The Stamp and Coin Place Blog: connecting the past and present of stamp and coin collecting, and looking to the future.

Everything You Didn’t Know About Coin Design

An eclectic pile of international coins.

We use coins constantly, even if half of them disappear into the couch cushions. But think about it — who designed the images on these coins that we’re so familiar with?

Sometimes coins are designed with the artistic qualities in mind – and sometimes not.

In the early 20th century, the nickel, dime, quarter and half dollar all had the same bust design. But soon there was an effort to make coins just as pretty as they were useful.

The 1907 Indian Head gold coin.

The 1907 Indian Head gold coin by Saint-Gaudens.

President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a private letter in 1904, “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.” He suggested an artist instead of a government employee to redesign the coins to add a little pizzazz.

The designer and sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, had already designed the World’s Columbian Exposition Commemorative Presentation medal. From Roosevelt’s request he designed the $20 double Eagle and the $10 Indian Head gold coins. Many numismatists consider these some of the most beautiful coins produced by the U.S. Mint.

A 1933 double eagle gold coin.

A 1933 double eagle gold coin by Saint-Gaudens.

The process for U.S. coins starts with an outline by Congress of what the coins should look like, as well as the metal they’ll be struck from. The Mint then asks its artists to create the described designs.

Some methods of designing look quite impressive to an outside observer.

The sculpted design, or galvano, for the Kennedy half dollar was over two feet in diameter!

In fact, much of coin designing involves a method of sculpting. Once a design is sketched out, it’s then transferred to a large scale model sculpted in layers of plaster or epoxy. The U.S. Mint in Philadelphia uses both clay and high-tech computers; designers often start out in clay then make small changes on their computers.

The plaster design of Saint-Gauden's eagle (via user Wehwalt on Wikimedia Commons)

The plaster design of Saint-Gauden’s eagle (via user Wehwalt on Wikimedia Commons)

Once the artist’s renderings have been sent in, they are reviewed for factors such as historical accuracy. A final design is chosen and tweaked by the artist. Although the Mint has been known to change the design immediately before putting it to production without the artist’s permission, usually everything goes smoothly. A new, shiny coin has been produced to add to the collection of coins under couch cushions.

Next time you rifle through your change, take a moment to appreciate the work a designer has gone through to make those coins pleasing to the eye.

Sources:

A Visit to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia

Basic Steps of Coin Design

A Useful Summary of Coin Design History

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