Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Coins You Can Find - Indian Head Cent - Design

The new penny's design draws cheers and jeers.

Indian Head Penny

Longacre advocated his Indian Head design in an August 21, 1858, letter to Snowden:

"From the copper shores of Lake Superior, to the silver mountains of Potosi from the Ojibwa to the Aramanian, the feathered tiara is as characteristic of the primitive races of our hemisphere, as the turban is of the Asiatic. Nor is there anything in its decorative character, repulsive to the association of Liberty…
It is more appropriate than the Phrygian cap, the emblem rather of the emancipated slave, than of the independent freeman, of those who are able to say "we were never in bondage to any man". I regard then this emblem of America as a proper and well defined portion of our national inheritance; and having now the opportunity of consecrating it as a memorial of Liberty, 'our Liberty', American Liberty; why not use it? One more graceful can scarcely be devised. We have only to determine that it shall be appropriate, and all the world outside of us cannot wrest it from us."

Numismatic legend tells us that the facial features of Liberty on the obverse of the Indian Head cent were based on the features of Longacre's daughter Sarah. The tale runs that she was at the mint one day when she tried on the headdress of one of a number of Native Americans who were visiting, and her father sketched her. However, Sarah Longacre was 30 years old and married in 1858, not 12 as in the tale, and Longacre himself stated that the face was based on a statue of Venus in Philadelphia on loan from the Vatican. He did often sketch his elder daughter, and there are resemblances between the depictions of Sarah and the various representations of Liberty on his coins of the 1850s. These tales were apparently extant at the time, as Snowden, writing to Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb in November 1858, denied that the coin was based, "On any human features in the Longacre family." Lee F. McKenzie, in his 1991 article on Longacre, notes that any artist can be influenced by many things, but calls the story essentially false.

Regardless of who posed for Longacre, the facial features of the "Indian" are essentially Caucasian, meaning that a White woman wears the headdress of a Native American man. Longacre had, in 1854, designed the three-dollar piece with a female with similar features (also supposedly based on the museum sculpture) but a more fanciful headdress, and adapted that design for the gold dollar. Officials were aware of this artistic license at the time of issue. Snowden, in his November 1858 letter to Cobb, characterizes the two earlier coins as, "The artists at the Mint evidently not realizing the absurd incongruity of placing this most masculine attribute of the warrior brave on the head of a woman." Longacre would not be the last to juxtapose the features of a White woman with an Indian headdress reserved for men; Augustus Saint Gaudens, for the Indian Head eagle (1907), produced a similar design. Later issues depict more accurate reliefs, including Bela Lyon Pratt's Indian Head gold pieces (1908), the Buffalo nickel (1913) by James Earle Fraser, who worked from Native American models, and the Oregon Trail Memorial half dollar (1926), designed by Fraser and his wife Laura.

Art historian Cornelius Vermeule had mixed emotions about the Indian Head cent: "Longacre enriched the mythology of American coinage in a pleasant if unpretentious fashion. Given his pattern half-dollar designs of 1859 as a yardstick, he could have done worse." In another comparison, Vermeule suggested, "Far from a major creation aesthetically or iconographically, and far less attractive to the eye than the [flying eagle], the Indian head cent was at least to achieve the blessing of popular appeal. The coin became perhaps the most beloved and typically American of any piece great or small in the American series. Great art the coin was not, but it was one of the first products of the United States mints to achieve the common touch."

Up Next: Inception

Photo courtesy of Coin HELP!
Brief history of IHC from Wikipedia - Used under CC BY-SA license

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