Border Incidents, Part Three
Posted on 8/24/2007
When the U.S. Mint began to commission outside sculptors to create its new coin issues of the early 20th century, these artists brought a fresh outlook to all aspects of coin design. Among the elements discarded as being too Victorian was the denticulated border. It survived solely among the few commemorative coins created by the Mint’s own Charles Barber and George Morgan. For Augustus Saint-Gaudens and his disciples, who would create most of the new designs for USA coinage between 1905 and 1921, borderless rims were the order of the day.
Saint-Gaudens’ own design for the double eagle originally featured no rims at all, the fields of the extremely high-relief edition rising to meet the coin’s edge at a sharp angle. At the insistence of the Mint, however, Henry Hering — who did the actual sculpting on behalf of the aging and ill Saint-Gaudens — applied a flat, subtle rim for the high-relief version. This ultimately became a distinctly raised rim when the final production version was created by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber late in 1907. This was deemed necessary in an era when gold coins were still routinely stacked on tables and bank countertops.
Bucking this conventional wisdom, sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt created matching quarter eagle and half eagle designs in 1908 in which the entire field of the coin took the place of rims. The design was set beneath the plain of the field in a style known as Egyptian relief. These borderless coins stacked reasonably well, so long as the dies were not too eroded. Late die-state examples of his coins sometimes reveal a bit of bulging or unevenness at their peripheries. This would have made a column of them somewhat wobbly, but the disappearance of gold coinage from general circulation after 1916 quickly silenced any such criticism.
Plain, raised rims were utilized for Victor D. Brenner’s Lincoln cent (1909) and James Earle Fraser’s Indian Head/Buffalo nickel (1913). A broader version of the plain rim was employed by Adolph Weinman in creating the “Mercury” dime and Walking Liberty half dollar of 1916. The Mint actually reduced the width of these coins’ borders during 1917, likely in attempt to increase die life.
Sculptor Hermon MacNeil broke with the pack and employed a very distinctive border design for the obverse of his Standing Liberty quarter dollar of 1916. In addition to the conventional raised rim, he placed just inside this rim a border of alternating dashes and dual dots. For some curious reason, however, he utilized just a borderless, raised rim for the reverse. Despite meddling with his design by the Mint’s own staff (the so-called Type 1 quarters issued 1916-17 are actually the work of Barber or Morgan), MacNeil’s distinctive obverse border survived through the end of the series in 1930.
MacNeil likely had several inspirations for this border style, but one in particular may have been Robert Aitken’s fifty-dollar pieces for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. While these massive coins featured plain, raised rims, their peripheral legends were separated from the main devices by this same pattern of alternating dashes and dual dots. George Morgan must have liked this border treatment, too, as he employed it in 1918 for his Illinois Centennial half dollar. In that instance, however, just single dots are alternated with the dashes. Like Aitken’s gold pieces, both sides of the coin use this same border style.
Antonio de Francisci’s new Peace silver dollar of 1921 featured a plain, raised rim. Examples from that first year, however, have somewhat uneven thicknesses. The high relief of the dies drew metal away from the rim cavities on most pieces. When the relief was drastically lowered for 1922 and subsequent issues, the rims became more sharply defined and the thickness more uniform.
All subsequent circulating coin types to date have featured very standardized technical elements. They are all borderless, except for narrow and well-defined raised rims. The Sacagawea dollar of 2000, a composite effort by Glenna Goodacre (obverse) and Thomas D. Rogers, Jr. (reverse), offered much broader rims that contributed to making this type perhaps the most attractive of our current coins.
Within the commemorative arena, there has been a little more variety. Chester Beach’s Monroe Doctrine Centennial half dollar of 1923 featured a plain rim, but it is stepped at two different heights of relief. Beach scored again in 1928 with the Hawaii Sesquicentennial half dollar, in which a plain rim encloses repeating waves that reinforce the nautical theme of James Cook’s voyages. Beach’s two-stepped, plain rim was used here again for the reverse, and Edmund J. Senn employed the same technique for both sides of his Spanish Trail half dollar seven years later.
The modern series of United States commemorative that began in 1982 has produced nothing distinctive in the way of border design. Each issue has utilized the same plain raised rims seen on contemporary circulating pieces. While the width of these rims has varied a bit, its purely mechanical application has contributed nothing to the artistry of our coinage.
David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.