John is a former broadcaster, urban planner, comedy writer, and journalist living in Chicago.
The United States has been producing coins for domestic use since 1792, only three years after the ratification of the Constitution. These early coins replaced colonial coinage and paper money. Some foreign money had also been commonly accepted in some regions, such as the Spanish Piece of Eight, which became the predecessor of the American dollar. The first American coins included a large half cent, a large cent, and a half dime, plus most of the other coins we now take for granted—the dime, quarter, half dollar, dollar, and larger denominations in gold. The US government did not issue paper money until 1861.
Early Coin Designs
The early designs of US coins were often crude. Typically, the front of the coin would feature a bust of a female figure representing Liberty, while the reverse of the coin had a bald eagle with the denomination—hence the term “heads or tails.”
By the middle of the 19th Century, the designs for American coinage became more sophisticated and branched out to include more precise artwork and varied subject matter. In 1856, the large cent was reduced in size to the penny diameter we know today, and it featured an eagle in flight on the front. Just three years later, the flying eagle cent was replaced by a penny with a beautiful young Indian woman representing Liberty. The shield, representing the American union, became a common decorative object on coinage during and immediately after the Civil War.
In 1892, Charles Barber—the Chief Engraver of the US Mint—produced a nearly identical design for the front of the dime, quarter, and half dollar that lasted nearly a quarter century. Just before Barber’s death in 1917, the mint adopted new designs for the dime, quarter, and half dollar that ushered in a period of highly detailed and spectacular coin designs. Together with a redesign of the penny in for the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 1909, the creation of the buffalo nickel in 1913, and new designs for American gold coins in 1907, the period from 1916 to 1932 featured brilliant designs on American coinage.
Problems With the New Designs
Yet the beautiful and highly-detailed designs came with their own problems. Soon after the adoption of the Buffalo Nickel and Standing Liberty Quarter, the high-relief dates on the coins began to disappear. Ordinary wear and usage quickly wore down the dates and obliterated the fine detail on the designs. When the United States switched off the Gold Standard in the early days of the Great Depression, gold coins were eliminated from circulation; gold would be used by the government to secure the value of paper money that replaced them.
In 1932, the Washington Quarter—with a low relief design—replaced the Standing Liberty version. In 1938, the Jefferson Nickel replaced the Buffalo design. Less than a year after Franklin Roosevelt died in office, the Roosevelt Dime replaced the Mercury Head. And in 1948, the Benjamin Franklin Half Dollar replaced the ornate Walking Liberty design.
Today, the United States has had essentially the same obverse on the penny since 1909, on the dime since 1946, and on the quarter since 1932 with only small periodic changes. Minor variations to the obverse or reverse of the coins have mostly been instituted to commemorate anniversaries or inspire the imagination of collectors.
As a coin collector since my childhood in the late 1960s, here’s my list of the 10 most beautiful US coin designs of all time:
- Indian Head Half Eagle (1908–1929)
- Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle (1908–1933)
- Walking Liberty Half Dollar (1916–1947)
- Indian Head Eagle (1907–1933)
- Standing Liberty Quarter (1916–1930)
- Mercury Dime (1916–1945)
- Buffalo Nickel (1913–1938)
- Indian Head Cent (1859–1909)
- Peace Dollar (1921–1935)
- Sacagawea Dollar (2000–Present)
1. Indian Head Half Eagle (1908–1929)
The Indian Head Half Eagle $5 gold coin—and the nearly identical Quarter Eagle $2.50 gold coin—were designed by sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt. The Half Eagle was almost exactly the size of a nickel, and the Quarter Eagle was the size of a dime. The Indian Head design followed the Native American theme on the American penny, but preceded the design of the Buffalo Nickel. The obverse features a generic, anonymous Native American male in headdress, including fine detail on the feathers. The image appears more lifelike and realistic than any other coin produced to date.
Also unlike other any other American coinage, the design elements were recessed rather than raised, protecting the intricacy of the design from ordinary wear and handling. Additionally, the beauty of the design and the recessed lettering gave the impression that the coin had been individually etched rather than stamped. However the uniqueness of the design caused controversy. Many people in high places objected to the unconventional design and suggested that the recessed areas could collect infectious germs and spread disease.
2. Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle (1908–1933)
Perhaps the most iconic American coin design of all time, Boston sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens’ design for the American $20 gold piece debuted in 1907 with roman numerals for the date and without the “In God We Trust” motto. But with the change to Arabic numerals and the addition of the motto, the Saint-Gaudens design quickly became one of the most admired American coin designs.
Saint-Gaudens died in 1907, and America’s removal from the Gold Standard in 1933 took the coin out of circulation. Thousands of Saint-Gaudens’ pieces were taken out of circulation and melted down, but collectors and others managed to save many from oblivion. The coin commands high prices not only for its composition, but for its design and scarcity.
3. Walking Liberty Half Dollar (1916–1947)
Artist Adolph A. Weinman created a beautiful design for the half dollar to be produced beginning in 1916. Born in Germany but emigrating to the United States as a 10-year old child, the student of Saint-Gaudens gained national recognition for his majestic sculpture Destiny of the Red Man.
For the half dollar design, he depicted an image of a confident female figure of Liberty in flowing robes, striding across the American landscape before a rising sun. The reverse of the coin was dominated by a bold eagle poised for flight, maintaining the tradition of the image of Liberty on the front and the eagle on the reverse. However, Weinman's design brought more visual interest to the design of a highly-circulated coin than ever seen before, including a striped pattern on Liberty's robes and subtle landscape elements.
The powerful design on the obverse has been used for the American Silver Eagle,the U.S. Mint’s official silver bullion coin sold to investors and collectors since 1986.
4. Indian Head Eagle (1907–1933)
Irish-born sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens designed the Indian Head Eagle front and rear for the $10 gold piece produced between 1907 and 1933. The female figure with the male Indian headdress featured “LIBERTY” on its headband and 46 stars on the side of the coin (48 stars after the admission of New Mexico and Arizona in 1912).
President Theodore Roosevelt had personally requested that the mint create more interesting coin designs, and Saint-Gaudens won the design competition for the Eagle and Double Eagle. When Saint-Gaudens died of cancer on August 3, 1907—before seeing his winning designs in circulation-- President Roosevelt wrote to his widow Augusta, "I count it as one of the privileges of my administration to have had him make two of our coins."
The rear of the coin, in keeping with tradition of the time, was another depiction of a bald eagle in a pose depicting strength. It was modeled loosely on a design Saint-Gaudens produced for a medal in commemoration of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inauguration.
5. Standing Liberty Quarter (1916–1930)
When a design competition was held for new designs for the dime, quarter and half dollar to replace the Barber design in 1916, Adolph A. Weinman won the competition for dime and half dollar. But the winning design for the quarter went to Massachusetts sculptor Hermon MacNeil.
The original version of the coin’s obverse showed a Liberty with a scandalously bare breast, standing with an olive branch in her right arm and a shield in her left. Versions after 1917 feature Liberty’s breast covered by a chain mail shirt. The reverse of the coin features one of the most striking images of an eagle in flight on any form of US currency.
In 1924, Mint officials realized the Standing Liberty had a serious problem; quarters were being returned to the Mint with the date completely worn off. The following year a change was made to recess the date to protect it from circulation wear. Production of the coin ended in 1930, because the Great Depression drastically reduced the need for additional quarters in circulation. The following year the George Washington quarter was introduced to mark the bicentennial of his birth.
6. Mercury Dime (1916–1945)
Sculptor Adolph A. Weinman won the 1916 competition for the dime as well as the half dollar; both of his powerful American coin designs were in circulation from before World War I until after World War II.
The obverse of the coin depicts Liberty with a wreath of tight curls. Liberty wears a traditional "pileus"—also known as a Liberty cap--that provokes comparisons with Roman Republic denarii. The reverse of the coin features a "fasces," an object traditionally carried by lictors, who accompanied Roman magistrates who represented war and justice. The fasces is contrasted with an olive branch symbolizing peace. The fasces became a symbol for the Italian Fascists (and where the word “fascist” comes from), so it was ironic that the Mercury Dime design was maintained throughout World War II.
7. Buffalo Nickel (1913–1938)
Minnesota sculptor James Earle Fraser specialized in Western and Native American subjects, and was chosen to design the new five cent piece design in 1911, and his Indian and Bison designs were approved in 1912.
The Mint quickly found that the high-relief design was prone to strike indistinctly, and suffered one of the pitfalls of other highly-detailed designs of the early 20th Century—it was subject to the date marks being easily worn away in circulation. In 1938, after the minimum 25-year period where designs could not be changed without congressional authorization, the iconic Indian and bison were replaced by Jefferson and Monticello.
Since its elimination from standard circulation coinage, Fraser’s design has become a touchstone in American culture. His nickel design was central in playwright David Mamet’s 1975 play “American Buffalo.” Wooden Nickel Records, an independent record label in the 1970s that produced the first two Styx albums, featured the design on their label. Buffalo Nickel is the name of a rock group, and figures in the name of many small businesses of all types around the country. In 2001, the design was used for a commemorative coin celebrating the Smithsonian Institution. And in 2006, the United States Mint began using a slightly modified Fraser design for the American Buffalo Gold Bullion Coin-- a 24-karat bullion coin with a face value of $50.
8. Indian Head Cent (1859–1909)
The Indian Head Cent was designed by James Barton Longacre, the Philadelphia Mint’s Chief engraver from 1844–1869. Initially the coin was composed of 88% copper and 12% nickel, giving the cent a light bronze appearance. In 1860, the reverse of the coin added a shield at the top of the laurel wreath to symbolize the Union. By 1864, the coin’s composition was adjusted to 95% copper and 5% tin or zinc—the composition it retained until the design was retired in 1909. Over its 50-year lifespan, a total of 1.8 billion Indian Head cents were produced.
9. Peace Dollar (1921–1935)
Designed by Anthony de Francisci, the Peace Dollar was the result of a competition to find a design emphasizing peace immediately after World War I. The young sculptor de Francisci beat out other designs submitted by Hermon MacNeil, Victor D. Brenner and Adoph Weinman, who had all designed previous U.S. coins.
The obverse of the coin features Liberty with a pronged crown. The reverse of the coin depicts a bald eagle with an olive branch, and the legend "Peace" prominently featured. The coins were struck from 1921 to 1928, and another run of silver dollar coins were produced in 1934 and 1935. It was the last United States dollar coin in silver to be produced for circulation.
10. Sacagawea Dollar (2000–Present)
Although not commonly seen in circulation, the Sacagawea Dollar (also known as the golden dollar) has been minted since 2000. The coins have a copper core and a manganese brass covering that give the coin a golden color. The coin replaced the Susan B. Anthony dollar and was intended to be used widely in vending machines, for mass transit and other uses; its color differentiation would supposedly improve its acceptability by the public over the much-maligned Anthony dollars that were often confused with quarters.
The front of the coin features a profile of Sacagawea—the Shoshone guide who assisted Lewis and Clark on their trip across North America—with her child, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. The obverse design was produced by sculptor Glenna Goodacre. The reverse of the coin minted from 2000 to 2008 is a flying eagle similar to the reverse of the Standing Liberty Quarter, by Thomas D. Rogers. Subsequent mintings have produced a different design each year on the reverse, emphasizing Native American history.
Questions & Answers
Question: Very good, but why didn't you include the Oregon Trail commemorative half dollar instead of the Sacagawea dollar?
Answer: I was selecting coins from widespread or common circulation.
Question: Is the Sacajawea one dollar coin worth anything?
Answer: It is worth at least one dollar, unless it is a special strike for collectors.
Scott Hatfield from Bayawan City, Phillipines on November 29, 2019:
Excellent selection that mirrors my own opinion with the exception of #10. I feel the Barbara Half or a 1800 Bust Dollar should be included but it is the top 10 not the top 11.
John C Thomas (author) from Chicago, Illinois, USA on October 13, 2014:
Yes, Blackspaniel1, I listed the Indian Head Half Eagle tops because of its size, and did not include the Quarter Eagle because of its redundancy. There are some fine state quarter designs (and a few clunkers), but the obverse is the same-old low relief Washington Quarter design. I also limited the choices to coins that saw wide circulation, as opposed to commemoratives, etc.
Blackspaniel1 on October 12, 2014:
Nice selection. Of course the choice is subjective. Mine would include the Morgan. Then there are the state and America the Beautiful quarters, which make a top ten list very subjective.
I am curious how the Indian Head eagle and half eagle both made the list and not the quarter eagle, since the all have the same image. Is it size allowing for greater detail to see?
Brian Lokker from Bethesda, Maryland on December 04, 2012:
Good choices -- these are very beautiful coins. And your detailed descriptions are very informative. Lots of Mercury Dimes, Buffalo Nickels, and Walking Liberty Half Dollars were still in circulation when I was a kid, even though they were no longer being minted. I collected them for a while, and I still have them -- somewhere. I also remember having some very beautiful silver dollars. Your article encourages me to see if I can find them.
John C Thomas (author) from Chicago, Illinois, USA on November 26, 2012:
Thanks for reading, Tonyx35 and Dbro. The main reason coins in current circulation aren't as good looking as the old ones is because they're designed more for being used in circulation. Fine details on coins can wear off easily and look terrible. This kind of thing happened a lot with the Buffalo Nickel and Standing Liberty Quarter (both mentioned above).
Dbro from Texas, USA on November 26, 2012:
Very interesting hub, e-five. What beautiful coins! I think it's interesting that your top ten only included one coin currently in circulation. Why do you think that is? Is it because the art of coin design has seen a decline? Or perhaps the materials used in modern coins just don't measure up to those used previously?
I enjoyed this hub very much. As an artist, I certainly appreciate the beauty of these coins. Thanks for sharing this!
J Antonio Marcelino from Illinois, USA on November 25, 2012:
Interesting, I'm not really a serious coin collector. The two unique coins I do have were given to me as a practical joke A friend of mine owed me two US Dollars and I got these instead. He said " Here you go, two Dollars". I just laughed when he handed it to me.
I have the Sacagawea Dollar, but mine is nowhere near in pristine condition as seen in the image above. I also have a Dollar-coin with Susan B. Athony on the "heads" side. Only other (more common) coin I like to keep is the Bicentennial Quarter ( 1776-1976). Thought the Colonial drummer was cool. Haha.
Thanks for the information, interesting read +1 Interesting and useful