Top 5 Best American Coin Designs
Posted on Oct 11, 2011

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.

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