The Final Design

A Critique of the Design

The following is from Numismatic Art in America, Aesthetics of the United States Coinage, by Cornelius Vermeule, curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts:

"Trade Dollars and Their Patterns:

"From 1873 until 1885, merely as collectors’ items in the last seven years, the mints at Philadelphia, Carson City, and San Francisco struck a series of trade dollars, in a high grade of silver for circulation among the hard monies of the Far East. The design is a kind of glorification of all the neo-Roman symbolism popular on United States coins in the nineteenth century. In the year these silver dollars appeared, a numismatic reporter described the seated Liberty on the obverse, a design based on the Roma or Italia of Julio-Claudian to Antonine sestertii, in the no-nonsense terms of post-Civil War commercialism. ‘A female figure [is] seated on bales of merchandise, holding in her left hand a scroll bearing the word ‘Liberty.’ At her back is a sheaf of wheat, expressing, with the bales of goods, the commercial character of the coin: her right hand extended holds the olive branch.’ (From ‘The Trade Dollar,’ The American Journal of Numismatics, 1873, Vol. 8, p. 32.)

"Peace and commerce are dispatched from the United States of America over the seas, for this Juno sits on a grassy plinth, inscribed with IN GOD WE TRUST and set beside the waves. A particularly satisfying eagle graces the reverse, small yet bold and a happy compromise between heraldry and concessions to feathery nature. The plethora of titles, mottoes, and inscribed statistics somehow does not seem out of place either on obverse or reverse.

"In the process of creating the trade dollar of 1873, Chief Engraver William Barber and his colleagues executed a series of six pattern trade dollars that were sold in limited sets to those interested. These dollars said just about all the idiom of neo-Romanism could express with Liberty seated, the head of Liberty, eagles posed with shields, and the standard set of inscriptions necessary to this coin of commerce. They form a handsome group, one salient quality being the uniformity of effect and detail that characterizes the designs. The eagles wave ribbons with E PLURIBUS UNUM in their beaks; or they scream while grasping arrows, the olive branch, or a shield draped with the ribbon of IN GOD WE TRUST. One reverse is all wreath and inscriptions. The most unusual presents a defiant eagle, head lowered in fighting pose, wings half spread, and claws planted firmly on olive branch, arrows, and shield, the last serving as a plinth for the whole ensemble. Lettering is of a similar, careful, printer’s Victorian quality; the tondo fields are framed by Roman dentils; the stars have a uniform height and shape; and the motif of twin stars below, flanking the eagle, occurs on six of the eight reverses.

"One seated Liberty differs only in slight details from the design used on the coins put into circulation. The other three examples of ornate Roman classicism are about as unusual as any animal, bird, human, or personification on the United States coinage. The debt to the figure of Italia on brass sestertii of the Emperor Antoninus Pius in the second century A.D. is quite direct. The Roman orb of universal domination now looks like a large medicine ball inscribed LIBERTY. The Greco-Roman turreted crown in one instance has become a feathered bonnet, like those worn by wooden cigar-store Indians. Flags, Phrygian caps on poles, a plow, bales of King Cotton, and sheaves of wheat complete the picture of American peace, freedom, and prosperity. The preoccupation with sheaves of wheat is a truly Victorian one, with its parallel in freestanding sculpture on a type of tombstone mass-produced in the generations from 1850 to 1890. A novelty of short duration on the coinage, these complex figures of Liberty or America or Columbia were to have a longer life; they exist still, as the vignettes of stock or bond certificates and banknotes.

"The two heads of Liberty in this series of patterns for the trade dollar are stringent in their Roman classicism. The wreathed head has a pouting, compressed face, prominent lips, and a full, forceful line of the chin taken verbatim from a Greco-Roman head of the first century A.D.; they may be an ideal portrait of Julia daughter of Augustus in the guise of a goddess such as Artemis. The Roman head in marble demonstrates the source for the rough, moplike hair and the combing of heavy strands into the bun at the back. The diademed head in the series of patterns for the trade dollar is very Victorian in its pretty interpretation of Roman classicism, but it too can be related to several common Greco-Roman marbles, ancient copies after originals of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. For the length of the neck, shape of the chin, lips, line of the forehead and what can be compared of the nose, and the wavy undercutting of the hair, whether below a diadem or a thin band, I have chosen a good Hellenistic or Roman copy of the fourth-century statue known as the Artemis Colonna. Both these heads seem to have arrived in America in the 1880s, but they represent the type of antiquities first collected in the original or as plaster casts for libraries, athenaeums, historical societies, and academies of art in the United States before the scientific acquisition of classical art at the end of the nineteenth century.

As a coin intended for circulation in a special market, the trade dollar was in many respects like a commemorative issue. At least these handsome coins afforded the designers in the Mint an opportunity to break away from the usual seated Liberty of the silver and the diademed head of that divine creature that graced the gold, or the Liberty in Indian bonnet that had become a part of the bronze penny or cent."