Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 3/1/2005
Among the most common design elements on United States coins are stars. Many of the older USA coin types featured 13 stars, representative of the original states that declared their independence from Britain in 1776.
Of our current coin types, only the Kennedy half dollar still bears these 13 stars. They appear above the eagle in addition to a circle of 50 stars, both features being components of the presidential seal depicted on the half dollar's reverse. If one considers the Anthony dollar to be a current type (I still get them in change from the post office once in awhile), then it too bears an arc of 13 stars on its obverse. The Roosevelt dime has no stars, while the Jefferson nickel has but one, which is used as a "stop" for the legends. The Lincoln cent likewise does not include stars in its design, though Frank Gasparro's original model for the Memorial reverse of 1959 bore 13 stars (these were removed at the direction of the Treasury secretary to achieve a less cluttered look). The current state quarter series include among its entries many designs having various numbers of stars, these having either national or local significance.
The first coins issued by the USA were the Fugio cents. Dated 1787, numerous varieties were produced, yet the only star that appeared on most of these was our sun, shown in the ancient fashion as having a face. A single variety of the Fugio series features eight-pointed stars on a garter, but these were used solely as stops between the words STATES and UNITED. Among the 1792-dated pattern coins of the infant U.S. Mint, only the half dimes bore a star—a single, five-pointed star which, in the traditional language of heraldry, is known as a mullet. Strictly speaking, in heraldry only the six-pointed depiction may be called a star, yet both variants have been used interchangeably on United States coinage. In American numismatics the mullet is sometimes referred to as an American star, while the six-pointed version is described as an English star, but I've not been able to find any definitive source for such usage.
The so-called English star predominates on 18th and 19th Century United States coins, but it gave way to the American star for most 20th Century issues. Charles Barber's quarter dollar and half dollar of 1892 appear to have been transitional, as they feature six-pointed stars on the obverse and five-pointed ones on the reverse. Barber himself was English-born, but it's doubtful that this played any role in his decision. Fellow U.S. Mint Engraver George Morgan was likewise an Englishman, yet he utilized six-pointed stars for both sides of his 1878 silver dollar.
The first mass-produced coins of the U.S. Mint to display stars as a regular feature of their designs were the silver dollars, half dollars and half dimes of 1794. These bore 15 stars around the bust of Liberty, representing the number of states in the Union at that time. This number was carried over from the first cents of 1793, which featured 15 interlocking chain links. As Tennessee was admitted to the Union in 1796, newly prepared dies for the silver and gold coins included 16 stars. This resulted in a somewhat crowded appearance, and it was decided a short time later that only the original 13 states could be honored in this fashion. An example of how rapidly this transition occurred may be seen in the half dimes dated 1797. These come with alternately 15, 16 or 13 stars, the dies having been prepared in that order.
The notion of featuring stars for each of the current states arose again in 1836. Christian Gobrecht created a series of pattern silver dollars, some of which included 26 stars on the reverse. Thirteen stars were larger than the others, indicating the original states, while the remaining 13 were for the later states, the 26 star being included in anticipation of Michigan's admission to the Union in 1837. With the exception of some commemorative issues, this idea of freezing a moment in time was ultimately dropped until 2000, when it was revived for the new Sacagawea dollar. This coin features 17 stars to reflect the number of states at the time Lewis and Clark embarked on their epic journey in 1804.
There are some real oddities when it comes to stars on United States coins. For example, on the Seated Liberty half dime, dime and quarter the stars are positioned so that they point toward one another. On the twenty-cent piece, half dollar and silver dollar of the same design they point toward the denticulated border. Oddly enough, the pattern silver dollars of 1836-39 show the stars pointed toward one another, but this feature was changed when the coins went into mass production in 1840.
Another peculiarity concerns the quarter dollars of 1892.
It's already been noted that the obverse stars
are six-pointed, while the reverse stars have five points.
But when the reverse design was modified, shortly after
coinage began, the orientation of some of the stars was
changed. On the Type 1 reverse of 1892 the star directly
above the eagle's head points upward, while on
the more common Type 2 reverse this star points downward.
David W. Lange's column "USA Coin Album" appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.