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On the Money: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Coin Portraits

During America’s infancy, the government didn’t want to put President George Washington or any of the Founding Fathers on U.S. currency. Since government-issued coins had first appeared in the world, it was common for the faces of kings, queens and emperors to appear on them. The Founders had just gotten a constitutional republic up and running, and didn’t want the nasty habits of the old monarchies slipping in. Instead, the Mint adorned coins with an image that made a clear statement about the difference between the government the American colonists had rebelled against and the one they hoped to build: a portrait of the female personification of Liberty (and an American Eagle usually on the reverse).

Lincoln and Washington

It wasn't until 1909, the 133rd birthday of the nation and the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, that a president’s face would be featured on a coin. President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to reinvigorate the design of American coins with elements of classically influenced sculpture and art. He was particularly taken with a 1907 portrait plaque of Lincoln sculpted by Victor David Brenner. Lincoln’s birthday was well-timed, and the portrait was placed on what was planned to be a commemorative coin produced for only that year. That summer, 22 million new Lincoln cents were minted in Philadelphia and circulated. They were so popular with the public that the mint kept turning them out, even after the Lincoln centennial.

Twenty-three years later, George Washington finally got his day. In preparation for the bicentennial of Washington’s birth in 1932, the Treasury Department and the George Washington Bicentennial Commission were toying with the idea of a releasing a commemorative coin and medal featuring Washington’s likeness. They asked the public to submit design ideas. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon liked the work of New York sculptor John Flanagan, and his profile of the president was placed on the Washington quarter. Like the Lincoln penny, the quarter continued to be produced long after its intended run.

TJ, FDR, JFK and Ike

In 1938, the Treasury Department announced another public competition to solicit designs for a new coin. They wanted a new look for the five-cent coin, featuring a portrait of Thomas Jefferson on one side, and Monticello, Jefferson’s historic Virginia home, on the reverse. Three hundred and ninety designs were submitted, and the Treasury awarded the prize to German-American sculptor Felix Schlag, whose portrait was based on a bust by sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The coin featuring Schlag’s work was released later that year.

Shortly after the end of World War II and the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the Treasury received numerous requests to honor the late president by putting his portrait on a coin. Roosevelt’s role in the formation of the March of Dimes made the question of which coin to place him on an easy one. On January 30, 1946, what would have been his 64th birthday, the dime bearing his portrait was released to the public.

Following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, the Treasury wasted no time; they honored the fallen president by swapping his image for the one of Benjamin Franklin on the half-dollar. President Lyndon Johnson issued an Executive Order directing the U.S. Mint to make the change. The new coins, bearing a portrait by Gilroy Roberts, began being minted in 1964.

In 1971, the Treasury made another presidential addition to circulating coins when they put Dwight Eisenhower on the first new one-dollar coin issued since the Coinage Act of 1965 ordered a five-year moratorium.

In 2007, it was announced that the rest of the presidents would get their turn on a coin when the mint began issuing $1 circulating coins—four per year—featuring the images of the presidents in the order that they served in office.

Why Is Lincoln Facing the Opposite Direction?

As noted above, Teddy Roosevelt chose Victor David Brenner’s portrait of Lincoln for the penny. That portrait is based on a bronze relief portrait plaque of Lincoln that Brenner had previously made. The plaque, in turn, was based on a photograph of Lincoln taken in February 1864 by Anthony Berger. Lincoln faced right in the photo, so he faces right on the plaque and also on the penny.

Why Are Only Dead Presidents on Coins?

The reason for putting only deceased presidents on circulating coins goes back to the earliest days of the nation, and follows the reasons those leaders had for not putting the president on coinage at all. While some factions in the young American government were especially enamored of George Washington and wanted his picture on money, the president declined when his portrait was requested for placement on the first U.S. Dollar. The precedent Washington set continued as a long, unwritten tradition until it was written into federal law that no living person can appear on U.S. coinage. Presidents must be dead for at least two years before they are eligible for inclusion in the Presidential Dollar series.

The prohibition on living persons only applies to circulating coins, though. Several people have had their images featured on U.S. commemorative coins during their lifetime. The list includes Alabama governor T.E. Kilby, who became the first living person to appear on a coin in 1921, when a commemorative half-dollar released for the Alabama Centennial.

President Calvin Coolidge became the first and only president to appear on a coin struck during his lifetime in 1926, when he appeared on the Sesquicentennial of American Independence half-dollar.

Senators Carter Glass and Joseph Robinson appeared, respectively, on the Lynchburg, Virginia, Sesquicentennial coin and the Robinson-Arkansas Centennial coin, both released in 1936. (Glass, who had served as Woodrow Wilson's Treasury Secretary, believed no living individual should appear even on non-circulating U.S. currency, and protested his appearance right up until his coin was released).

So ... All Dudes?

The female personification of Liberty was featured prominently on coins until presidential portraits began appearing in the 20th century. But women appear on modern circulating coins, too: the Sacagawea dollar coin has been minted since 2000, the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin was minted from 1979 to 1981 and again in 1999, and Helen Keller appeared on the Alabama state quarter minted in 2003. Queen Isabella of Spain, Eunice Kennedy Shriver (in her lifetime), and Virginia Dare (the first child born in the Americas to English parents) have also been featured on commemorative coins.

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History
Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter
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iStock

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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History
7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.

1. THE MELBOURNE DART RIOT

The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).

2. THE LEICESTER BALLOON RIOT

In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.

3. THE TORONTO CLOWN AND FIREFIGHTER RIOT

Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.

4. THE BELGIAN NIGHT AT THE OPERA RIOT

A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.

5. THE NEW YORK DOCTORS' RIOT

Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.

6. THE BROWN DOG RIOTS

Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.

7. THE EEL-PULLING RIOT

Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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