Words and Pictures
by, 09-06-2009 at 04:35 PM (2927 Views)
Thomas Nast was a famous 19th century political cartoonist, he is generally credited with symbolizing the republican party giving them the elephant as their parties totem. One of the leaders of the corrupt Tammany Hall political combine remarked that he was unconcerned about editorials and newspaper articles that blasted the ins of the great metropolis, because their voters did not read anyway, but that Nasts cartoons hurt them, because he was able to, using pictures, to convey ideas to the illiterate and semi-literate.
Coins depend on words and pictures, the designs, the legends, the mottos, are all parts of the coin, and coins show a viewpoint, they make an argument, they represent a world outlook.
The first coin minted was the half disme, the obverse featured a flowing hair design, this set a standard that would last over a century, a woman featured on the coin, representing the ideal of liberty, an eagle on the reverse, the date and denomination, the motto was "liberty, parent of science and industry" the wordy motto would soon be shortened to "liberty".
This was not done by acclamation, there were many in the house and senate who wanted to follow the europeon pattern of the monarchs portrait on the coinage. When Washington expressed his disapproval of featuring his portrait on the coins, those who wanted to idealize leadership as was done throughout the world lost the battle.
The first flowing hair designs remind me of someone looking into a strong wind, and in those days strong political winds were blowing, the revolution in France, that ended in a bloody orgy of politically sanctioned murder was current news. Soon Frances republicanism would be coopted by a dictator styled emperor, and military adventures that would not end until the conqueror was defeated at waterloo.
The use of the eagle as the national totem represented a bit of distancing themselves from the monarchical powers in europe, england represented as a lion, france represented as a rooster, The american bald eagle won out over Franklins choice of the turkey, which would have been even more of a departure from world norms, choosing a bird that does not inspire awe as much as it inspires appetites.
The first eagles are unrecognizable as such, typified as scrawny, they were soon replaced with an eagle with more attitude. The first eagles fit with the new nation, we were thin, occupying a short slice of the eastern seaboard of a great continent, bound on the west by the domains of france. To the north were the hated British, and to the south the domains of Spain. By the time of the Loisiana purchase the eagle had become more fierce, the eagles of the capped bust halves and the capped bust dimes and silver is an eagle in action.
Wreathes were also used early in us coinage, the symbolism of the wreath goes all the way back to ancient times when the victors at the olympics were awarded wreathes for their excellence in the sports of the day. Rome had continued the tradition in their peculiar form of republicanism, instead of a hero becoming king or emperor he was awarded a triumph where he would be crowned with a wreath, unlike the monarchical crowns of gold and precious jewels.
The wreathes proclaimed the victory of the revolution, at the same time upholding the calvinist protestant ethos of the time which were ubiquitous.
The liberty cap also made some appearances in early coinage, this also had a long history, stretching back to ancient times, but in that time it was similar to a proclamation in support of the French revolution, this before the excesses of that political upheaval were manifest, along with its soon descent into the tyranny of the revolution.
For a brief time in 1793 the large cent featured the symbolism of chains, meant to represent the unity of the states, there were 15 links representing 15 states, this design was met with anger, the chains of unity represented to many people the chains of slavery, a forerunner of the conflict that was to come in the future, this design was soon replaced with a wreath.
It might be a good idea to remember here that sometimes a symbol can be represented in different ways, the chains of unity to one person were the chains of slavery to another. In those days before "imperial presidents" congress was much more sensitive to the opinions and prejudices of the people, and the checks and balances of the constitution were still strong.
Stars have also long been a staple of our coin designs, stars represent light, knowledge, seperateness, yet a part of the sky, the stars started out as a representation of each state as they came in but the element was soon changed to a simple field of thirteen stars, to represent the thirteen original colonies, many of the early coins have 15 stars, the early stars are 6 pointed stars, formed of two intersecting right triangles, These were the prevailing representations of stars until the 1879 4$ gold "stella" featured a five pointed star.
The differences between a 5 pointed star and a 6 pointed one in symbolism are rooted in arcane astrology and such societies as the free masons who have given much to the design elements of american coinage and paper currency.
The first regularly circulating coins with the 5 pointed stars were the barber quarters and half dollars introduced in 1892.
There are many more design elements of coins that contain symbols that impart meaning, almost by osmosis, the hairdressing of the morgan dollar, the buffalo representing the wide plains and the strength of roaming those wide areas, the indian representing the original inhabitants who though gravely injured in their contact with the Europeon settlers have now risen above, recent censuses show more americans claiming native american descent than the census of native americans at the birth of the nation in 1787.
The shield became a prominent element of american coinage before the time of the civil war, its symbolism is unmistakable, the defense of the people, with the elements of stars and stripes it was also used in many tokens of the period. Would there have been such fierce resistance to breaking up the union if the coinage had not wordlessly linked the idea of union and defense?
I had intended to also include the mottoes and legends but will only skim the surface of mottos. The main mottos and legends are the United States of America, E pluribus unum (out of many one), Liberty, and In God We Trust.
The designs and mottos of our coins represent a nation, and not only reflect our hopes and aspirations but also help mold the same.