One of the most well known engravers of the US mint during the 19th century was James Barton Longacre. After previous engraver, Christian Gobrecht passed away, Longacre would become the fourth Chief Engraver of the US Mint and coin production. He was born on August 11, 1794 on a farm in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
Longacre’s Mother Sarah (Barton) Longacre died early in his life; his father, Peter Longacre, was the descendant of early Swedish settlers of North America. When Peter Longacre remarried, his son found the home life intolerable, and James Longacre left home at the age of 12, seeking work in the nearby city of Philadelphia. He apprenticed himself at a bookstore; the owner, John E. Watson, took the boy into his family. Over the following years, Longacre worked in the bookstore, but Watson realized that the boy’s skill was in portraiture. Watson granted Longacre a release from his apprenticeship in 1813 so that he could follow an artistic muse, but the two remained close, and Watson would often sell Longacre’s works.
Longacre became apprenticed to George Murray, principal in the engraving firm Murray, Draper, Fairman & Co. at 47 Sansom Street in Philadelphia. This business derived from the firm established by the Philadelphia Mint’s first chief engraver, Robert Scot. Longacre remained at the Murray firm until 1819; his major work there was portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Hancock which were placed on a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence by publisher John Binns. Also employed at the Murray firm from 1816 was the man who would be Longacre’s predecessor as chief engraver, Christian Gobrecht. Longacre’s work at the company gave him a good reputation as an engraver skilled in rendering other artists’ paintings as a printed engraving, and in 1819, he set up his own business at 230 Pine Street in Philadelphia.
Longacre’s first important commission were plates for S.F. Bradford’s Encyclopedia in 1820; an engraving of General Andrew Jackson by Longacre based on a portrait by Thomas Sully achieved wide sales. Longacre then agreed to engrave illustrations for Joseph and John Sanderson’s Biographies of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, published in nine volumes between 1820 and 1827. Although the venture was marked by criticism of the writing, sales were good enough that the project was completed. Numismatic writer Richard Snow suggests that the books sold on the strength of the quality of Longacre’s illustrations. Longacre also completed a series of studies of actors in their roles in 1826 for The American Theatre.
With lessons learned from the Sanderson series, Longacre proposed to issue his own set of biographies illustrated with plates of the subjects. He was on the point of launching this project, having invested $1,000 of his own money (equal to $24,513 today) in preparation, when he learned that James Herring of New York City was planning a similar series. In October 1831, he wrote to Herring, and the two men agreed to work together on The American Portrait Gallery (later called the National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans), published in four volumes between 1834 and 1839. Herring was an artist, but much of the work of illustrating fell to Longacre, who travelled widely in the United States to sketch subjects from life. He again sketched Jackson, who was by now president, as well as former president James Madison, both in July 1833. He met many of the political leaders of the day, who were impressed by his portraits. Among these advocates was the former vice president, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun. In July 1832, Niles’ Register described a Longacre engraving, “one of the finest specimens of American advancement in the art”.
Longacre had married Eliza Stiles in 1827; between 1828, when their daughter Sarah was born, and 1840, they had three boys and two girls. Sales of the Gallery lagged due to the Panic of 1837; Longacre was forced to declare bankruptcy and travel through the southern and midwestern states, peddling his books from town to town, with his wife and elder daughter managing shipping and finances at home. Later in 1837, he was able to return to Philadelphia and open a banknote engraving firm with partners, Toppan, Draper, Longacre & Co. With great demand for engraving for notes being issued by state banks, the firm prospered, and had offices at 60 Walnut Street in Philadelphia and a branch at 1 Wall Street in New York.
Gobrecht’s death in July 1844 left the United States Bureau of the Mint without a chief engraver. Among those who hoped for appointment were Philadelphia banknote engraver Charles Welsh, and Allen Leonard, who had modeled the Mint’s medal for former president John Quincy Adams. Through the influence of Senator Calhoun, however, Longacre secured the appointment. According to coin historian Don Taxay, Longacre did not attempt to gain the support of Mint Director Robert M. Patterson in seeking the appointment from President John Tyler, and “if Patterson resented the slight, however, he was more annoyed by Leonard’s importunities.”
Longacre was commissioned by President Tyler on September 16, 1844; his was a recess appointment as the post of chief engraver required Senate confirmation, and that body was not then sitting. Tyler transmitted Longacre’s nomination to the Senate on December 17, 1844, which confirmed Longacre without recorded opposition on January 7, 1845. According to numismatist David Lange, Longacre was glad to get the position because engravers were receiving less work due to the advent of daguerreotype photography.
According to coin dealer and author Q. David Bowers, upon appointment as chief engraver, Longacre “found that he had entered a hornet’s nest of intrigue, politics, and infighting, dominated by Franklin Peale, chief coiner since 1839”. Peale sent Mint personnel to work on his private residence, and in addition to his official duties—mostly performed by his predecessor, Adam Eckfeldt, who continued in his work without pay despite his retirement—he had a thriving side business preparing dies for private medals using government resources. Peale controlled access to dies and materials, and was close to Director Patterson; the two men later proved to have been skimming metal from bullion deposits. The remaining Mint officers were cronies of Patterson, and Longacre found himself a loner among them. Walter Breen, in his comprehensive volume on U.S. coins, suggests that Patterson resented Longacre because of the engraver’s sponsorship by Calhoun, whom the director disliked as a southerner.
In Longacre’s first years as chief engraver, no original designs were required for coins. Gobrecht had redesigned every denomination of U.S. coinage between 1835 and 1842, and his successor had time to learn arts necessary for coin production that he had not needed as a maker of print engravings. These arts included coin design, making of punches for design elements, and die sinking. Longacre’s work in the private sector had involved cutting lines into a copper plate which was then used to print reproductions. Patterson wrote in August 1845 to Treasury Secretary Robert J. Walker that Longacre “is a gentleman of excellent character, highly regarded in this community, and has acquired some celebrity as an engraver of copper; but he is not a Die-Sinker. Indeed I do not know that he has ever made an attempt in this art.” By December of that year, the Mint director had written to Walker in praise of Longacre, stating that the engraver had “more taste and judgment in making devices for an improved coinage here than have been exhibited by any of his predecessors. He has shown too that he is quite competent to make the required model from his drawings.”
A number of blunders can be seen among the early coins produced at the Mint under Longacre, though it is uncertain to whom these errors should be attributed. These include the 1844 half dollar struck at the New Orleans Mint (1844-O) with a doubled date, and the 1846 half dollar with the 6 overlying an identical digit, but one which had been placed horizontally. Bowers indicates that Longacre likely delegated such work, although in 1849 he wrote that his daily work was punching dates into working dies. Tom DeLorey, in his 2003 article on Longacre, notes that Peale and his staff often made punches without consulting the Engraver’s Department (headed by Longacre), and believes the chief coiner more likely to be responsible.
Despite the charged atmosphere at the Philadelphia Mint, Longacre avoided conflict with Patterson and Peale until March 1849, when Congress authorized a gold dollar and double eagle or twenty-dollar gold piece, both new coins. By then, Patterson had come to desire Longacre’s departure as he was deemed a threat to Peale’s medal business, and opposed new coins which would require the chief engraver’s skills. According to Richard Snow in his book on Flying Eagle and Indian Head cents, “having an ethical chief engraver threatened their sideline.” The conflict came over the use of the Contamin portrait lathe, necessary in the making of dies both for Longacre in producing the new coins and Peale in his medal business. When Longacre complained that Peale was monopolizing the device, Peale decided to sabotage Longacre’s coin work and have him removed from his position.
In early 1849, according to a letter written by Longacre the following year, the chief engraver was approached by a member of the Mint staff, warning him that another officer (plainly Peale) sought to have the engraving work done outside of the Mint, making Longacre redundant. The outside engraver in question was Frenchman Louis Bouvet, whom Patterson had prepare a design for the half eagle, though it was not adopted. Longacre’s response to the information was to spend much of March 1849 preparing the dies for the gold dollar, at some cost to his health, as he later related. He demanded that Patterson hire assistance for him, but found the director willing only to have work contracted out. Longacre was unwilling to consent to this, as he could not supervise work done outside the Mint (he did get help within the Mint from assistant engraver Peter Filatreu Cross, who worked on the reverse of the gold dollar). Longacre proceeded with work on the double eagle through late 1849, and described the obstacles set in his path by Peale:
The plan of operation selected for me was to have an electrotype mould made from my model, in copper, to serve as a pattern for a cast in iron. The operations of the galvanic battery for this purpose were conducted in the apartments of the chief coiner. The galvanic process failed, my model was destroyed in the operation. I had, however, taken the precaution to make a cast in plaster … From this cast, as the only alternative, I procurred [sic] a metallic one which, however, was not perfect; but I thought I should be able to correct the imperfections in the engraving of the die … this was a laborious task, but seasonably completed, entirely by my own hand. The die then had to be hardened in the coining department; it unluckily split in the process.
When Longacre completed the double eagle dies, they were rejected by Peale, who stated that the design was engraved too deeply to fully impress the coin, and the pieces would not stack properly. Taxay, however, noted that the one surviving 1849 double eagle displays no such problems, and by appearance would be level in a stack. Peale complained to Patterson, who wrote to Treasury Secretary William M. Meredith asking for Longacre’s removal on December 25, 1849 on the ground he could not make proper dies. Patterson that day promised the position to engraver Charles Cushing Wright, effective when Longacre was ousted. Meredith questioned whether a competent replacement could be found; Patterson assured him that one could. Longacre objected to Patterson that Peale was delaying acceptance of revised double eagle dies, the director did not reply in writing, but met with Longacre, told him the administration had decided to terminate him, and that he should send in his resignation without delay. Longacre, after thinking the matter over, did not do so, but instead went to Washington on February 12, 1850 to meet with Meredith. He found that the secretary had been lied to about a number of matters. According to Snow, Longacre did not seek retribution, content to be allowed to continue his work in peace. The double eagle went into production in March 1850, though Patterson complained that the coins did not strike well. The double eagle quickly became the favored way to hold gold, and in the years to come more gold would be struck into double eagles than into all other denominations combined.
In July 1851, Patterson retired and President Fillmore replaced him with Thomas Eckert. Peale’s medal business suffered a setback when Adam Eckfeldt, who was still performing the duties of chief coiner, died in 1852. In 1854, Mint Director James Ross Snowden fired Peale after the extent to which he had used Mint labor for private gain became public. Nevertheless, the firing caused considerable press attention, a Senate investigation, and a large demand for compensation by Peale. With these obstacles gone, life at the Mint improved for Longacre.
In 1853, Congress authorized a three-dollar piece. In a note found among his papers, Longacre wrote that his task was to make the coin as easy as possible to distinguish from the quarter eagle, which at $2.50 was close in value. Longacre produced a design for a Native American princess, which he made different from Gobrecht’s Liberty design on the quarter eagle with a thinner and wider planchet. At the time, a female Native American was often used to represent America in art, and a depiction of Liberty as an Indian princess was in accord with contemporary practices. The chief engraver wrote to Mint Director Snowden that the three-dollar piece, which went into production in 1854, was the first time he had been allowed artistic freedom in designing a coin. The gold dollar was altered the same year to make the planchet both thinner and wider; Longacre modified his princess design for the gold dollar. For the reverse of the coins, Longacre created a wreath of wheat, corn, tobacco, and cotton, blending the agricultural products of the North and the South.
After a rise in commodity prices, the Mint to sought to replace the large copper cent with a smaller version. Beginning in 1850, a number of pattern coins were struck in attempts
to find a replacement coin. Designs and formats varied; at first, Mint authorities considered an annular, or holed, cent. In 1854 and 1855, much experimentation was done, some with a Liberty Head design as featured on the large cent; others with a flying eagle design adapted by Longacre from the Gobrecht dollar of 1836. Gobrecht’s design said to have been modeled on Peter the eagle, a tame bird which frequented the Philadelphia Mint in the 1830s until it was caught up in machinery and killed; Peter, in stuffed form, was subsequently placed on exhibit at the Philadelphia Mint.
By numismatic legend, Longacre’s Indian Head cent design was based on the features of his daughter Sarah; the tale runs that she was at the mint one day when she tried on the headdress of one of a number of Native Americans who were visiting and her father sketched her. However, Sarah Longacre was 30 years old and married, not 12 as in the tale, in 1858. Longacre himself stated that the face was based on a statue of Venus in Philadelphia on loan from the Vatican. James Longacre did often sketch his elder daughter, and there are resemblances between the depiction of Sarah Longacre and the various representations of Liberty on Longacre’s coins of the 1850s.
The Civil War brought economic disturbances which resulted in the removal of some coins, including the base-metal cent, from circulation. Paper currency (valued as low as three cents), postage stamps, and private tokens, filled the gap. Many of the tokens were cent-sized, but thinner and made of bronze. Mint authorities took notice that these metal pieces were successfully circulating, and obtained legislation for a bronze cent. Longacre’s Indian head design continued in its place with the new metal; later in 1864 he engraved his initial “L” in the headdress.
In 1865 Congress required the use of “In God We Trust” on all coins large enough to bear the inscription; in 1866, Longacre added the motto to all silver coins larger than the dime and all gold coins larger than the three-dollar piece. He also in 1867 made modifications to the design of the copper-nickel five-cent piece, or nickel as it was coming to be known. In 1865, Longacre engaged British-born engraver William Barber as assistant; William H. Key was also made an assistant in 1864 and remained at the Mint past Longacre’s death.
Some of the coinage which had vanished from circulation during the Civil War and had been exported to South America continued to be used in Chilean trade as nationals found their local coinage valued poorly with the American pieces. In 1866, the Chilean government instructed its representative in Washington to approach the U.S. State Department for permission to have their coinage dies made in America. The Andrew Johnson administration was happy to oblige; Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch gave the Chileans a letter of introduction to Longacre in Philadelphia. Longacre was engaged by the Chileans to redesign five silver and four gold coins, and he agreed, so long as permission from McCulloch was obtained for him to accept an outside fee. McCulloch was initially agreeable, but Mint Director Pollock raised objection on the ground that government property should not be used to enable private gain. Eventually, all parties reached agreement that Longacre could do the work at a total cost of $10,000 provided that he brought in an outside engraver to do some of the work under Longacre’s supervision; the chief engraver selected Anthony C. Paquet, one of his former assistants. Resistance at the Mint dissolved with Pollock’s resignation over President Johnson’s Reconstruction policies, and the dies and hubs (from which more dies could be made) were created beginning in November 1866, probably in-house at the Philadelphia Mint. Longacre’s designs for Chile were used until new ones were adopted in the 1890s.
James Longacre died suddenly at his home in Philadelphia on January 1, 1869. A memorial meeting was held at the Philadelphia Mint on January 5, attended by the facility’s employees. The Director of the Mint, Henry Linderman, delivered a speech in praise of Longacre prior to the formal eulogy, which was given by Longacre’s assistant, William Barber, who would be appointed as Longacre’s successor.
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