In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt challenged his friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign the entire line of American coinage from the Cent to the Double Eagle to new and more artistic standards. However, due to an 1890 law that governed coinage designs, the only coins that were legal to change in 1905 were the one cent piece (1c) and the four gold coins ($2.50, $5, $10, & $20). Roosevelt empowered Saint-Gaudens to undertake this task and granted him complete artistic freedom. Unfortunately Saint-Gaudens, who was 56 at the time, was in failing health and only had time to complete the redesign of the $10 and $20 Gold coins (and was only able to make sketches and plaster models for a redesigned one cent coin) before he died in 1907 at the age of 58. Both of the completed gold coin designs by Saint-Gaudens (for the $10 and $20 denomination) made it into production later in 1907.
The Twenty Dollar Gold Piece: The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle
Widely acclaimed as the most beautiful American coin ever put into production, the Saint-Gaudens twenty-dollar gold coin (or double eagle) was produced by the United States Mint from 1907 to 1933.
While the resulting Saint-Gaudens $20 Gold design is one of the most beautiful and renowned in history, an early plaster sketch sculpted by the artist shows two dramatically different elements. This “lost” Winged Liberty design, a precursor to the finished version, shows Miss Liberty as she would ultimately appear on the new coin, except that she was portrayed with 1.) large, billowing wings and 2.) a feathered headdress. Until recently this plaster sketch was lost within the Saint-Gaudens studio archives and few were aware of its existence. Finally, it was re-discovered when his New Hampshire studio was made a National Historic Site & opened to the public. While this beautiful design was never actually struck as a U.S. coin, the original plaster sketch was authenticated by the National Guaranty Corporation (NGC).
God or No God?
At President Roosevelt’s insistence, the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” was omitted from the designs of the new $10 and $20 gold pieces. This phrase had appeared on the Liberty Head gold coins for over half a century. Roosevelt was not an atheist, but he firmly believed the coinage of the United States was an improper place for a religious motto.
The phrase, “IN GOD WE TRUST” first appeared on the two-cent pieces beginning in 1864 but it was not mandated. In fact, the Coinage Act of 1873 stated that this motto be inscribed on coins “as space and design permitted”. When the new eagle and double eagle coins appeared in 1907, the motto had been omitted. However, following a “public outcry”, Congress ordered it restored on the gold pieces — and the Act of May 18, 1908 made it mandatory on all coins “upon which it had heretofore appeared”.
The Ten Dollar Gold Piece: The Indian Head Eagle
No American coin design has escaped criticism and the $10 Gold Eagle of Saint-Gaudens was no exception.
The Caucasian features on the Indian was criticized and those interested in the authentic representation of the American Indian quickly pointed out that no American Indian woman ever wore a war bonnet. The eagle on the reverse also came under criticism. The leg feathers, ornithologists claimed, were those of a Golden Eagle, not the American Bald Eagle, our national bird.
Saint-Gaudens’ impact on popular and acclaimed Coin Designs of the 20th Century
Saint-Gaudens was a master of the portrait relief. His work in bas-relief (low relief) is unsurpassed to this day and compares with the finest work of the 15th Century Masters in Europe.
Saint-Gaudens was a tireless teacher from 1888 to 1897. An entire new generation of sculptors studied under Saint-Gaudens or became his assistants. It is to his credit that the designers of the Buffalo Nickel, Mercury Dime, Standing Liberty Quarter, Washington Quarter, Walking Liberty Half Dollar, $2.50 Gold Indian, and $5 Gold Indian were students and/or assistants of Saint-Gaudens.
Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens
It should be no surprise that these two immensely talented men (Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens) would become friends and collaborators. Saint-Gaudens would first become involved with Roosevelt on an artistic level when asked to produce an inaugural medallion for the President’s first full term. On January 18, 1905 at the White House, Saint-Gaudens capitulated to Roosevelt’s forceful plea to create an inauguration medal that would be “worthy of the event”. It was at this meeting that Roosevelt and Secretary of the Treasury Shaw asked Saint-Gaudens to consider new designs for United States coins. The medal that resulted from this January day was of supreme artistic merit. Especially notable was the impressive reverse of the medal that featured a heroic eagle on a cliff. This had been a device that U.S coin designer Charles E. Barber rejected back in 1892! Roosevelt said it best in a letter: “Thank heaven we have at last some artistic work of permanent worth, done for the government.” The reverse eagle design on this inaugural medal was later adopted for use on the $2.5, $5, and $10 Gold Pieces.
We as coin collectors really owe a lot to this great designer of the 19th and early 20th Century. I also have to say that I had no idea (until I researched this) of Saint-Gaudens’ impact on some of the most artistically renowned coin designs of the 20th Century. That all of those “collector favorite” coin designs posted above were designed by students of Saint-Gaudens! You can certainly see the impact of their teacher in the artistry. And, who knows, there might be many fewer coin collectors today if not for these premier artistic coin designs (seemingly some of the most cherished and loved types) that inspired millions, and came into being due to the influence (direct or indirect) of this great man and artist.
Please note that I did discovery on this by doing web searches, so please excuse any mistakes in facts, I did the best I could based on what i could find.