US Coinage Entering the 20th Century: Completing a Look at Historical US Coin Designs

Over the last two weeks we’ve looked at some of America’s earliest and lesser-known coin designs on both gold and silver coins issued by the United States Mint. Although serious numismatists are likely familiar with the evolution of American coin design on the nation’s popular denominations, for young collectors or those with a newfound love of collecting, sifting through the history of US coinage can be tricky.

For the sake of this three-post series, we’ve forgone looking at many of the popular designs that are well-known. These include the Walking Liberty design from Adolph A. Weinman, George T. Morgan’s Morgan Silver Dollar, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Liberty. This is not because they aren’t worthy of attention, but rather, we’ve skipped them because many people are already familiar with these designs. Weinman and Saint-Gaudens’ images appear, respectively, on the American Silver Eagle and American Gold Eagle.

Though from the 19th century, the Morgan Silver Dollar was struck into the 20th century by the US Mint and is a popular collector’s item today with a modest supply of these coins still easily found on the collectible market. Coinage such as the original Eagle gold coins from the US Mint and the nation’s early dimes, quarters, and half-dollars had designs that aren’t found as easily today, and therefore made a great topic of coverage for this series.

In the final post of this three-part series, we’ll look at the final gold coin design for the Eagle series, the Indian Head, available in two different designs for the quarter eagle, half eagle, and eagle. We’ll also look at the famed Barber Coinage on the US Mint’s silver coins at the turn of the 20th century.

The Gold Eagle Indian Head

Entering the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt was vigorously advocating for new designs on American coinage. He believed US coinage to be outdated and out of touch with the growing international profile of the nation. He had the US Mint engage his close friend, the famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design five coins in total (four US gold pieces and the penny). President Roosevelt targeted these coins because he could change them without authorization from Congress.

Prior to his death in August 1907, Saint-Gaudens completed two designs for American gold coinage. The Liberty design on the Gold Double Eagle you’re familiar with, but his Indian Head design for the Gold Eagle garnered less attention at the time. Saint-Gaudens’ Indian Head design for the Gold Eagle was unique compared to that which would appear on the quarter eagle and half eagle.

His obverse featured a left-profile portrait of a figure in full Native American headdress. However, he used the softer, feminine features of Liberty as his model for the individual featured in the headdress. His design included the year of issue below Liberty’s bust with 13 stars in an arch above her head.

Saint-Gaudens’ original design for the reverse features an eagle standing on a cluster of arrows ensnared by an olive branch. The engravings of “United States of America” arch above, “E Pluribus Unum” is off the eagle’s back, and “Ten Dollars” is featured below. There was public outrage at the 1907 issue of the coins as the national motto “In God We Trust” was not included. Congress mandated the inclusion of the motto on all coinage following the gaffe. From 1908 to 1933 when US gold coinage ceased production by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the eagle reverse also featured “In God We Trust” to the left of the eagle’s figure.

A notable feature of the Indian Head design for the Gold Eagle at this point in history was the use of designs around the collar, or edge, of the coin. The US Mint, after immense struggles to perfect this collar striking, put 46 stars on the coin for its 1907 debut, reflecting the current number of states in the Union at that time based upon the upcoming admission of Oklahoma as a state.

From 1912 to 1933 when production ceased, the coins featured 48 stars around the collar of the coin to reflect the admission of Arizona and New Mexico as the newest states in the Union.

The Quarter and Half Gold Eagle Indian Head

With Saint-Gaudens’ death in August 1907, and the subsequent issues the US Mint was having striking his original design on the Eagle and Double Eagle, the Mint had to turn to another sculptor for a similar design to maintain continuity in the program. Boston sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt created a similar left-profile portrait for the quarter eagle and half eagle coins to continue the Indian Head design.

Pratt developed a reverse design for the Indian Head quarter and half eagle coins similar to Saint-Gaudens. The bald eagle is again featured on a cluster of arrows wrapped by an olive branch. While her designs featured engravings of “United States of America,” “E Pluribus Unum,” and “In God We Trust,” the position of the national motto and “E Pluribus Unum” were flip flopped compared to the Gold Eagle and Gold Double Eagle, appearing on the left and right (respectively) of the eagle.

The obverse of Pratt’s quarter eagle and half eagle coins featured a Native American figure wearing the traditional headdress rather than Saint-Gaudens’ softer features of Liberty. The coins had a reeded edge, rather than the collar design with stars from the Eagle, and engravings remained on this face of the year of issue below and “Liberty” above.

Another unique facet of Pratt’s quarter eagle and half eagle design was the incuse striking. The design, rather than stamped onto the surface of the coin was set into the surface so that there were no raised design devices above the coin’s surface. It was the first such US coin to feature this type of refining.

The quarter eagle and half eagle design from Pratt saw much lower circulation than other gold coins at this point in US history. They weren’t struck until 1908, and the quarter eagle was available until 1915, and resumed during the roaring 20s from 1925 until 1929. The half eagle was struck from 1908 to 1916, and again only in 1929. The onset of World War I severely hindered US gold coin production, and the quarter eagle only remained popular largely as a Christmas gift.

Barber Coinage on Silver Coins

At this same point in US history, American silver coins were bridging the divide from the 19th century into the 20th century with a set of designs from the Chief Engraver of the United States Mint. Charles E. Barber was born in London, England in 1840 and started his career at the US Mint as an assistant engraver in 1869, and from 1879 to 1917 he served as Chief Engraver of the US Mint, succeeded his father William Barber in the role.

While Charles Barber oversaw various coin program changes, he is best known for the so-called Barber Coinage. Issued from 1892 to 1916, his images featured on the dime, quarter, and half dollar in all of those years, with the exception of 1916 on the half dollar when no 50-cent pieces were struck.

His obverse design featured a purely classical depiction of Liberty in right-profile relief, one that is rendered in a traditional Roman style. The head is said to have been modeled after the French “Ceres” silver coins of the late 19th century. On the dime, Liberty’s head is surrounded by engravings of “United States of America” and the year of issue.

For the quarter and half dollar coins, Liberty’s head is surrounded “In God We Trust” above, 13 stars along the sides, and the year of issue below. Flip the coins over, and you’ll again find different designs for the dime compared to the quarter and half dollar. The dime features only the denomination of “One Dime” surrounded by a wreath of laurel, corn, and wheat. For the quarter and half dollar, his design depicts the heraldic eagle of the United States based upon the Great Seal of the United States.

Barber’s coin designs remained in circulation through 1916, when they replaced by designs that many modern collectors are very familiar with. His dime was replaced by the Mercury, or Winged Liberty, Dime design. The quarter was replaced by the Standing Liberty design from Hermon Atkins McNeil. The half dollar was replaced by Adolph A. Weinman’s iconic Walking Liberty.

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