Exploring Historic US Coin Designs: Turban Head and Capped Bust

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If you’ve followed numismatic news lately, you’ve probably heard about the number of Capped Bust coins appearing at private auctions and coin shows in the US this summer. When it comes to historic American coin design, the attention of many numismatists is focused on the turn of the 20th century. For example, the Morgan Silver Dollar (1878-1904, 1921) is one of the most popular collector coins that once served as a circulation product.

Similarly, the United States Mint has revived and refined many of the nation’s greatest historic coin designs on the face of its modern bullion coni programs. In no particular order, Walking Liberty appears on the American Silver Eagle; Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Liberty appears on the American Gold Eagle; and James Earle Fraser’s Buffalo Nickel design resides on the American Gold Buffalo coin.

In the next two mid-week posts from JM Bullion, we’re going to look back at some of the original designs produced by the fledgling United States Mint. Some of these designs emerged at a time when there was no singular sovereign currency in the United States. Believe it or not, foreign currency such as Spanish and French fiat monies were still accepted in the US until the 1830s. Take a walk back in time with JM Bullion to learn about the Turban Head and Capped Bust series of coin designs.

Turban Head

One of America’s longest running circulation coin programs was the eagle series. Introduced as the very first gold coins from the US Mint in 1795, the eagle was a ten-dollar piece that grew to include a quarter-eagle ($2.50), half-eagle ($5.00), and double eagle ($20). The eagle series of gold coins were struck by the US Mint until the end of gold coinage in the US in 1933.

The very first design to appear on these coins was a version of Liberty known as the Turban Head design. Created by Robert Scot, the very first Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, the obverse had a right-profile portrait of Liberty wearing a soft cap and drapery. The design included “Liberty,” 13 stars, and the year of issue.

Although no paperwork exists confirming the theories, it is believed that Scot used Martha Washington as his model inspiration for Liberty’s appearance. Art historians have surmised Scot may have misinterpreted common Greco-Roman stylings in his design, as a bust such as this should only have drapery if used on a statue.

The original reverse for Turban Head coinage include an eagle standing on a branch, with a victory wreath in its mouth and “United States of America” engraved around it. This design lasted only from 1795 to 1797. The public at large disliked Scot’s original design as the eagle was viewed as too scrawny and unworthy of the great nation the United States aspired to be.

In 1797 a new heraldic eagle design from Scot was created based upon the Great Seal of the United States. With the heraldic shield in front of it and a powerful figure, the bird had 13 stars arranged above its head and a banner with “E Pluribus Unum” through its beak. Again though, Scot erred in his design, putting the arrows of war in the eagle’s right (dominant) talon, indicating the nation had a preference for war.

Capped Bust

The Turban Head design from Scot had a short shelf life in circulation in the US, with production ceasing in 1804 and gold eagle coinage not restarting until the Liberty Head debuted in 1838. In the meantime, a silver coin series (often confused with the Turban Head) emerged from the US Mint with a similar design concept.

US silver coins were originally offered from the Philadelphia Mint starting in 1794 with the Flowing Hair design, followed by the Draped Bust and Capped Bust. The latter proved the most popular among Americans, with several quality specimens still available to collectors today (more on that in a moment).

The Capped Bust design was primarily used on the half-dime, dime, quarter, and half-dollar US silver coins from 1807 to 1839. Specifically, it appeared on the half-dime from 1829 to 1837, dime from 1809 to 1837, the quarter from 1815 to 1838, and the half dollar from 1807 to 1839. A similar version of the Capped Bust was used by Scot to replace the Turban Head gold coins mentioned above starting in 1807.

John Reich originally designed the popular Capped Bust featured on US silver coins, but it was eventually modified by William Kneass, the second Chief Engraver of the United States Mint (1824-1840), for use on American coinage. The obverse featured a left-profile portrait of Liberty wearing a soft cap, with engravings of the year of issue and 13 stars around her figure.

The reverse of the coins has a proper depiction of the nation’s heraldic eagle design. The bird is captured with the heraldic shield in front of its figure, and its right talon holding the olive branch of peace and left talon clutching the arrows of war. A banner above its head reads “E Pluribus Unum,” and additional engravings include the face value of the given coin and “United States of America.”

Recent Capped Bust News

At the American Numismatic Association’s World’s Fair of Money (we previewed it here), there will be a sealed-bid sale on August 4th that includes four half dime coins with the Capped Bust design. Included in the sale are the following:

  • 1830 Capped Bust Half Dime
  • Two 1833 Capped Bust Half Dimes
  • 1834 Capped Bust Half Dime

The same ANA World’s Fair of Money will also include a stunning Capped Bust Half Dollar coin struck in 1819 by the United States Mint. It will be part of the ANA World’s Fair of Money Rarities Night Session. The coin is said to possess a stunning level of preservation given its age and a beautiful patina.

Come Back Next Week

As we travel through the mid-19th century in next week’s post, we’ll look at the Seated Liberty coin design from the US Mint, one of the first major coin designs to exhibit intricate details in its depiction of Liberty and the United States.

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