Senate Banking Committee Coin Design Symposium

Coin Designs Worthy of a Great Nation
A Symposium on Coin Design


Prepared Remarks of Dr. Richard G. Doty
Curator of Numismatics
National Museum of American History
Smithsonian



Preface: New Coins for a New Millennium

The first years of the Twentieth Century saw America's coinage achieve artistic heights never approached, let alone equaled, before or since.

A number of factors combined to create this excellence. Gifted designers, including Victor D. Brenner, James E. Fraser, Adolph A. Weinman, and especially Augustus Saint-Gaudens, showed a willingness to experiment, to push the nation's numismatic artistry forward in a desire to reach back, to recapture the marvelous spirit of the coinages of ancient Greece and Rome. And a President of great vision stood behind the new experimentation - Theodore Roosevelt who more than any other single person deserves the credit for the flowering of American numismatic design.

The new coins did America proud. But their designs were replaced during the 1930s and 1940s by other concepts, interpretations which we still use on today's money. In no case were they an improvement on the originals. Today's meeting will take place in a desire to recapture and transcend a past excellence, and to carry it forward into a new millennium.



American Coins for the New Millennium
Problems and Solutions

THE PROBLEMS:

  1. America's coins are distinctly uninspired.

  2. They are mostly struck in a base-metal, clad or plated composition.

  3. Due to the nature of mass-production, they can only be struck once, very quickly. So:

  4. Each coin carries a great deal of legible information, leaving less room for purely visual or pictorial information.

By the original Mint Act of 1792, each American coin had and has to have 'an impression emblematic of liberty, with an inscription of the word Liberty', and the words 'United States of America', as well as the date. Later legislation added 'E Pluribus Unum' and 'In God We Trust'. So the American cent now carries all of this verbal information - along with a bust of Abraham Lincoln and, for good measure, a miniature rendition of the Lincoln Memorial. This is a good deal to ask of a coin worth one cent.

America's coinage has become cluttered. It has also become trite.

It isn't that the ideas represented by our coinage have become trite; far from it. But the ways in which these ideas have been represented (and represented for decades, in most cases, and for nearly a century in a couple) - these have indeed become humdrum, and were never known for boldness to begin with. American ideas, and the American people, deserve better treatment.

THE SOLUTIONS:

1) Change the metallic composition.

2) Put some of the verbiage in an unutilized spot - the edge.

3) Get new designs, period. In times of stress, people like their coinage left alone. But we are at peace; and we are prosperous and optimistic. We would consider new designs now, welcome them, not feel nervous about them.

4) Get experts to create both the concepts and the designs. In other words, if you want a more artistic coinage, bring back the artists - and specifically those accustomed to working with circular formats - and make them central to the entire process, from initial concept to finished coin.

While the correspondence between classical Greek and Roman coinage and American coinage during the first third of the twentieth century can be and has been greatly overrated, both ancient designers and their counterparts in 1910 had three things in common:

POINTS TO CONSIDER:

1) The metallic composition of our coinage speaks against its artistry. But this is true for everyone's coinage, everywhere, and the reason for it is very simple: gold and silver, the precious metals traditionally used for coinage, simply look better to the untrained eye than do copper-nickel, aluminum-bronze, or copper-plated zinc. Other nations, faced with the same problem of creating a fiduciary rather than an intrinsic coinage, have done a few things which we might investigate:

2) Use the edge. Coins have three sides, obverse, reverse, and edge.

We only use the first two sides for imparting information, at least in modern times. But during the first century of American coinage, our moneyers often employed that third side too, which is one reason why early American coins have, in general, a less cluttered appearance than do later ones. The edges usually bore an inscription relating to the value of the coins, but they were sometimes purely ornamental, sometimes mixed. The messages and ornamentation were there to prevent forgery and clipping, but they also served as a handy alternative to putting everything on the obverse or the reverse.

Most commonly, the edge inscriptions were rolled onto the planchets prior to striking, and they were almost always incuse - sunk into the metal, rather than raised.

The marvelous eagle and double eagle of Augustus Saint-Gaudens were the last American circulating coins to bear these fancy edges. The edge of his eagle bore forty-six stars, one for each of the forty-six states (raised to forty-eight in 1912), while that of his magnificent double eagle bore the national motto, 'E Pluribus Unum'. These elements were raised rather than incuse, which occasioned an immense amount of work and dramatically slowed production. This argued against creating any other coins with edge inscriptions.

But there is another way of putting something on the edge, and that is to mark the edge of the coin incusely, while in the planchet stage, and then strike the piece in a normal, restraining collar, one made a fraction of a millimeter larger than the diameter of the finished coin, so as not to efface the edge. This is what the United Kingdom does for the British pound (I know, because they slowed down the mint production one day and walked me through it); this is what the United States can do for the dollar and other coins above a certain thickness. If you do this, you free up space, and you simplify design, at the same time.

3) Get new designs. That's why we're all here. I do believe than the time has never been more opportune for a coinage reform. And our people deserve it.

4) Finally, return the design process, in all of its phases, to artists skilled in a particular method of representation.

I do not wish to appear elitist, but the designing of coins is a very specialized process. You need to know something about metal. You need to know something about the distribution of design. Most of all, you need the ability to put aside the rectangular concept in which we have spent our lifetimes, and adopt a circular one. Because that's what coins are, solid circles of metal. A design, whether a portrait, an attribute, or a scene, may look perfectly attractive in a rectangular phrasing. But when you translate it from the rectangular frame to the circular coin die, much of what you want will be lost, and much of what you don't want will be added.

This, I think, explains many of the problems seen on recent American commemorative coins - as well as on a number of the new state quarter dollars. Designers should use the circular space, take advantage of it, not seek to accommodate it to a rectangle or a square - because it won't fit.

I realize that it is politically attractive to give the citizen a place in the designing of his or her coining. But if you really desire an excellence in numismatics, you must have recourse to the specialist, the artist. We appreciate and employ experts in all other branches of our lives; why should this one instance be the exception?

Combined with greater simplicity, the re-employment of the edge, a willingness to experiment, and the re-entry of the specialized artist in all aspects, I believe we can and shall find the American aesthetic renaissance we seek.


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