USA Coin Album: Short and Sweet, Part Three

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

This month I conclude my study of coin designs that initially were satisfying to the eye yet were ultimately altered in ways that reduced their appeal. The debut of the new half dollar honoring slain President John F. Kennedy was one of the most eagerly anticipated numismatic events both at home and around the Western World. As issued in 1964, this coin was an extremely attractive piece of coinage art. Its obverse featured a very accurate and skillful portrait of JFK, while its reverse included a rendition of the always-appealing presidential seal. Technically perfect as well, nearly all of the resulting coins were sharply struck and well detailed.

These master hubs remained in use through the end of silver-clad coinage in 1970, but the transition to the much harder copper-nickel-clad composition in 1971 prompted a series of catastrophic alterations to both sides of the Kennedy half dollar. The 1971 halves displayed a noticeable reduction in the size of the portrait, this accompanied by oversize borders. It was hoped by the Mint that these changes would compensate for the greater challenge of filling the dies, yet the 1971 circulating half dollars were nearly all mushy and incomplete. This was particularly evident on the reverse, the shield and tail feathers appearing misshapen and ill-defined. The portrait was restored to nearly its original size in 1972, but Kennedy halves of the next 15 years never struck up well. Alterations which began in the late 1980s and continued for the next several years reduced the relief of this coin type drastically. Though this solved the problem of incomplete strikes, it also rendered the Kennedy half dollar a comical imitation of the 1964-70 version, a fate shared with all of our circulating coins during that same time period.

One of the silliest changes made to an otherwise satisfactory coin was the relocation of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the Presidential dollar series.

When these coins debuted in 2007, this motto and E PLURIBUS UNUM, as well as the date and mintmark, were wisely placed on the coins’ edges. This reduced the typically cluttered look of most modern USA coins while still conforming to the requirements of law. The seemingly hidden location of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was seized upon by both evangelicals and opportunistic politicians as some sort of atheist conspiracy, though Congress had approved the specifications of the coins in the authorizing legislation. In a knee-jerk action, Congress then demanded that IN GOD WE TRUST be moved to the coin’s obverse, which forced a relocation and reduction in size of the more significant legend enumerating the president being honored on each coin. All dollars in this series since 2009 have been so coined and are noticeably diminished in attractiveness and historic value.

The flap over IN GOD WE TRUST that forced an alteration to the Presidential dollars was history repeating itself, as a similar outcry erupted with the debut of new eagles and double eagles in 1907. These splendid coins were the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and were universally praised by numismatists and art critics. The religious motto was omitted intentionally at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt, who believed its inclusion on money was sacrilegious. There were those who found its omission objectionable, and Congress forced its addition midway through 1908’s coinage. In this instance, however, the addition was one that did not detract from the coins significantly. The motto actually served to balance the design on the gold eagle, while serving a similar function on the double eagle. The Mint also took this opportunity to create sharper master hubs for both coins. The original hub reductions had been botched, leaving the “No Motto” coins with a flat and indistinct appearance. The new coinage was much sharper in all details.

In an earlier installment of this column it was noted how the Christian Gobrecht-designed copper and silver coins of the early 1840s were altered through the introduction of much heavier lettering. A similar fate befell his gold half eagle in 1842, when the Mint transitioned from the original reverse legend, which was correctly proportioned, to much larger and heavier lettering which overpowered the central motif of an eagle and gave the coin a cluttered look. The other Coronet Liberty gold coins by Christian Gobrecht did not undergo this change in lettering style, though the reverse legend on the quarter eagle was reduced in size slightly beginning in 1859.

Gobrecht’s eagle, or ten-dollar piece, was the first gold coin of the Coronet Liberty type to appear. Upon it debut in 1838 the portrait of Liberty was tilted forward and featured sweeping hair over her ear. That year’s coinage and part of 1839’s included this first version, but the portrait was altered midway through 1839 to simplify Liberty’s hair and give the bust a more conventional orientation. The reverse lettering was reduced in size, but the change was so slight as to be nearly meaningless. These coins are distinguished almost entirely by their bust styles. The aesthetic loss of the original portrait was minor, but it was this revised bust that was used when the Coronet half eagles and quarter eagles debuted in 1839 and 1840, respectively.

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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