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The Ladies Who Were Liberty

For much of America’s history, our coins featured Lady Liberty rather than any historic figure. Liberty has changed over the centuries, and many women have been models for the ideal: who are the women who are the face of Lady Liberty?

The Draped Bust Liberty: Ann Willing Bingham

draped_bust_se_half_dollarThe Draped Bust coin obverse design, in use from 1795 to 1807, was designed by Mint engraver Robert Scot to replace the Flowing Hair design, which was almost unanimously disliked. Though it cannot be conclusively proved, it is likely that Ann Willing Bingham, a socialite and considered one of the most lovely women of her day, was the inspiration for the Liberty on this coin. She was the subject of many portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart, who created the image that Scot used for his engraving of Liberty on the Draped Bust coins.

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Ann Bingham was a regular correspondent of Thomas Jefferson, as well as other luminaries of the American Revolution. Abigail Adams wrote about her, “[Mrs. Bingham is] the finest lady I ever saw. The intelligence of her countenance, or rather, I ought to say, its animation, the elegance of her form, and the affability of her manners, convert you into admiration.” She often hosted members of the Federalist Party, including Alexander Hamilton, for informal debates at her house. She has sometimes been credited with convincing Thomas Jefferson on the necessity for the Bill of Rights. She died in at the age of 37 in 1801 after contracting a serious illness after the birth of her third child.

The Morgan Dollar Liberty: Anna Willess Williams

800px-1879S_Morgan_Dollar_NGC_MS67plus_Obverse.pngWhen Congress passed the Bland-Allison act, the Treasury began buying silver to mint into new coins, resulting in the need for a new silver dollar design to be stamped onto the newly-minted silver dollars. George Morgan, newly appointed to the Philadelphia Mint in 1876, begin taking intensive art classes; in 1877, he began work on the designs for the new coins. Morgan’s friend, artist Thomas Eakins, encouraged him to use Anna Willess Williams, an art student from Philadelphia, as a model. Morgan considered her profile to be flawless, and was struck by her “crowning glory” of golden hair.

Anna_Willess_Williams_1892.jpgThough she had been guaranteed anonymity, Anna Williams’ identity as the “Silver Dollar Girl” was outed by a reporter in 1879. She was flooded with letters and visitors, to her great distress. She was offered a role on stage that could have made her a great deal of money, but rejected it in favor of a teaching position. She later took a job as a teacher of kindergarten philosophy at $60 a month. When it became known that she was engaged in 1896, interest in Anna Williams was revived. However, the marriage never took place, and Anna preferred to spend her time talking about her role as the supervisor of kindergarten schools in Philadelphia. She suffered a bad fall in December of 1925, and died of a stroke the following April at the age of 68.

The Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty: Elsie Stevens

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The Walking Liberty design is considered one of the most beautiful designs among American coins. Created by sculptor Adolph Weinman, a German immigrant to the United States, the Walking Liberty may have been inspired by the “Sower” design on French coins. It is thought that the face of Liberty was modeled on Elsie Stevens, wife of poet Wallace Stevens.

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Weinmann had earlier based his design for the Liberty on the Mercury dime on a bust he had sculpted of Elsie; the Stevens’ had rented an apartment from Weinmann from 1909 to 1916. (There is some evidence that silent film star Audrey Munson may have been the model instead, but most solid evidence points to Elsie.) Weinmann asked the young housewife to model for him, pinning her hair up under a winged cap that he said represented “freedom of thought.” The bust has been lost to history, though photographs of it remain.

The Peace Dollar Liberty: Teresa De Francisci

NNC-US-1921-1$-Peace_dollar.jpgDuring WWI, the German propaganda machine tried to spread the idea that the British government did not have enough silver to back all of their paper money in circulation, especially in India. The plan worked: the hoarding of precious metals caused silver prices to rise, increasing the cost of the British war effort. When the British turned to the United States to purchase silver, the government authorized the sale. This, however, resulted in a need for more silver US coins to be struck, and a new design was needed. Numismatists promoted the creation of a design celebrating peace following the war, and the idea caught on. 34-year-old Italian immigrant Anthony de Francisci produced a design that was unanimously selected for the coin; his wife, Teresa, was the inspiration for the Liberty on the obverse of the coin, though other elements were incorporated and stylized. De Francisci stated, “ I opened a window of my studio and let the wind blow on her hair while she was posing for me,” remarking later in 1922 that “the Liberty is not a photograph of Mrs. de Francisci. It is a composite face and in that way typifies something of America.”

teresadefrancisciTeresa de Francisci was born south of Naples, Italy, and came to America as a young child. Young Teresa was struck by the sight of the Statute of Liberty as their steamer ship approached Ellis Island, and often tried to imitate the pose as she grew up. She wrote in a letter to her brother, “You remember how I was always posing as Liberty, and how brokenhearted I was when some other little girl was selected to play the role in the patriotic exercises in school? I thought of those days often while sitting as a model for Tony’s design, and now seeing myself as Miss Liberty on the new coin, it seems like the realization of my fondest childhood dream.” She was the first Italian-American to graduate from her high school. After the death of her husband in 1964, she was a frequent guest as numismatic events; on the 50th anniversary of the Peace dollar, she was presented with a plaque which read, “To a Lady of Peace.”

She passed away in Manhattan on October 20, 1990, 26 years to the day after the death of her husband.

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