'Flapper' Dollars: De Francisci's Design Heralded Peace|
April 02, 2013
Critics claimed she resembled a Roaring ’20s department store “flapper.” But Anthony de Francisci’s depiction of Liberty catapulted the silver dollar into the modern era with a design commemorating the end of the “War to end all wars.”
Farran Zerbe proposed a peace coin at the 1920 American Numismatic Association convention in Chicago. The ANA appointed a committee to lobby Washington.
On May 9, 1921, the day silver dollar production resumed under the Pittman Act, Rep. Albert Vestal introduced a Peace dollar bill. Congress adjourned in the fall without it had not voted on the measure.
It didn’t have to. The Morgan dollar had long since surpassed the minimum statutory life of 25 years. Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon ordered the change to the Peace design without congressional approval.
The Commission of Fine Arts staged a competition and invited eight artists to submit designs. One of them was De Francisci, designer of the 1920 Maine Centennial half dollar. Among the others were Lincoln cent designer Victor Brenner, Buffalo nickel designer James Earle Fraser, Standing Liberty quarter designer Hermon MacNeil and Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half dollar designer Adolph Weinman.
De Francisci won the $1,500 cash prize. The Italy American Society’s News Bulletin boasted, “The 1921 Peace dollar which will shortly come into circulation is the work of an artist of Italian extraction.” The Dec. 20, 1920, issue of the Baltimore Sun reported:
“The Director of the Mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury and the Commission of Fine Arts, today awarded the honor of being the designer of the new issue of silver dollars to Anthony de Francisci, of New York City. He was at the Treasury Department today, proud of the design which the future standard silver dollar will bear.
“Eight medallists, all of them from New York, were in the competition for the award. The designs in bas-relief were exhibited privately in the office of Mint Director Raymond T. Baker, after he had shown the winning one to President Harding. The President expressed his pleasure and approval.
“On the face of the new dollar will be a woman’s head, portraying Liberty, and she will wear a tiara of rays of light. Over the head of the blonde lady will be the word ‘Liberty,’ which under existing law, must appear on the silver dollar. Near the circling edge of the coin, opposite the neck, will run the words ‘In God We Trust,’ and at the base of the coin will be the year of issue, 1921.”
De Francisci’s wife, Teresa, modeled for Liberty. Anthony told a reporter the portrait was not a “photograph” of Mrs. de Francisci but a “composite face” that typified America. He said he had “nothing of the magazine cover idea” in mind when making the portrait.
Another claimant for the title of Peace dollar model was Maryland Morne Strong. A newspaper article said she entered a contest for the “perfect face” on the Peace dollar, and a jury of sculptors chose her out of 10,000 entries. Another newspaper said 100,000 women entered the contest.
Strong was known in the motion picture industry as the “Peace Dollar Girl.” Her first hit was “In Love With Love.” She also appeared in “Kindred of the Dust” and “The Last of the Lone Wolf.”
Strong died from tuberculosis at the age of 35. Her ashes are in Hollywood Cemetery.
De Francisci’s first version of the Peace dollar’s reverse depicted an eagle with head down, clutching a broken sword that symbolized peace. The New York Herald complained:
“If the artist had sheathed the blade or blunted it, there could be no objection. Sheathing it is symbolic of peace. The blunted sword implies mercy. But a broken sword carries with it only unpleasant associations.
“A sword is broken when its owner has disgraced itself. It is broken when a battle is lost and breaking is the alternative of surrendering. A sword is broken when the man who wears it can no longer render allegiance to his sovereign.
“But America has not broken its sword. It has not been cashiered or beaten. It has not lost allegiance to itself. The blade is bright and keen and wholly dependable.
“It is regretted that the artist should have made such an error in symbolism. The sword is emblematic of justice as well as strength. Let the world not be deceived by this new dollar. The American effort to limit armament or at least reduce its horror does not mean that our sword is broken.”
The Numismatist said the broken sword was a “minor feature” of the Peace dollar design. But Treasury officials gave in to negative comments and ordered George T. Morgan to prepare a new reverse. It depicted an eagle with folded wings.
Controversial as it may have been, De Francisci’s original reverse embodied the peace theme that gave the new dollar its name. In the revised design, the eagle stood on a mountain top inscribed with the word “Peace.” There was nothing else to convey the theme.
The Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury described the design and explained its symbolism:
“The Peace dollar commemorates the declaration of peace between the United States and Germany and Austria, and takes the place of the old design of the standard silver dollar which was first issued in 1878.
“Exchanges of peace treaty ratifications had been made in Berlin on Nov. 11, 1921, and in Vienna on Nov. 8, 1921, and peace was proclaimed by the President of the United States on Nov. 14 and 17, 1921, respectively. No special congressional authority was required for this change in design of the silver dollar, since the law permits changing the design of any of our coins once in 25 years, but not oftener.
“The design of the Peace dollar was selected by the Fine Arts Commission from models submitted by a number of prominent sculptors, and is the work of Anthony de Francisci.
“On the obverse is a female head emblematic of Liberty, wearing a tiara of light rays, and the word ‘Liberty.’ On the reverse is an eagle perched on a mountain top, holding in its talons an olive branch, witnessing the dawn of a new day. The word ‘Peace’ also appears.”
The first Peace dollars were released on Jan. 3, 1922. They were dated 1921, not 1922. The New York Teachers’ Monograph said:
“The new silver dollar of the 1921 design, the Peace dollar, is ready for distribution at the Treasury. Coinage of the new dollar is being rushed by the Philadelphia Mint, officials said, and the first dollar of the new series struck off has been presented to President Warren Harding.… “There will be, in all, about $100 million of the new design coined, unless further authority is given to the Mint to purchase and coin silver.”
The Philadelphia Mint struck more than 1 million Peace dollars in the final week of 1921. Their high relief made them look more like medals than coins and distinguished them from subsequent Peace dollars.
The Mint struck a handful of proof 1921 Peace dollars. Five matte proofs had turned up by the mid-1970s. A satin proof surfaced at the 1975 American Numismatic Association convention.
Back in 1922, Howland Wood was one of the few ANA members who liked the Peace dollar. “On the whole, we have only favorable criticism to make regarding the new dollar,” he wrote. “Our thanks and congratulations go out to Mr. De Francisci.”
Judson Brenner, chairman of the ANA Peace Coin Committee, held an opposing viewpoint:
“A so-called Peace dollar has prematurely made its appearance. It lacks the artistic design which such a dollar, issued by a great nation, should have.
“It has caused great disappointment to those who conceived the idea of having the dollar issued, and who desired to have a Peace dollar represent that which peace should represent: namely, beauty and delicacy, together with being symbolic of peace.
“The only issued evidences [of these qualities] have been hastily and clumsily designed; not like the work of a sculptor or medalist, but of a novice. The coin is only attractive to those to whom all dollars look alike.”
ANA president Moritz Wormser wrote:
“Any ANA member will comment on the new Peace dollar with a feeling of great sadness, somewhat akin to those of a mother whose pet child has been kidnapped. We had hoped it was to be’our’ Peace dollar, while this is just any old Peace dollar.…
“The chief criticism which I have of the coin is that there is nothing particularly emblematic of peace on it except the inscription of ‘Peace’ itself.”
ANA member B.H. Saxton questioned Liberty’s gender:
“Obscure all of the head back of the forehead and cheek, and what have we? The features of a perfectly nice 10-year-old boy, which, however attractive in his proper place, is hardly calculated to be quite suitable as a model for the mature face of the Goddess of Liberty.
“Then the hair: Neatly coiffured except the side locks which appear to have escaped attention. They are a prey to the wayward breezes. If the artist wanted to effect wind-tossed tresses, he should have studied the fine Libertas Americana medal, designed by Benjamin Franklin. These stray locks do not seem to be lightly stirring; they look positively soggy.
“Now, about the—what shall we call it—diadem. Cover everything below this peculiar headdress and try to complete the picture in imagination. What is the first thing you think of? An angry porcupine? Exactly. The bustling quills suggest nothing less.”
Saxton concluded, “The whole design is reminiscent of the original model for the Saint-Gaudens $10 gold piece, but the attempt only is recognized, not the achievement.”
A letter in the Wall Street Journal said:
“Did the designer who finally passed upon the die have any real, concrete understanding of what was required? The head is supposed to represent the Goddess of Liberty, not a department store ‘flapper.’
“A sculptor of genius would have put into the face some quality of divinity. He would have suggested divine wisdom, courage, ardor and serene confidence in the triumph of freedom.
“Looked at in this way, the head on the new coin is merely that of a fairly attractive girl of 17, with a pleasing profile, whose immature chin and half-open mouth merely suggest the expression of her kind. If words were issuing from her lips, they would hardly take the elegant languor of ‘Line’s bizzay!’ They would more probably be ‘Say, lissen!’
“The confusion of bright little ideas in the headdress is to some extent mitigated by the artist, who did not indelicately expose the sales lady’s ear. But why did he bob her hair?
“As the thing stands, it is simply one of a thousand versions current on almost any magazine cover. It represents a pretty girl and is otherwise meaningless.…
“So far as the stuffed eagle part of the design goes, it seems to have been a hastily conceived substitute for the hopelessly silly ‘broken sword’ at first offered.…
“The eagle is merely conventional, in this case looking ridiculously bigger than the mountain upon which it is sitting, and basking in the rays of light from below, presumably from a street lamp or a motorcar headlight.
“The whole thing is bad. The coin should be immediately withdrawn from circulation and a new design undertaken.”
Peace dollar admirers may find it difficult to understand the negative comments. The fact is, many people liked the coin when it was new. A Philadelphia newspaper said:
“Liberty is getting younger. Take it from the new Peace dollar, put in circulation yesterday. The young woman who has been adorning silver currency for many years never looked better than in the ‘cart wheel’ which the Philadelphia Mint has just started to turn out.
“The young lady, moreover, has lost her Greek profile. Hellenic beauty seems to have been superseded by the newer ‘flapper’ type. Judging by the same profile, Liberty is growing more slender.”
The Lutheran Women’s Missionary Society praised the Peace dollar. In 1922, Nettie C. Weier wrote in Lutheran Woman’s Work:
“The United States Government has recently issued a new silver dollar, the Peace dollar. It is beautifully designed and the American people may well be proud of it.
“Every dollar which the Women’s Missionary Society receives is a Peace dollar. Every dollar which any Lutheran gives to the work of this society means advance for Christ’s cause and His is the cause of eternal peace.
“Is not the dollar you give a Peace dollar?
“During the first week of Lent the women of our grand old church will have the opportunity of making a self-denial offering of Peace dollars. Each congregational society may designate where the money shall be placed, and may select any cause for which the general society labors.
“If one has no preference and sends it to the synodical treasurer marked ‘Lenten Self-Denial Offering,’ it will be placed to the credit of the Japan field. Is there any need more urgent than the rescue work? Is there any call greater than that of the Girl’s School?
“Peace dollars to cement our peace with Japan!
“May these Peace dollars, designed in our hearts and molded in perfect beauty by the labors of our hands, bring all nearer to the great atonement!”
Aside from spreading a message of peace and serving charitable causes, were Peace dollars really necessary? In the opinion of John Parker Young, writing in the April 1922 issue of the Journal of the American Bankers Association, the answer was “No”:
“The American silver dollar is again being coined for the first time since 1904. The Peace dollars, as the new coins are to be called from their design in recognition of the [Washington naval disarmament] conference, are identical in size and weight with the dollars first struck by the United States Mint in 1793 [sic].
“The question might be asked how it happens that the Government is to spend $209 million in purchasing silver to be coined into silver dollars or ‘cart wheels,’ as they are often facetiously dubbed, when there is little reason to believe that these dollars will be any more popular than their predecessors.…
“On the Pacific Coast, where ‘hard money’ is popular and silver dollars have always been commonly seen in circulation, a limited demand for them exists. However, with 214 million dollars in the Treasury and Federal Reserve Banks on last count, as against 75 million in circulation, it does not appear that the new coinings are pursuant to monetary needs.”
The most damaging criticism of 1921 Peace dollars was that they would not stack properly because of their high relief.
“Bank cashiers and poker players are opposed to the beautiful new silver Peace dollar, which was placed in circulation yesterday,” said one newspaper. “Everyone else, except those who handle coins most, are pleased with them.
“It is not the artistic sense of the money changer that is offended. He thinks the new coin is an excellent piece of art, but he objects, he says, because they will not stack.”
Writing to De Francisci, Morgan said he had made a slight change in the curvature of the surfaces on the 1922 Peace dollar dies. Morgan said the change was necessary because “the pressure necessary to bring up the work was so destructive to the dies that we got tired of putting new dies in.”
According to Morgan, 20 tons less pressure were required to bring up the lowered design, doubling the life of the dies.
A rumor spread that the government was recalling 1921 Peace dollars. Speculators had a field day. A Feb. 22, 1922 press dispatch from New York said:
“Future financiers, now operating as messenger boys in Wall Street, have started a drive to corner the newly coined Peace silver dollar, it was learned today. The coins, of which slightly more than a million were minted, are selling at a premium of 25 to 50 cents each, the youthful buyers playing a hunch that the issue will be recalled because of criticism of its design and the general make-up, which does not admit of easy stacking.”
The Mint director denied the rumor. “Dies for the new  coinage are about finished,” he said, “and every one of the three coinage Mints will be ready shortly to make them.”
The Numismatist soon reported that interest in Peace dollars had “wanted almost to the vanishing point.”
In an effort to get Peace dollars into wider circulation, the Treasury Department in 1924 placed a Peace dollar in the pay envelope of each of its 5,000 employees.
In 1928 the Philadelphia Mint struck fewer than 400,000 Peace dollars, the series’ lowest mintage. None were struck from 1929-1933. In 1935, the Peace dollar’s final year, production was limited to Philadelphia and San Francisco. The Denver Mint struck a test run of around 300,000 1964-dated Peace dollars in 1965, but they were melted.
The Peace dollar’s message lasted much longer than its production run. In 1962, an ad in Boy’s Life for a Peace dollar neckerchief said, “Be the first to give personal help in promoting and strengthening America’s power and leadership in lasting world peace!”
History has shown that it will take more than a coin to bring world peace. But Anthony de Francisci’s “flapper” dollar captured the post-World War I spirit and spread the message with a modern design pointing toward the dawn of a new day.
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