USA Coin Album: Uncomfortable Fits — Part 1

Posted on 11/13/2018

The US Mint has had some tight squeezes over the years.

Most collectors have noticed at one time or another an awkward placement of text or images on coins. This is usually a consequence of statutory inscriptions prescribed by Congress that have to be inserted as afterthoughts to the coin's basic design.

It's in the nature of any bureaucracy to make things needlessly complicated, and America's coins are no exception. Some forgiveness may be granted in the case of commemorative coins, which are burdened with non-statutory inscriptions as well, but Congress and the US Mint should display more discretion when it comes to our circulating issues.

In a few instances, such crowded elements may result from the whim of an engraver. This is clearly evident on the first coin struck at the United States Mint, known as the Chain cent for its reverse device of 15 interlocking rings. The value ONE CENT was boldly written in large letters, yet it was somehow deemed desirable to insert a tiny fraction 1/100 underneath this text where it clearly didn't fit. This redundancy may have been effected for the benefit of the illiterate, but it was done more gracefully on subsequent issues.

Sometimes, an awkward placement of text is made as a revision to address some oversight with the original design. This was the case in 1883 when Charles Barber's new Liberty Head nickel was abruptly changed to add the word CENTS below the Roman numeral V. Its omission had led to sharps gold-plating the coins to pass them as five-dollar pieces. The additional word was placed where the legend E PLURIBUS UNUM had formerly appeared. This Latin phrase has never been a necessity on our coins, yet Barber elected to replace it in tiny letters that appeared quite out of place above the wreath. The coin's clean and simple design was thus destroyed.

Liberty Head Nickel
Variety 1 (left); Variety 2 (right)
Click images to enlarge.

The same may be said for the five-cent piece that succeeded Barber's type in 1913. James Earle Fraser created one of the most beautiful and iconic issues in American numismatics, yet its bold design was likewise ruined by inclusion of this hoary holdover from the nation's seal. E PLURIBUS UNUM was sculpted in letters so small and closely spaced that the legend is unreadable on the first issue of that year. When a revised version of this coin placed the words FIVE CENTS within an exergue to protect them from wear, Barber also took the initiative to sharpen the Latin legend, yet it still seems intrusive.

Less crowded, but equally awkward, was John R. Sinnock's solution to the Latin motto on his Roosevelt dime of 1946. The words are arranged in a horizontal line across nearly the entire reverse. They are broken up by the main design elements of an olive branch, torch and oak branch. This is done in such a way as to make the words almost unreadable, despite Sinnock's use of stops to separate one word from the next. It's sad to realize how much more powerful this design would be with the legend omitted.

Placement of the Latin legend seems to have vexed most artists tasked with creating United States coins. It was clearly among the last features inserted into the design on the Standing Liberty and Washington quarters, as well as the Walking Liberty half dollar. The words E PLURIBUS UNUM likewise make for an awkward offset in the central elements of the Eisenhower/Bicentennial dollar of 1976, the Liberty Bell seemingly pushed to one side by them.

An early misstep for the US Mint was its desire to add a star to each coin type for every new state admitted to the Union. The admission of Tennessee in 1796 brought this total to 16, and it quickly became evident that no room existed for additional stars beyond that number. The decision was made to thereafter limit the number of stars displayed on our coinage to 13 in recognition of the original colonies that made up the nation at its inception. This action, however, came too late to prevent some truly awkward star placements.

Also troublesome to the Mint's engravers could be the location of a coin's value, as a device created for one denomination sometimes didn't transfer well to its smaller siblings. A perfect example is the value "25 C." on the Draped Bust quarter dollars of 1804-07. While the similar dollar and half dollar displayed their value statements through lettered edges, the quarter dollar's reeded edge forced placement of this text into a tiny space on either side of the eagle's tail feathers. This was clearly an afterthought, as the characters tend to crowd and/or overlap other elements.

Next month, I'll continue this study of clumsy and ill-fitting design features by looking specifically at the challenges imposed by dates and mintmarks. These characters typically were the last things applied to a die, and many of our coins reveal that not enough space was provided for them in the original design. Be sure to come back for more fun.

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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