In 1909, the U.S. Mint decided to honor assassinated President Abraham Lincoln by putting his likeness on the obverse of the lowest denominated coin in regular circulation, the cent. This new design, introduced for the centennial anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, replaced the “Indian head” cent. The model for this design was most likely not a native American; most sources point to Sarah Longacre, the daughter of the cent’s engraver, wearing an Indian-style head dress.
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This was the first time a coin in this country would depict a political leader. Those who created the first coinage in the country several centuries prior desired to distance this country from the monarchies of the Old World, where it was common for state leaders to decree their countries’ coinage should depict their images. American coins, for the most part, would depict a representation of “liberty” until the introduction of the Lincoln cent.
The design change in that year drew mixed emotions among the public. Some welcomed the change. As A.A. Leve wrote on August 15, 1909, in his letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1909, “… [T]he long line of illustrious Americans on our coins will have more education and patriotic influence on the citizens of our country than all the biographies and histories ever combined.” At least in the coin collecting community, you often hear of long-time collectors using their coins to teach their children and grandchildren about American history, so Leve may have been correct.
But there was also dissent. C.F.H. also wrote to the New York Times in August of 1909:
… [T]he chief aim governing a plan to honor such a being as Abraham Lincoln should be to comply with what his wished might be were he given full opportunity to express them. For, in failing to take account of so important a factor, such an honor as that involved in the new product of the mints of this freedom is left incomplete.
To think that Lincoln would find progress expressed in the recent insult to our National symbol of liberty, the “Indian head” on the cent, which, though it might be improved upon, should always remain, is inconceivable.
Throughout the twentieth century, the U.S. Mint was judicious in changing designs on coins. But over the past decade, they, and Congress who has been authorizing these changes, have been on a tear. Although the government’s stated purpose was to incite interest in coins again, it is clear that the U.S. Mint would much rather function like the Franklin Mint, releasing new products as often as possible so they can collect money from coin collectors.
The beginning of redesign overkill
First we had the State Quarters program, which began in 1999. Five new designs would adorn the reverse of the quarter dollar each year for ten years. The artistic and metaphorical engravings of prior centuries were replaced with run-of-the-mill images of whatever each state could come up with to commemorate itself. In 2000, the dollar coin came back in full force with the Sacagawea dollar.
The next coin to be awarded a new design was the nickel in 2004. This year saw two different designs for the reverse. In 2005, two more new reverse designs were used, as well as a new portrait of Thomas Jefferson on the obverse. The following year, the Mint found yet another portrait of Jefferson for the obverse and returned to the pre-2004 reverse.
In 2007, the Mint began a new dollar coin design in addition to the Sacagawea coin. To satisfy Presidents other than those already depicted on coinage, every American President would get a chance to appear on the dollar coin. Four new designs have been released every year since 2007, each with a portrait of a President, released in the order they took office.
The Mint couldn’t go another year without announcing something new, so in 2008 they decided to follow the State Quarters series with additional designs, including representations of D.C., Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Northern Mariana Islands.
Are we done yet? No. This year is the centennial anniversary of Lincoln’s first appearance on the cent. If you’ve looked carefully at your change this year, you may have noticed new penny designs.
A better idea
It’s time to stop commemorating people on our coins. Let’s go back to artistic designs depicting the idea of liberty, like this beautiful engraving of “walking liberty” by Adolph A. Weinman or another liberty engraving by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Choose one design for each coin and stick with it for a long time, at least one generation and perhaps more than two. Give the public some time to get used to each design.
Continuous design changes don’t make coin collecting interesting for the long term. And for those interested in investing, I doubt that collecting any new coins will ever be financially worthwhile due to the vast quantities that are minted each year. All that is left for collectors besides the coin’s face value is the art. It might as well be good art rather than homages to elected leaders.
Updated October 21, 2015 and originally published October 8, 2009.