USA Coin Album: Left, Right and Center

Posted on 3/16/2010

This month, David W. Lange explores the effect left- and right-handed artists have had on the profile busts of US coinage.

I was interviewed last year by a reporter for the New York Times on the subject of Abraham Lincoln's bicentennial and the commemorative cents that were being issued to mark that occasion. One of the questions he asked me is why Lincoln faces right on Victor D. Brenner's cent when all of our other circulating coins have portraits facing left. Without hesitation I answered, "Because Brenner was probably left-handed."

Now, I don't know whether that's a fact (perhaps one of the readers knows), but think about it: If a right-handed person were to sketch a profile portrait, wouldn't it be easier to draw the outline of a face that is looking to the left? Whether you are left- or right-handed, try doing this as an exercise and see which is easier for you.

Since the Lincoln cent and our other circulating coins (excluding the recent dollars, which are computer-generated designs) originated during the period in which the portraits were sculpted in modeling clay and then mechanically reduced to coin size, the artists would have crafted the profile busts in whichever direction was most natural for them. Since the majority of the population is right-handed, this typically would result in busts facing to the left. Indeed, the Jefferson nickel (1938–2003 portrait), the Roosevelt dime, the Washington quarter and the Kennedy half dollar all have left-facing busts.

A study of various portrait coins and medals by these and other artists reveals that they maintained a nearly uniform style in this regard. For example, George Morgan's silver dollar of 1878 has a left-facing portrait, as do nearly all of his medals. The only exception that comes to mind among his coins is the right-facing bust of Lincoln on the Illinois Centennial half dollar of 1918. Of course, Morgan was simply copying a statue by Andrew O'Conner, Jr., and may have been working from a right-facing photograph of it. This seems to have been the scenario used by Frank Gasparro when he created the Susan B. Anthony dollar in 1978–79, as his right-facing bust is a near exact copy of a well known photo that faces the same way. Gasparro favored left-facing portraits, though his presidential medal of Richard M. Nixon is another exception in which he almost certainly worked from a photo. Busy, important persons rarely will sit still for the convenience of a sculptor!

In contrast to the left-facing busts that dominate coins of the sculpted era (roughly 1835–2000), those that preceded this period are more likely to face right. Prior to the 1836 arrival at the US Mint of the Contamin portrait lathe, the main devices of United States coins, such as the bust of Liberty and the eagle, were engraved by hand. This work was performed incuse, directly into the die steel, and this became the master die. The master die was then hardened and used to raise a hub that could be applied to the multiplication of working dies. Assuming again that most engravers were right-handed, the negative bust of the master die would be facing to the left, resulting in a right-facing portrait on both the hub and the coins.

As always, a few exceptions may be found. The Liberty busts created by John Reich starting in 1807 faced left, implying that he may have been left-handed and thus engraved right-facing busts in the master die. It's remotely possible that he engraved left-facing master hubs in relief, but this is an extraordinarily difficult task to perform in steel and seems unlikely. The truth is that we'll never know for certain, unless he left us a notebook as yet undiscovered.

The work of Charles Barber is inconsistent in that his portraits vary from left to right. Though he worked during a period in which the mechanical reduction of sculpted models was available to him at the Mint, he seems to have favored the old school practice of engraving negative portraits directly into the die steel. While most of his early coin designs have right-facing portraits, his later coins and many of his high-relief medals have busts facing to the left. Perhaps he was just slow to adapt to more modern methods of design, a possibility that seems entirely in keeping with what we know of him.

In the past decade we've seen many facing portraits in our coinage, a rarity in earlier years because these were so difficult to create in the shallow bas relief required of coinage. In the previous history of the US Mint, such portraits were confined to high-relief medals and some of our commemorative coins. The adoption of computer-generated sculpting, however, has permitted artists to create reasonably satisfying portraits that face the viewer either straight on or, more often, at a slight angle. Examples include the series of President dollars and the Jefferson nickels made since 2006. Computers permit the reproduction of an on-screen design in any desired relief, a tool simply not available to earlier generations of coin designers.

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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