Exploring Historic US Coin Designs: Liberty Head and Seated Liberty

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Last week in our mid-week blog we looked at the two of the initial designs the United States Mint used on its coinage. The Turban Head was the first-ever gold coin design from the US Mint, used on its Eagle coin series. A similar release, known as Capped Bust featured on both latter Eagle coins and silver coins. This week, we’re looking at the next generation of US coinage.

Beginning in the mid-1830s, the Turban Head and Capped Bust designs were being replaced with a new generation of coin designs from the mint. These notable installments in US coining history included the Liberty Head design on American gold coins and the famed Seated Liberty design, one of America’s longest running designs of all time, on silver coinage. Journey through America’s prominent 19th century coin designs with us!

Liberty Head

America’s gold coin program known as the Eagle series had a tumultuous early production run from the US Mint. The Turban Head design was available on the eagle, half eagle, quarter eagle, and double eagle beginning in 1795 and 1796, but had ceased production on the primary Gold Eagle ($10) coins by 1804. Though the half eagle remained as the largest denomination in circulation and production, it was largely used during this intermittent period (1804-1838) for overseas transactions.

Beginning with the Coinage Act of 1834, the gold content for each denomination in the Gold Eagle series was reduced, removing the issue of melt values for the half eagle and quarter eagle that exceeded their face value, and paving the way for the Gold Eagle’s return in the $10 denomination.

With the Gold Eagles set for greater return to coining and circulation, a new coin design was created by Christian Gobrecht. The son of German-born immigrants, Gobrecht was an immensely talented engraver. Gobrecht designed the image of Liberty used on the eagle, half eagle, and quarter eagle in 1838. His design became known as the Liberty Head – Coronet among the American populace.

The obverse design of the Liberty Head Eagle coinage included a left-profile portrait of Liberty wearing a coronet on her head with the inscription of “Liberty” on it. Her hair is bound up in a knot with a beaded ribbon. The year of issue for the coins is set below the design and 13 stars surround her figure.

Some of the early releases in the Liberty Head design are known as “Type of 1838” for minor differentiations in the design. Found on 1838 and some 1839 coins, it featured a different point of truncation for the neck, a partially covered ear, and the location of the tip of the coronet set close to one of the 13 stars. Modified in 1840, Liberty’s image wouldn’t change through the remainder of its usage, which ran until 1907.

The reverse side of the Liberty Head eagle coinage also underwent changes over the course of time. When introduced on the eagle, half eagle, and quarter eagle, Gobrecht showcased an American bald eagle grasping an olive branch in one talon and three arrows in the other. The eagle is depicted with wings spread wide and a large shield against its chest. Engravings include the nation of issue and the face value of the individual coins.

In 1866, following the Civil War’s conclusion, all American coinage was adjusted to include the national motto. For the Liberty Head design this mean the addition in 1866 to the reverse of a banner above the eagle that read “In God We Trust.”

Gobrecht’s Liberty Eagle design featured on the eagle, half eagle, and quarter eagle through 1907. Although a Liberty Double Eagle coin was later introduced with a similar design in 1849, it was completed by then Chief Engraver James B. Longacre as Gobrecht had passed away in 1844.

The Gobrecht Liberty Head coin design was one of America’s first great designs, enjoying longevity the likes of which few other designs have seen. His Gold Eagle imagery was eventually replaced by the Indian Head Eagle design on all coins.

Seated Liberty

Another of this era’s greatest coin designs came from the same mind behind the Liberty Head eagle collection. Gobrecht designed the Seated Liberty image found on US silver coinage from 1836 to 1891. Found on the half dime, dime, quarter, and half dollar till 1891 and the silver dollar until 1873, Seated Liberty represented a clinging fascination with Neoclassicism in design that had faded in Europe earlier in the 1830s, but remained popular in America at the time.

The obverse of the Seated Liberty coinage featured the image of the Goddess of Liberty seated upon a rock. She holds a Phyrgian cap atop a Liberty pole in her left hand and has her right hand resting on the top corner of the heraldic shield of the United States, which itself has a diagonal banner across it with the word “Liberty.” The imagery in her left hand was a popular Neoclassicism symbol of freedom, while her hand resting on the shield represents Liberty’s preparedness to rise in defense of freedom.

On the reverse of the coins the design varied by denomination. The smaller size of half dimes and dimes necessitated smaller design elements. These coins often featured a simple wreath around the words “half dime” and “one dime.” Prior to 1860, the wreath consisted only of laurel leaves, but corn and wheat were added following 1860-issue coins.

The reverse of the quarter, half dollar, and silver dollar coins had an eagle set to take flight with the heraldic shield on its chest. It was depicted clutching the traditional olive branch of peace in its right talon and a cluster of arrows in its left. Over time, other changes were made to Gobrecht’s design:

  • Stars representing the 13 colonies were not present on 1836 half dimes and dimes on the obverse.
  • Extra drapery was added to the left elbow of Liberty in or around 1840, dependent upon the denomination in question.

The Gobrecht Seated Liberty design was eventually replaced by two different designs. For the silver dollar, which ceased production for five years starting in 1873, George T. Morgan’s Morgan Silver Dollar appeared in 1878 to replace Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty on the obverse of silver dollars. In 1891, the remaining denominations lost the Seated Liberty design in favor of then-Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber’s coin designs across various denominations.

Who was Christian Gobrecht?

Gobrecht was born in Hanover, Pennsylvania in 1785 and moved to Philadelphia in 1811, eventually joining Murray, Draper, Fairman and Company, an engraving firm in 1816. Gobrecht holds a unique position in US Mint history, informally serving as the second-ever Chief Engraver of the United States Mint and formally holding the post as the third man ever to do so late in life.

When the first Chief Engraver of the US Mint, Robert Scot, died in 1823, Gobrecht stepped in as the acting Chief Engraver until the 1824 hire of William Kneass, who is officially viewed as the second Chief Engraver of the mint. Gobrecht took on a role as “second” engraver at the mint during Kneass’ tenure, but following Kneass’ stroke on August 27, 1824, Gobrecht would create most pattern and die work at the mint through 1839. Following Kneass’ death in 1840, Gobrecht was appointed Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, holding the position until his own death on July 23, 1844. He was subsequently replaced by James B. Longacre.

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