On Our Current Coinage

I have started a petition on the White House petitions site; please consider signing it. It’s not anything earth-shattering, but it is something dear to my numismatist’s heart:

In 1904, President Roosevelt sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Leslie Shaw, in which he described the then-current coins in circulation as being of “atrocious hideousness”.

Our current coinage is again of atrocious hideousness: modern designs are flat and lifeless rather than sculpted, with all the character of an arcade token. The Native American and Statehood/America the Beautiful issues do not really combat this trend.

We ask the president to direct the Treasury to redesign all American coinage, both circulating and bullion/collectible issues. We also ask for a return to classic portrayals of Liberty rather than the commemoration of historical figures, or that persons so commemorated be deceased for at least 100 years, to avoid partisanship in choosing the new designs.

I’m a longtime believer that with very few exceptions, our coins should be celebrating who we are and what we stand for, rather than former leaders. I grant freely that Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln are in a different category; that’s why I put in the ‘one century dead’ provision, so they could be retained if there was a will to.

Even just in our own lifetimes, coin designs have degraded badly. Look for a quarter from the mid-1970s or earlier, and compare it with one from 1998 or later. Our coins used to be sculpted; now they’re flat and featureless. Compare the Kennedy half dollar to the Walking Liberty half dollar — or even the Franklin half. Now, I’m a Kennedy fan, but let’s be fair, he got put on the coin out of national grief, not for his record of accomplishment.

I would love to see a return to the classic (and non-partisan) Liberty designs — the Seated, Standing and above-reference Walking Liberties are some of our most beautiful coinage, to say nothing of the St. Gauden’s $20 gold piece which is for my money (no pun intended) the single most exquisite coin ever minted. The current nickel, which looks more like Miss Hathaway from the Beverly Hillbillies than it does Thomas Jefferson, simply isn’t in the running — although the preceding “peekaboo” design from 2005 would have made a lovely successor to the old Felix Schlag nickel.

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