Beauty in Paper – The 1896 Educational Currency

I previously wrote about what I considered to be America’s most beautiful coinage:


Today, paper money gets a turn.

From Wikipedia:

The Educational Series series of notes is the informal nickname given by numismatists to a series of United States silver certificates produced by the United States Treasury in 1896, after Bureau of Engraving and Printing chief Claude M. Johnson ordered a new currency design. The notes depict various allegorical motifs and are considered by some numismatists to be the most beautiful monetary designs ever produced by the United States.


The One Dollar Bill

The Goddess History instructing a youth, pointing to a panoramic view of the Potomac River and Washington D.C. The Washington Monument and the US Capitol Building are visible in the background. The United States Constitution is displayed to the right. Circling the motif are the last names of famous Americans. Some of those listed are: (George) Washington, (Benjamin) Franklin, (Thomas) Jefferson, (Robert) Fulton, (Samuel F.B.) Morse, & (Ulysses S.) Grant. Full Resolution.

Reverse: Martha and George Washington.


The Two Dollar Bill

Science (center) presents Steam and Electricity (the two children) to the more mature figures of Commerce (left) and Manufacture (right). Full Resolution

Reverse: Robert Fulton and Samuel F.B. Morse


The Five Dollar Bill

Electricity surrounded by other allegorical figures, representing the dominant force in the world. The United States Capitol building can be seen behind the female figures. Full Resolution

Reverse: Ulysses S. Grant and Phillip Sheridan

These beautiful works of art, embodying both aesthetically and factually pleasing images combine with superb engraving skill1 to create works of incredible beauty.

Not surprisingly, some Boston society ladies got their knickers in a twist over the bare breasts visible on the $5.00 note, and some bankers refused to accept these bills. The Bureau of Engraving planned a “draped” version for the 1897 series, much as the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter was re-designed the following year for the same reason (see the above-linked article), but the design was never used.

For the longest time, American currency has been soul-searingly boring. We used to be able to get away with it because the world valued the dollar no matter how ugly it looked, but those times are coming to an end. I have long wished that we could redesign our currency along the lines of things done by Australia and other countries, but as long as government is dominated by people who are convinced that the almighty dollar is unassailable, this is unlikely to happen.

At least at one point in our history, people were willing to try something new and different.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

1 On a semi-related note, a wonderful and chilling tale which involves engraving skill can be found in “Don’t Look Behind You” by Frederick Brown. I recommend it, but not if you’re home alone on a dark night.

Beauty in Metal – The USA’s most stunning coinage

Disclaimer: This post is entirely subjective. Others will have different opinions. As a long-time numismatist, these are the ones which have captured my imagination.

The Augustus St. Gaudens $20.00 Gold Piece

The St. Gaudens piece was originally struck in ultra high relief, such that it took nine strokes to create it, rendering it impractical; only 20 specimens are known, and they are valued at up to $3,000,000.

St. Gaudens was grieved, but made a few changes to his design under the misapprehension that the first coins were struck on a production press, rather than the mint’s only medal press; the next high-relief version only took 3 strokes, but was still impractical for production use.

It was only after St. Gaudens’ death that a production version in low relief was approved. It is still a masterful work of art.

The Walking Liberty Half Dollar

The combination of the liberty and the majectic eagle make for a beautiful piece of coinage.

The Standing Liberty Quarter

This one vies with the St. Gaudens piece for my very favorite. It is just so aesthetically pleasing. The first version, stamped in 1916, had a bit of a problem:

The lady is rather unclad, which offended the sensibilities of the nation, so the next version had her cover up in a bit of chain mail. In addition, the date was set onto a flat raised pedestal and showed a tendency to wear off quickly – subsequent versions placed the date into a trough where it would be more protected from wear.

The Silver Three-Cent Piece

The second-smallest coin to have common circulation, smaller and thinner than a dime, this little gem had a turbulent history.

The Type-1 gold dollar on the left came in at 13 mm in diameter, the 3-cent silver piece at 14. A common dime is just under 18 mm wide. The coin was widely hoarded and melted down for its silver, and shopkeepers found them hard to keep track of. Uncirculated specimens are rare and highly valuable.

The Liberty-cap (Mercury) Dime

Common in circulation when I was a child, these coins are strikingly beautiful, especially when found in uncirculated condition. Can you spot the picture of the car on the reverse? If you’re having trouble, click here. Haha!

The Flying Eagle and Indian Head pennies

These are just pretty, especially when in good condition.

The Stella

The Stella, or $4.00 gold piece, was a pattern – it was never created for circulation. Nonetheless, I think it’s beautiful. The picture below is one of the finest examples known.

There are others; some of the state quarters that were recently released are quite attractive, but nothing comes up to the standard of previous centuries.

The Old Wolf has spoken.