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Allegorical Figures Grace U.S. Coins
By Ginger Rapsus, Numismatic News
November 15, 2012

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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The concept of symbolic women on coins is not new, and is older than the United States. Great Britain has used Britannia as a national symbol for hundreds of years. France has had Marianne as a symbol of the republic since the 1700s. Female allegorical figures symbolizing faith, hope and charity are seen on older lira coins of Vatican City. Dating back to classical times, concepts of liberty, freedom, justice and other values have been represented by goddesses or allegorical figures.

American numismatists are familiar with the goddess of Liberty. Many different portraits of Liberty have appeared on United States coins since federal coinage began in 1792. From the quaint to the modern, matronly and youthful, the beautiful and downright ugly, Miss Liberty was depicted on circulation coins until 1947. The final Liberty design, the Walking Liberty on the half dollar, is considered one of the most attractive coinage designs and was brought back for use on the silver American Eagles in 1986.

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Many different Liberty heads, faces and figures appeared on United States coins in silver, gold and copper. These portraits of Liberty often reflect the fashions and values of the day. And if pattern and experimental pieces are included, a vast array of Liberty portraits can be assembled. Some show her with long flowing hair, others with her hair bundled up. She wears a cap often. She may be standing, striding, or seated. Some portraits are lovely and popular with collectors, and some may look quite old-fashioned to modern eyes.

The 1792 issues show a matronly Liberty on the silver center cent and the half disme, with more attractive portraits on the Birch cent and the pattern quarter. A longtime rumor claims that Martha Washington was the model for the Liberty on the half disme. The early silver coins and large cents show a Liberty head with flowing hair; early gold coins show Liberty with her hair wrapped around a Phrygian cap, a symbol of liberty.

The lovely and popular Draped Bust design was used on silver and copper coins from 1795-1807. Liberty has a most attractive appearance, with long flowing curls, pulled back with a ribbon. A famous beauty of the day was supposedly the model for this design.

One of the most popular Liberty designs shows the goddess seated on a rock, holding a shield in one hand and a Phrygian cap in her other hand. From the small half dime to the silver dollar, the Seated Liberty appeared on silver coins from 1837-1892. A different type of Seated Liberty was used on the Trade dollar of 1873-1885.

Liberty wearing a coronet was the main motif on copper and gold coins of the 19th century, with a few variations. A more classic look was adopted for the quarter eagles and half eagles of the late 1830s, showing Liberty with classical features, as befitting a goddess worshipped in ancient times.

Perhaps the most popular Liberty head appeared on George Morgan’s silver dollar. A pretty young schoolteacher was the model for this coin, minted from 1878-1921. There is a pattern known as the Schoolgirl dollar, one of the loveliest designs that was never used, showing Liberty as a young lady with long hair and wearing a pearl necklace. Another beautiful Liberty is seen on another popular pattern coin – the 1879 Coiled Hair stella, or $4 gold piece.

Some patterns featuring a Liberty head show her wearing small shields as earrings.

The new dime, quarter and half dollar issued in 1916 show some of the most attractive and popular depictions of Liberty. Besides the half dollar, the Mercury dime and Standing Liberty quarter debuted this year. The dime shows Liberty wearing a cap with wings, symbolizing liberty of thought. The quarter depicts a full-length Liberty holding a shield and an olive branch. Collectors are familiar with the quarter’s two distinct types. These coins followed the rather plain Barber coinage, showing a rather mannish-looking Liberty head wearing a Phrygian cap. The Peace dollar of 1921-1935 shows a modern appearing woman, resembling a flapper of the era, representing Liberty. Sculptor Anthony de Francisci’s young wife Teresa was the model.

The Liberty figure on the Saint-Gaudens double eagle shows a strong young woman perched upon a rock, holding a torch and an olive branch. A modified version of this most beautiful United States coin design was adopted for use on the American Eagle gold pieces in 1986, and continues to this day.

Commemorative coins honoring the Statue of Liberty were struck on the 100th anniversary of the statue. Two views are seen: a side view on the half dollar, and a full-length facing view on the dollar. A close-up of the face of Liberty appears on the $5 gold.

Columbia is another name for the United States, and is personified on coins. Some of the earliest examples are the “Immune Columbia” pieces struck in 1785. Crude but meaningful, the seated figure of Columbia holds a scale and a Phrygian cap. A much more detailed and attractive depiction of Columbia is seen on the 1915 Panama-Pacific half dollar.

Sports fans everywhere know of Nike, the goddess of Victory. A lovely face of Nike, wearing a crown of olive leaves, appears on the 1988 $5 gold Olympic commemorative. Another commemorative, the Texas half dollars issued from 1934-1938, shows a full-length winged Victory on the reverse. A female figure of Justice is seen on the 1936 Columbia, S.C., half dollar. She holds a sword and scales.

The dome on the Capitol Building is topped off with the Statue of Freedom, shown on the 1989 Congress commemoratives. A face and a full-length view are shown on the half dollar and silver dollar.

Two female forms, depicting North and South America, are seen on the reverse of the 1923 Monroe half dollar. These allegorical forms are not apparent at first glance – the design looks like a map of the New World – but upon closer study, the forms are obvious.

A kneeling female figure, representing women’s industry, appears on the reverse of the 1893 Isabella quarter. She holds a distaff and a spindle.

Numismatists who admire the many faces and figures of Liberty on American coinage can also look at other coins that picture allegorical figures. These coins are attractive and worthy of a closer look by collectors.

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