Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States - A Complete Encyclopedia

Chapter 3: Early Dollars, Historical Background
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Design for the 1794 Dollar Created

Once Jefferson' had made the request to Congress, it was dear that the decision would be favorable, but then as now the legislators were in no hurry. Well before the congressional action of March 3, 1794, however, reducing the bonds for the chief coiner and assayer, respectively, to $5,000 and $1,000, Engraver Robert Scot had begun work on designs for the silver coinage. Just when this process began is uncertain, but it is likely that the engraver was at work no later than the middle of January 1794.

Judging from the adopted design, Scot may have been instructed' to use the Liberty head designed for the cent by Engraver Joseph Wright in August 1793. Stat's copy is not exact, but the overall relationship is reasonably clear. The head is gazing at a somewhat higher angle, and the liberty cap has been removed, but otherwise there is little real difference. The government obviously considered Wright's Liberty head to be an outstanding artistic success.

Scot also may have been told to use Wright's eagle from the pattern quarter dollar of 1792, although the head was turned and the base changed to a rock instead of the earlier globe. The Scot eagle was somewhat less refined than that executed by Wright, but under the circumstances was well done for the period. Appropriate lettering encircled the eagle and the design was complete; no wreath was present on this first approved drawing by Scot.

One of the great misconceptions of American numismatics is that the engraver was solely responsible for a particular design. With minor exceptions, primarily while James B. Longacre served as engraver in the 1850s and 1860s, the designs were almost always dictated by higher authorities-the director played a key role in this work-and the engraver then produced drawings to match his instructions as closely as possible. (A typical example of the director ordering a particular style of artwork was to occur in 1891 when Mint Director Edward O. Leech ordered Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber to use certain French coins and medals as a guide in the preparation of the Liberty head coinage. Barber had some freedom of artistic expression, but only to the extent that it was permitted by Leech.)

Little is known of precise dates in 1794 for dies and patterns, but it is known that Frederick Riche was hired for 18 days' work in May, and it is. likely that Riche worked on the dies for copper coins while Scot executed hubs for a half dime pattern.

How Dies Were Made

At this point it is necessary to explain just how dies were created prior to 1907, when an entirely new system was introduced. (The system in effect during 1794 was heavily modified in 1837 and again, to a lesser extent, in 1867, but the' general idea remained the same.)

After the artwork was accepted, for use, the engraver carefully cut in relief the head of Liberty (the head appeared just as it did on the finished coin) or eagle as was required. For, the obverse the head of Liberty was punched into a blank die, and then the necessary lettering and date were also punched in. For the reverse a similar operation took place except that the hub was of an eagle. The dies were then hardened and made ready for use in the coining press.

Pattern Half Dimes

Pattern half dimes from designs by Scot, but based on the Wright work of 1793, appear to have been struck in May or June 1794. The only known specimen, in copper, is in the National Numismatic Collection in the Smithsonian Institution. There is no question of the denomination as it is written out as half dime on the reverse. The pronunciation was almost certainly dime as at present; the spelling was modernized at the Mint in the late 1820s. Changes of this type invariably reflect public usage.

The patterns were examined very carefully by top government officials and it was decided that the design was not quite all that was wanted. Someone, probably Jefferson or the president, decided that a wreath was necessary on the reverse and that the spelled-out denomination was no longer wanted. Britain did not put written denominations on its coinage while France had just begun to. It is likely here that we see the influence of the pro-British party (Jefferson favored France) in which Hamilton played a key role. It appears to be one of the few times that the Treasury secretary was able to decide a matter affecting the coinage before he left office at the end of January 1795.

Not only was it felt that the half dime design had flaws, but this denomination was not even to be the first silver coin struck officially under the provisions of the 1792 law. Someone, perhaps Hamilton again, persuaded the president that only the largest coins commanded respect in foreign eyes and that the dollar should be the first coin struck. It is also likely that the public demand for half dimes had lessened since 1792; perhaps more Spanish coins of low value (the half real was worth 6-1/4 cents) had been imported into the country.

Creating the 1794 Dollar Dies

After the decision had been made to scrap the proposed coinage of half dimes and begin with the silver dollar, Scot went back to the drawing board to produce sketches of the changes required by the top officials. The fully written-out denomination was duly eliminated (on the dollar and half dollar it would be found only in the edge lettering until 1807) and a wreath was added around the eagle. The new sketches were approved in due course, perhaps in June 1794, and Scot began to cut the necessary hubs for the dollar dies.

Chapter 3: Early Dollars, Historical Background
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

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