The Circulating Coin Designs Of The 20th Century

Dr. Thomas Fitzgerald

A comparison of the coin designs on United States circulating coins during the first and fourth quarters of the 20th Century.

As the 19th century came to an end, the circulating coinage of the United States consisted of James B. Longacre's Indian head bronze cents, Charles Barber's nickel five-cent pieces, dimes, quarters and half dollars. Much to the annoyance of William Barber and his son Charles, the design of George T. Morgan was chosen for the "Morgan" Liberty head dollar.

The circulating gold coinage had a much longer tenure with the quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle bearing the classic head of Liberty designed by Christians Gobrecht beginning in 1838-1840. Authorized by Congress in 1849, the double eagle was designed by James B. Longacre with the exception of the rare 1861 Anthony C. Paquet reverse, which remained through 1907.

Complaints about the designs were heard as early as 1879. The criticisms continued and, grew louder following the striking of the "Bland" silver dollar (Morgan), the Barber nickel and silver coins along with the unchanged gold designs dating back over sixty years. The Treasury Department considered a contest to redesign the coinage: even a public competition with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Henry Mitchell and Charles Barber acting as judges in 1891. The results were poor and Saint-Gaudens reportedly told Mint Director Frank Leach that there were only four competent coin designers known, of which three were in France and Saint-Gaudens was the fourth.

When Theodore Roosevelt was elected Vice-President in 1900, little did the nation suspect that he would soon be President. Following the assassination of President McKinley on September 14, 1901, Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States. He was elected to a full term in 1904, decisively defeating Alton B. Parker.

With the exception of George Washington, conceivably no other President has had as great an impact on our circulating coinage. Roosevelt was very unhappy with the designs and was determined to bring about changes. The President selected Augustus Saint-Gaudens who had first served the mint as a judge of design competitions in 1891. The President first met the sculptor at a dinner in the White House in 1905. Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to create an inaugural medal for the President, who was very pleased with the result. Roosevelt believed he had found the person able to bring about the changes in our coinage, he so fervently desired.

The "Golden Age" of United States Coin Designs

The most artistic, most imaginative and the most beautiful coin designs of United States coinage are the gold coins minted during the first quarter of the 20th century. Through the efforts and support of President Theodore Roosevelt, artists outside the mint were invited to design the nation's coins.

The Quarter and Half Eagles - 1908-1929

The Gobrecht coronet head quarter and half eagle gold pieces had been utilized (with reverse changes by Longacre) since 1839 and held the record In terms of longevity of U.S. coin designs up to that time. The motto "IN GOD WE TRUST" was added to the five-dollar gold coin in 1866. It seemed the need for a new design had long since passed.

Encouraged by the artistic beauty of the now late Augustus Saint-Gaudens' designs for the nation's double eagle and eagles, Roosevelt planned to incorporate the same ideas for the smaller gold denominations. However, the President's close friend, Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, proposed striking gold coins with the devices sunk beneath the fields of the coins so that the high points would not be worn away. In addition these coins could easily be stacked, a need frequently cited by the nation's bankers.

These designs have incorrectly been called "incused," but are really "raised" designs. Having received approval from the President, Bigelow persuaded the Boston sculptor, Bela Lyon Pratt, to submit his designs for the Bigelow project.

Pratt's Native American chief model was, like all before, his concept of an Indian Chief rather than one from a real model. He did, however, envision an authentic Indian, not a female figure, dressed in a headdress such as seen on the Indian head cent. Still representing "Liberty" as required by law, Pratt's Indian head retained the strong facial features of native Americans and occupies nearly the entire field of the obverse. The feathered headgear is depicted in a realistic way as one would see on the Western plains. These were the first designs to truly represent an American Indian.

The Influence of Saint-Gaudens is evident with the eagle on the reverse of Pratt's coins. The coin's design, with the raised relief, was criticized for retaining dirt and the passing of germs. Some went so far as to ask they be melted, but the coins remained In circulation. With the economic problems beginning in 1929, there was no longer a need for these denominations, and the series ended.

The Ten Dollar Gold Eagle - 1907-08

While attending a White House dinner on January 12, 1905, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to design gold coins, the cent, and an Inaugural medal for President Theodore Roosevelt. The President envisioned coins of a Grecian type with raised rims, particularly on the nation's gold coinage. He suggested a "Liberty" wearing an Indian feather headdress.

Saint-Gaudens used a profile head of "Victory" that he had originally completed for the General William T. Sherman monument in 1905. At first with an olive wreath, Saint-Gaudens added the Indian feather headdress requested by the president. However, this headdress was unknown by any Indian tribe, nor worn by any Indian woman. Unlike Pratt's design, the bonnet was classical in style and does not authentically represent an American Indian.

The reverse bears perhaps the greatest design by Saint-Gaudens as the majestic eagle stands reminiscent of the great Roman coinage of the past.

Commonly called the "wire edge," the first gold eagles are truly magnificent. These were the first United States coins from dies that originated from the Janvier lathe. The coins did not include the motto "IN GOD WE TRUST" which first appeared on the two-cent pieces of 1864. Although not mandated by law, an outraged congress soon passed legislation requiring the inclusion of the motto.

Barber - Saint-Gaudens Eagle - 1908-1933

After the action of Congress in 1908, the motto was restored to the gold eagles. The new design with the motto was the work of mint engraver Charles E. Barber, who revised Saint-Gaudens' work. Barber made a number of changes, including the removal of the triangular dots, lower relief and the reshaping of some letters.

The Double Eagles and Saint-Gaudens' MCMVII Date

The $20 gold double eagle designed by James Longacre and William Barber was utilized from 1877 through 1907. It was with this denomination that Augustus Saint-Gaudens is best remembered. No longer restricted to Just a bust dressed in an Indian headdress, Saint-Gaudens selected a full standing figure representing the "Goddess of Liberty" including feather wings and the customary feather bonnet, perhaps at the insistence of Roosevelt. The sculptor described the figure to the president as: "striding forward as if on a mountain top, holding aloft on one arm a shield bearing the Stars and stripes, with the word "LIBERTY" marked across the field in the other hand … a flaming torch, the drapery ... flowing In the breeze." Saint-Gaudens meant for this to depict a "living thing and typical of progress."

The reverse bears the flying eagle inspired by the Gobrecht design and utilized on the Longacre cent dated 1856-57. This ultra high relief coin carried the Roman date, "MCMVII."

The Barber - Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles - 1907- 33

The first coins appeared, as had the eagles, without the motto, "IN GOD WE TRUST." Saint-Gaudens died August 3, 1907 and never saw any of his double eagles enter Into circulation. Charles E. Barber was entrusted with the designs and a low relief model was prepared. The Roman numerals were replaced with "1907" and the rays on the reverse were modified. The motto was added in 1908.

Since there have been no circulating gold coins issued by the United States Mint since 1932, no comparison may be made of the gold designs of the first quarter and those of the final quarter of the 20th century.

The Copper and Nickel Coinage

The bronze Indian head cent designed by James Longacre had been in circulation since 1864. Although President Roosevelt had envisioned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens providing the concept for a new cent design, the artist had died before such a project could be completed.

The Lincoln Wheat Cent - 1909-58

The Lithuanian sculptor Victor D. Brenner was an admirer of President Abraham Lincoln. As the centennial of the martyred president's birth approached in 1909, Brenner had completed a number of medals and plaques commemorating Lincoln. These came to the attention of President Roosevelt when the artist prepared a Panama Canal Service medal for him and Brenner was invited to submit his design for a Lincoln cent. Brenner's Lincoln portrait was similar to one created by the artist for a medal. He described it as follows: "The other (medal) was good, but this one is more intimate, deeper, kind and personal. It is closer to the man; it makes you feel you are sitting with him in his library." The reverse featured two stylized ears of durum wheat.

This is a rather significant coin as it marked the first time the bust of a known historical person, President Lincoln, was seen on the nation's circulating coinage in place of a symbolic Liberty.

Lincoln Memorial Cent - 1959-present

The portrait bust of President Lincoln by Victor D. Brenner remains on the cents throughout most of the century. However, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Lincoln, the reverse was changed in 1959. This marked assistant Mint engraver Frank Gasparro's first accepted design for a United States circulating coin. The Lincoln Memorial replaced the wheat stalks of Brenner and bear the initials "FG." It is a copy of the Lincoln Memorial building in Washington as depicted on a five-dollar note, minus the foliage.

The Nickel Five-Cent Coins

Charles E. Barber's "Liberty Head" nickel had been in circulation since 1882. These remained in circulation through 1912. Treasury Secretary MacVeagh learned that the only circulating coin design that could be changed, due to the law requiring a 25-year period for a coin design, was the nickel. He began to plan for a change of this denomination.

The Indian "Buffalo" Nickel - 1913-1938

Although Barber had prepared new designs for a nickel five-cent coin in 1910, nothing came of them partly due to the death of Mint Director Leach. James Earle Fraser, a student of Saint-Gaudens, became interested in the possibility of a new design for the five-cent coin. He envisioned Indian Head and buffalo devices (both being truly American). The result was to become one of our most beautiful coins. This coin is incorrectly called the "Buffalo" nickel. Coins are generally referred to by their obverse device. It should be called an Indian five-cent piece. Fraser wanted the portrait to be that of a real Indian, not some Grecian or female figure representing "Liberty" and dressed in an Indian headdress. His composite drawing taken from three Indian chiefs; Iron Tail, Two Moons and John Big Tree, was a magnificent portrait of the American Indian, yet does not represent any one identifiable tribe. The proud "chief" prominently dominates the coin's obverse, looking to the left. The only other circulating coins that met these criteria were the $2.50 and five-dollar gold coins struck in 1908.

The reverse does not bear the European buffalo, but an American bison, Black Diamond, from the New York City zoo. One can envision the close relationship between the two sides of the coin. The five-cent piece, wrongly referred to as the buffalo nickel, does not bear a buffalo but instead a bison. Although certain parts, including the date, required minor changes, this coin remains one of the most beautiful and loved of all of the nation's coinage designs.

The Jefferson Five-Cent Coin

The last quarter of the 20th century continues the Jefferson portrait nickel, first struck in 1938. Following the 25-year time period of the Indian "buffalo" nickel, the Treasury Department decided to invite a competition to design a new five-cent coin. The winning artist was to receive a prize of $1,000.

With Lincoln on the cent since 1909 and Washington on the quarter since 1932, the Treasury Department mandated that the obverse bear an authentic portrait of Thomas Jefferson and the reverse, a representation of Monticello, Jefferson's historic home near Charlottesville. On April 24, 1938, sculptor Felix Schlag, a recent immigrant from Chicago, was selected to design the new coin.

The side view of Monticello submitted by Schlag was rejected and, the frontal depiction adopted. A beautiful tree was also removed. Many critics still prefer the original version. The portrait is a kind, gentle portrait of the Jefferson that is similar to the portraits of Lincoln and Washington. A great deal of discussion concerned the size and style of the lettering that was so familiar during the 19th century. One of the problems facing the artists has always been the amount of lettering required for the coins. The nickel had to contain: Monticello, In God We Trust, E. Pluribus Unum, Five Cents and United States of America.

The Silver Coins

The Winged Liberty "Mercury" Dime - 1916-1945

It was apparent as 1916 approached, that the Barber designs for the nation's minor silver coins had endured long enough. Changes were to be made. The treasury planned another competition for the dime, quarter and half dollar designs. Mint director Robert W. Woolley announced that sculptor Adolph A. Weinman, would design a new dime and a new half dollar. With the help of the assistant engraver, George T. Morgan, the new coins were ready by June 1916.

Weinman's dime design pictured Elsie Stevens as "Ms. Liberty" in a winged cap that was immediately mistaken as the head of the Roman god of commerce, Mercury, in the winged-hat. Thus the correctly named "Winged Liberty Cap" dime became known as the "Mercury" dime. Was the reverse device, the Roman fasces with the executioner's axe bound within a group of rods, foretelling of our Impending entry into World War I? This was the first dime design to be completely Imparted to working die hubs Including the dates, eliminating the varieties so frequently seen on earlier designs.

The Roosevelt Dime - 1946

With the untimely death of President Roosevelt In 1945, came an outpouring of support to include his bust on a regular circulating coin similar to those of Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington. What denomination would be more appropriate than the dime, long associated with the March of Dimes to fight the polio epidemic that had crippled the President?

In electing the mint's own engraver, John R. Sinnock, who had replaced George T. Morgan In 1925, the Treasury Department broke a tradition of nearly four decades during which competitions were held to design the coinage. The target date for the new coin was January 1946, the start of the March-of-Dimes program. This time constraint precluded a competition according to Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross.

Sinnock's original bust design was rejected because it lacked dignity. By changing the neck, the angle of the head and making the relief bolder, the design was accepted. The reverse pictured a torch (we were in a war to keep the "Liberty" torch burning), with vegetation and an olive branch for peace.

The Standing Liberty Quarter - 1916-1930

The winning design, accepted from the competition of 1915 to change the quarter, was submitted by Herman MacNeil. Again, as with the Weinman Mercury dime, MacNeil was assisted by George T. Morgan. Although MacNeil used Irene MacDowell for his model of "Liberty," the artist actually completed a composite portrait. The standing figure of Liberty seemed to double eagle almost ten years earlier she is shown wearing a gown with a branch in her right hand and a shield in her left. These designs were adopted during a period when World War I raged on in France.

Several problems were associated with the first two years of issue. Perhaps the most famous was the complaint from followers of Anthony Comstock, who had waged war against immorality. MacNeil's "Standing Liberty" design included a bare right breast and nipple. These 1916 and 1917 quarters are known as type I varieties. Following political pressures for a change, the type II quarter of 1917 featured "Ms. Liberty" with her breast blanketed by a cover of chain mail.

The reverse shows a majestic eagle flying to the right, a design utilized in the double eagle by Saint-Gaudens.

The Washington Quarter - 1932

To commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of George Washington, the Treasury Department recommended a commemorative coin be issued. A competition for the design was launched and Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon chose one submitted by John Flanagan over that presented by Laura Gardin Fraser. First issued in 1932 for only one year, the design was put on a new hub and issued annually beginning in 1934 and continues (with the 50 state reverses) today. The profile of the first President is similar in style to the profile of Lincoln.

The Walking Liberty Half Dollar - 1916-1947

Not only did Adolph Weinman win the Treasury Department's competition to design a new dime (Winged Cap - Mercury Dime), but he was also selected to design a new half dollar, bringing to an end the Barber coin designs.

In Weinman's magnificent design, "Ms. Liberty" is adorned in the American flag as she strides toward the sun (The United States entered World War I the next year). Her right arm points upward. In the crook of her left arm is a bundle of oak and laurel branches and her headdress is similar to Weinman's "Mercury" dime. On the reverse, a husky, proud eagle stands on a tree branch said (by Mint Director Woolley) to be a sapling of a mountain pine symbolic of America.

Kennedy Half Dollar - 1964

Reacting to the outpouring of grief at the assassination of President Kennedy In 1963, It was decided to memorialize him by placing the president's portrait on a half dollar. For the first time, all of the nation's circulating coinage would bear portrait busts of U.S. Presidents. Mint Director Eva Adams invited chief engraver Gilroy Roberts to prepare obverse designs. Since the Franklin half dollar had not been in circulation for 25 years, special legislation was passed to permit this change. The Kennedy inaugural medal served as a model for the profile head of the slain President on the new coin. It is believed that the time constraints could not have been met if it were not for the fact that the medal design models were still available at the mint for the half dollar. Mrs. Kennedy played an active role in approving the concepts. The treasury officials dictated that the reverse carry the Presidential Seal and assistant engraver Frank Gasparro completed the design.

Peace Dollar - 1921-1935

At the 1920 American Numismatic Association's convention in Chicago, Farran Zerbe proposed a new dollar design to commemorate the end of World War I and the hope for a lasting peace. The new "Peace" dollar was the result of a competition among the nation's leading medallists. President Harding approved the design submitted by Anthony De Francisci. The artist used his wife, Teresa Cafarelli, as his model for "Liberty" with a radiate crown similar to that seen on the Statue of Liberty. Mint engraver George T. Morgan, redesigned, without Francisci's permission, the eagle on the reverse by removing a broken sword and arrows. Morgan's eagle had an olive branch and stands on a mountain with "PEACE" shown in a different letter styling than that utilized elsewhere on the coin.

Susan B. Anthony Dollar - 1979-1981

Although every attempt to replace the paper dollar with a coin had failed including the Eisenhower dollar, efforts were continued to produce such a denomination. A lengthy study proposed that a smaller dollar coin that honored a woman might increase the potential for circulation. Mint engraver Frank Gasparro designed the coin, about the size of the quarter, but with an 11-sided polygon inside the rim. The obverse bears a profile portrait of Susan B. Anthony facing right. Mr. Gasparro retained the moon landing motif he utilized on the earlier Eisenhower dollars, for the reverse.

Bicentennial Reverses

The reverses of three denominations of the circulating coins were changed to commemorate the bicentennial of the Independence of the United States. All three designers were selected after a competition. Jack L. Ahr's reverse design was adopted for the quarter. Dated 1776-1976, the coin pictured a "drummer boy" similar to a stamp by William Smith Issued In 1973. It is clear that both were inspired by Archibald Williard's painting, "spirit of 76."

Seth G. Huntington's design appeared on the reverse of the Kennedy half dollar. His view of Independence Hall was very close to a design on the reverse of John Sinnock's quarter eagle gold coin commemorating the sesquicentennial celebration of 1926.

Dennis R. William's reverse design was adopted for the Eisenhower dollar. Dated 1975 and 1976, the reverse depicts the Liberty Bell, similar to that found on the reverse of Sinnock's 1926 sesquicentennial commemorative half dollar. William's rendition shows the bell superimposed on the moon, perhaps In keeping with the original purpose of the Eisenhower coin to honor our space program.


A comparison of the circulating coinage of the United States during the first and final quarter of the 20th century clearly demonstrates superior pieces during the first quarter. Although the Lincoln cent remains, the nickel, dime, quarter and half dollar of the first quarter are considered superior to those same denominations of the final quarter.


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James Phillips 2017