An interesting argument that I have run into while cruising the internet is the argument made by some that US coins used to express core US ideological values, such as liberty, freedom, democracy, and that since the 1930s US currency has changed to reflect leaders/historic figures to hide those values from us. Although an extreme opinion I also find most people today are used to the coins in their pocket reflecting the heads of former US leaders, the consistency of design is a symbol of solidity to the US public today. For many I believe coins are considered a symbol of the country, symbols generated through careful design and an attention to history. One might think our ancestors put the same thought into the coinage – in reality though I think it safe to say not so much. Actually, more often, I believe it simply came down to putting something on the coins that looked neat. Observe:
That is a 19th century “Indian Head” Penny – named because they put a girl on it in an Indian headdress. Because why not? Note the useful indication on the back of what the coin is. No fancy building images or symbols from our past, just a statement that this coin is worth one cent with a cool wreath around it.
This is called the “Liberty Cap” dime – because the lady on it is wearing a liberty cap – note how the word Liberty is on the hat. You may wonder at the unusual look of the hat, that is because it is actually a French hat, worn by the peasant classes, during the French Revolution, a cap which eventually become associated with the ideals of the French Revolution. It was also associated in ancient times with a freed slave as a symbol of their being free. In neither version of the cap was the word “Liberty” actually put on the cap but our ancestors felt driving home this association was critical. Notice on the obverse side we have a pretty bad-ass rendition of the Seal of the United States.
This is an Indian Head/Buffalo Nickel minted in 1935, notice the sinister New Deal design motif, mainly of a giant Indian Head and a Buffalo. This nickel was minted because apparently Theodore Roosevelt felt US coinage was not artistic enough and a new neater design was needed. Hence this nickle, I believe under the heading that bison looked cool and Indian heads were also cool. (Really, from what I read not a great deal more thought went into this design beyond “It looks awesome!”) Apparently though the coin wore down too quickly and after twenty-five years was replaced with the Jefferson design. Not due to some major ideological shift, just because Jefferson didn’t wear down as quickly.
This is a Mercury Dime – because Mercury was an interesting Greek god and the helmet with wings looks nice. Please note the date, 1927. Please note the obverse of the design, a Fasces – a bundle of sticks held together with rope wrapped around an axe – an ancient Roman symbol of authority still on our dime today. If you ever meet anyone who tells you this was added to the dime with Roosevelt’s head as a sign of the powers taken over by the Presidency, and these people are out there, please laugh at them for me.
Finally – the Liberty Head nickel, a really infamous coin with a cool story behind it – but I’m going to save that story for a future Fist.
Sources: Wikipedia article on the Buffalo Nickle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_nickel)