from one year to the next than the venerable Lincoln cent. In his sculpted model for the cent’s obverse, Victor D. Brenner utilized a style of date that was contemporary in 1909. His open 9 with a long, sweeping tail would have been immediately familiar to Americans of that time as characteristically Art Nouveau. This was the dominant style of art and illustration during the 1890s and early 1900s.

Presumably, it was Chief Engraver Charles Barber who fashioned the replacement numerals toward the end of 1909, when a new master die dated 1910 was required. While he cut a second numeral 1 identical to the first, he then devised a broad, round 0 that was entirely out of character with the petite 0 seen on 1909 cents. This set the stage for decades of clueless updating by the Mint’s engraving staff, and some examples are really egregious. Numerals that proved particularly troublesome were those with tails. Only rarely did the Mint’s engravers conform to the style established by Brenner, in which all numerals 3, 5 and 7 should have had long, sweeping tails. Instead, the cents of 1913, 1915 and 1917 all have stunted tails that clash with the accompanying 9.

The same mistakes were repeated for years afterward. A notable exception appeared with the cents of 1934, in which the 3 conforms to the style of the 9. The following year, however, the old, squat 3 returned, perhaps because some bureaucrat complained to Chief Engraver John Sinnock that "this is not the way it has always been done." Reason finally won out in the end; the cents of 1943 and later years have correct 3s, those of 1947 and later have correct 7s and, finally, the numeral 5 was fixed beginning with the cents of 1950. Setbacks occurred in 1957 and 1970, when the 7s were a bit stubby, but this was fixed once and for all beginning in 1971.

Next month I’ll look at some other examples of erroneous or changing date styles.

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

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