While it’s true that beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, it’s also true that there can be a consensus where beauty is concerned. Few people, for instance, consider a Rembrandt or Michelangelo’s David to be eyesores, so judging beauty is not nearly as subjective as one might imagine. This is as true for the designs on coins as it is for famous works of art, bringing me to my latest top ten list-in this case, the top ten best or historically significant American coins ever designed. (Of course, I realize there are also beautiful coins from other counties, but since these are probably less well-known to most readers-and I only collect U.S. Coins myself-I thought it better to concentrate on the American designs. Perhaps foreign coins could be the subject of another top ten list in the future, however.) Many readers will recognize that most of the coins on my list are not currently in production, having been otherwise replaced with more contemporary (read boring) designs over the years. That’s not to say there may not be some degree of intrinsic aesthetics in some of today’s modern designs, only that the coins of the past—many of which were designed by some of the most famous and talented sculptors and engravers of their era—leave many of their modern compatriots in the dust. Of course, not all older coins were great works of art either, but some of them are so historically significant I felt compelled to include them in this list. And so, without further ado, here are my nominees for the best designed or most historically significant coins in American history.
10. (Tie) The Lincoln Penny, 1909-present
Though a rather staid design overall, the common and beloved Lincoln penny holds the longevity record as the longest produced coin in American history, with the design on the front—known as the obverse—remaining virtually unchanged for over 100 years. (The same is not true of the back—or reverse side—of the coin, which has been redesigned several times, the first time in 1959 and in again recently.) It also holds the distinction of being the first circulated coin to bear the likeness of a real person—in this case, Honest Abe—thereby starting a trend and making it potentially possible for every president to make their way onto a coin (a prospect which both FDR and JFK have since taken advantage of). The sedate penny is not without controversy, however. When it first appeared, the coin’s designer, Victor David Brenner, had his initials dominantly displayed on the coin’s reverse side—a design faux pas that was roundly criticized as being “elitist.” (Apparently, self-promotion was frowned upon back in 1909.) Quickly removing the offending letters, in doing so he inadvertently created one of the most famous rarities within the penny community, the 1909 “VDB” variant (with those minted in San Francisco being worth hundreds of dollars in nice condition).
10. (Tie) The Liberty “V” Nickel, 1883-1912
Okay, not a great design, but a coin that captures the essence of the Victorian-era and has a cool story to go with it to boot. The coin itself—designed by the same guy who brought you the later and forgettable Barber dime, quarter and half dollar series (1892-1916)—is pretty simple: a profile of Lady Liberty on front surrounded by thirteen stars and a giant Roman numeral “V” on back surrounded by a flowery wreath and all kinds of clutter. The only problem was that Mr. Barber forgot to put the word “Cents” beneath the “V”, resulting in people of less than sterling character electro-plating the coin in gold and passing it off as five dollar gold piece (a substantial sum at the time). This forced a hasty redesign on the part of the embarrassed engraver and the rest is, as they say, history. (Makes one appreciate the importance of proofreading, doesn’t it?) Another little anomaly with this coin was that despite the fact it went out of production in 1912, the dies for 1913 had already been made. Before they could be melted down, however, some mint officials—perhaps having participated too liberally in the new year’s libations—decided to stamp out five nickels with the 1913 date on them as souvenirs. Today, all five nickels are in private collections, each of them worth well in excess of one million dollars apiece, making them the most valuable coins ever produced on a whim.
9. The Kennedy Half Dollar, 1964-present
Though perhaps not the most artistically beautiful coin ever produced, the wildly popular tribute to the late president holds the record for being the most quickly designed coin in American history. When one considers that fewer than nine weeks passed between the president’s death and the minting of the first Kennedy half in January of 1964, one can begin to appreciate the speed at which the bureaucracy of government can move when it wants to. Fortunately, the elements that make up the coin already existed: the profile used had already been designed for the Presidential coin and the presidential seal used on the back had been around for decades. This made producing the overall design, getting it approved (Mrs. Kennedy and brother Robert Kennedy being in on the final okay), and creating the coin dies much quicker than would have been possible otherwise. The Kennedy half also holds the record for being the most hoarded coin in American history (especially those first minted in 1964 in 90% silver) and it remains a popular collectable today. What’s especially remarkable is that despite the fact that half dollars have generally fallen out of use today, the government continues to stamp out millions of them each year, demonstrating that its continued production—much like the embargo of Cuba—remains as more a legacy to a slain president than an economic necessity.
8. The Indian Head Penny, 1859-1909
While not all that big an artistic triumph, the much-beloved Indian Head penny has remained a favorite among collectors for over a century and, like the Buffalo Nickel (see no. 4 below) it is the quintessential American coin of the nineteenth century. Designed by Chief Engraver James B. Longacre at the behest of the Mint director, Longacre came up with the portrait of an Indian girl—or, actually, a Caucasian wearing a feathered headdress—for the front. (The oft-repeated story that Longacre modeled the “Indian” after his young daughter, Sarah, proved to be untrue, but it still makes for a great story anyway.) On the back he placed a simple laurel wreath and shield with the bare bones ONE CENT inscribed in the center, demonstrating that Longacre was nothing if not to the point. In any case, the Indian Head cent won immediate and enduring acclaim from the American public and remains one of the coolest, if simplest, coins ever designed.
7. The Peace Dollar, 1921-1935
In 1921 the country was still basking in the glow of having finally ridded the world of war forever by blasting the Kaiser’s army to smithereens and decided to celebrate the achievement—as well as to help out silver financiers—by producing a replacement for the dated Morgan dollar. The result was the short-lived but cheerfully optimistic Peace dollar—a coin that easily captured the Art Deco movement of the twenties. While offers to design the new dollar were extended to such successful designers as Victor D. Brenner, Adolph A. Weinman and Hermon A. MacNeil, all of whom had designed previous U. S. coins, the winner turned out to be a young Italian immigrant named Anthony de Francisci, whose finely chiseled portrait of Liberty was modeled after his wife. The reverse of the coin shows an eagle in repose atop a crag, peering toward the sun through a series of rays, with the word PEACE superimposed on the rock. No other U. S. coin produced for circulation ever bore that motto before or since, possibly because it seems foolish to carry around a coin that has “peace” stamped on it while fighting World War Two. There is an interesting side-bar with the coin, however. It seems that the Peace dollar was very nearly resurrected in 1964—nearly thirty years after its early demise—when Congress authorized production of 45 million new silver dollars, apparently in an effort to serve the needs of Nevada gambling casinos. After the Denver Mint produced just over 300,000 of the coins—each dated 1964—in May of 1965, LBJ decided the coinage appeared to be catering to special interest groups and he rescinded the order, resulting in an entire warehouse of the coins being melted down and used for something more useful—like tea sets. However, there were rumors—many of which persist today—that a few of the 1964 dollars might have survived and are now being held incommunicado in private collections. (If true, they are likely to remain hidden as it is technically illegal to own one).
6. The Morgan Dollar, 1878-1921
Everyone has seen one of those old Westerns in which some gunslinger decides to demonstrate his shooting skills by throwing a silver dollar in the air and drilling it with his trusty Colt revolver. If you ever wondered, like I did, if A: the coin was still worth a buck with a hole in it and B, what kind of coin they used, wonder no more. The gunslinger doubtlessly used one of the venerable Morgan dollars—the one coin that better than any other symbolized the Old West. Designed by a talented British engraver named George Morgan, the coin features the profile of a rather plump—bordering on the pudgy—Lady Liberty on the front and what many consider to be a rather scrawny eagle on the back (which resulted in it being sometimes derisively referred to as the “Buzzard” dollar by some). Regardless, the coin turned out to be one of the most enduring designs of all time and remains among the most popular coins to collect for numismatics (coin collectors) to this day. What’s especially interesting about this design is how well Lady Liberty—with her flowing hair and flowery swirls—so well reflects the art nouveau movement so popular in art in the late nineteenth century (though it actually preceded it by a good decade or so, demonstrating that Mr. Morgan was nothing if not a visionary.)
5. Standing Liberty Quarter, 1916-1930
1916 was a big year for coins, with a wholesale redesign of nearly every major denomination being undertaken, thereby forever changing the landscape of American coinage. Among the lesser known but still aesthetically pleasing designs to come along was the Standing Liberty quarter, the brainchild of noted sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil. Well known for his works dealing with Indians and American history, particularly on public buildings and monuments, what Hermon came up with was a real eye-catcher: the front of the coin features a frontal view of Liberty, a portrayal reminiscent of ancient Greek sculpture, with an olive branch of peace in her right hand. Her left arm is raised, holding a shield in a posture of protection. The reverse, as mandated by law, depicts an American eagle in full flight, again making it very American in nature. But this coin was not without scandal. It seems that Mr. MacNeil left Lady Liberty’s right breast bare in his original design, creating something of an uproar in polite society and forcing him to do a quick redesign in an effort to cover up the offending protuberance. By the next year, Liberty was properly attired once more and crises was averted. It’s a good bet that most Americans who don’t collect coins are unfamiliar with this particular coin, as it didn’t last long. It seems it went out about the time the Great Depression hit, only to be replaced in 1932 by the familiar Washington Quarter we know today, which seems something of an affront to a gal who was willing to bare all for God and country.
4. Buffalo Nickel, 1913-1938
Easily the most quintessential of all American coin designs, this design by James Earle Fraser, a former assistant to Saint-Gaudens and a prolific artist best known for his monumental “End of the Trail” Indian sculpture, created a truly unique design for the new nickel designed to replace the staid Liberty “V” nickel of the nineteenth century (No. 10 above). Up until that time, most “Indians” portrayed on U.S. coins were primarily Caucasians in an Indian headdress. Fraser’s design, however, accurately portrays Indians as they look, with the Indian on the front being a composite of three chiefs that had posed for him. Keeping with the distinctly American theme, he also decided to put an American bison on the back, and in so doing created a masterpiece that is one of the most recognizable of all American coins even today, over seventy years after it went out of production. As a result, it remains one of the most popular coins to collect, with complete collections in higher grades (condition) worth thousands of dollars. Attempts to reintroduce the classic over the years have repeatedly ended in failure, though the coin had a comeback of a kind in 2006 when a modified version of the design was used on a $50 gold bullion coin. Still, I would have loved to have seen it replace the boring Jefferson nickel that has been such a mainstay of pocket change for the last seventy some years.
3. “Mercury” dime, 1916-1945
Possibly one of the most famous of all American coins, this design by the busy Adolph A. Weinman (who also designed the Walking Liberty that same year-see entry 2) started out life being misnamed. Though called the “Mercury” dime, the one thing it does not depict is Mercury, the messenger of the gods in Roman mythology whose wings were attached to his feet. The portrait is actually that of Liberty wearing a winged cap, which supposedly symbolizes freedom of thought. Thus, the coin more properly is known as the Winged Head Liberty dime, but the misnomer “Mercury” was applied to it early on, and after many years of common usage, has stuck. Whatever it’s called, this dime represented a welcome change when it made its first appearance in 1916. Indeed, it served to symbolize more than freedom of thought: it was also a symbol of America’s new spirit, an exuberance reflected in the freshness and vitality of the new U.S. coinage as a whole in the early 1900s. The coin it replaced, the stodgy Barber dime, was rooted in the 19th century, a time when American life was more rigid and formal, making this new coin was a breath of fresh air. One especially interesting tidbit about this coin is the design on the back, which depicts the fasces, an ancient Roman symbol of authority, with a battle-ax atop it to represent preparedness and an olive branch beside it to signify love and peace. Unfortunately, it later turned out the fasces was also the symbol for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party, making it strange when during the Second World War, American coins bore the symbol of one of its enemies. I suppose it’s a good thing Weinman didn’t decide to put a swastika on the back side. That might’ve been overdoing it a bit.
2. Liberty Walking Half Dollar, 1916-1947
In 1916, major changes were not only taking place in American culture, but in American coinage as well. In a desire to not only replace the dated 19th-century designs of James Barber but to be more prominent on the world stage, the Mint was commissioned to come up with new and exciting designs that could compete with their European counterparts, the result being one of the most artistic coins ever to be stamped out of a coin press. This incredible design by German-born sculptor Adolph A. Weinman—a student of the famous Augustus Saint-Gaudens (see entrée no. 1 below)—managed to get just about everything right. For the obverse of the design, Weinman chose a full-length figure of Liberty striding toward the dawn of a new day, clad in the Stars and Stripes and carrying branches of laurel and oak symbolizing civil and military glory. The reverse depicts a majestic eagle perched on a mountain crag, wings unfolded in a pose suggesting power, with a sapling of mountain pine symbolic of America springing from a rift in the rock. These strongly patriotic themes resonated perfectly across a nation then preparing (knowingly or not) to enter World War I, (ironically against the land of Weinman’s birth). While the coin ended production in 1947—being replaced by the forgettable Franklin half dollar design—it’s dramatic obverse can still be seen on the one ounce bullion silver coin, slightly larger, but every bit as spectacular as when it appeared on the smaller half dollar almost a century ago.
1. Saint-Gaudens Twenty Dollar Gold Piece, 1907-1933
The product of one of the premier sculptors in the world at the time, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, this coin—often referred to as a Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle—is considered by many to be the most beautiful American coin ever designed. The design shows a highly idealized Lady Liberty surrounded by a sunburst—a theme which is carried on to the back of the coin and illuminates an oversized eagle in mid-flight. This coin also had the distinction of being the only American coin in which the date was rendered in roman numerals (though this was only for a few months immediately after its release in 1907, after which the date reverted back to Arabic numerals). Another interesting feature is that it has a star for each state on the front running around the rim-minus Hawaii and Alaska, of course, which didn’t become states until after the coin went out of production. It’s also one of the most valuable U.S. coins as well, with high quality examples of some years going for upwards of half a million dollars. (In fact, the only known example of a 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle sold at auction a few years ago for a whopping 7.6 million dollars!) All-in-all, one of the most collectable and sought after coins in American history—at least for coin collectors who can put down a cool half million for a high grade example.
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality, religion and, of course, coins. To see more of his articles, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.