Darryl Atchison submitted these very interesting thoughts on the origin of coin and die medal alignment. Just why is it that medal dies are usually aligned head-to-head and coin die are aligned head-to-tail? And why is this centuries-old practice starting to lose it's grip on coiners?
The reason I am writing to is in relation to the superb Stack's 2009 'Philadelphia Americana' sale catalogue which I received last week. I took a few hours to read the catalogue over the weekend and a couple of observations sprang to mind:
1. In reference to lot no. 4001 (a Massachusetts Oak Tree Shilling), I couldn't help but notice the planchet cut which occurs on the left-hand-side of both the obverse and reverse of the coin.
This got me thinking about die alignments - which, admittedly, was not something I paid particular attention to prior to this. I have, of course, heard of 'coinage alignment' and 'medal alignment' and I know the difference between these but hadn't really given the matter much more thought before now.
No doubt, Dick Johnson or some other expert on minting technology can answer the following questions.
a. Where or when did the these terms 'coinage alignment' and 'medal alignment' originate?
b. Were the different alignments ever used in a monetary sense to differentiate between metal objects which were produced as medals versus coins or vice versa? (i.e. does anyone actually think that your average punter could determine the intended purpose of a particular lump of metal which was cast, engraved or stamped with a particular alignment versus another alignment.
This seems highly improbable to me but perhaps there is evidence to the contrary. Most numismatists/collectors today I think could and would intrinsically deduce the intended purpose of a lump of metal based on other characteristics of the object itself (ie. the use of a denomination, legends, design elements, metallic composition, etc.).
After a bit of thought on the matter, I now believe that these alignments were use for more practical reasons.
First of all you must assume that someone who wants to distinguish between a genuine coin/medal and a counterfeit would always want to examine the piece with the design in its correct upright position.
Let's look at the case for identifying coins first...
Pretend for a minute that you are an early 19th century merchant examining the coins that have just been placed on your countertop. Place some coins in front of you and one by one scoop the coins up using your thumb and index finger. If you are right-handed, your two digits will naturally end up at the 3:00 position on the coin and if you are left-handed they will end up at the 9:00 position.
Hold a coin by the edge at the 3:00 (or 9:00) position between your thumb and index finger so that the obverse is facing you and the design of the coin is correctly positioned in an upright position. Assuming that your thumb is facing you, the easiest way to see the reverse of the coin (with the design in its correct upright position) without having to touch the coin with your other hand is to roll your wrist towards you so that the coin naturally flips over in the process. If your index finger was facing you, simply roll your wrist away from you instead.
Notice that the design that was at the bottom of the reverse when you were looking at the obverse has now become the top of the design when the coin flipped over. Although it is harder and much more awkward to do, you can replicate this experiment if you hold the coin as 'collectors ' do today (i.e. at two points on the edge using your thumb and index finger). Being only concerned with identification and not preservation, merchants would have handled hundreds of coins a day and would not have worried about touching the coin's surfaces and would have most certainly used the method described above.
Naturally, the merchant wouldn't have worried about which side he looked at first nor would he have bothered to ensure that the coin was accurately 'lined' up before examining the other side since he could easily examine the coin in a sideways or rotated position. It just gets a little harder to study the coin quickly the closer the design gets to being rotated to 180 degrees as it takes longer for your eyes to study and assess the design elements. And you must remember that speed was essential to the merchant for whom time meant money.
To achieve this effect, the dies had to be placed so that the obverse die was placed in an upright position with the top of the design at 12:00 and the reverse die was placed in a downwards position so that the top of the design was positioned at 6:00. This is called 'coinage alignment'.
As for medals...
Again, you must assume that the position of the dies is based on the necessity to observe the finished obverse and reverse designs in their correct upright positions using the simplest method. I think that most people would agree that the earliest forms of medals were intended as gifts or decorations to recognize merit or accomplishment and that these pieces were also intended to be worn by the recipient. As such, if you were holding the piece by either a ribbon or suspension loop it would not be physically possible to view the reverse design using the method previously described above - and still have the loop or ribbon correctly positioned at the top.
Whether one is holding the medal in question or viewing it while it is being worn, the easiest way to see the reverse is to simply turn the piece over (ie. left to right or right to left) so that the ribbon or loop remains at the top the whole time. Similarly, the design elements on the reverse remain correctly upright when you turn the medal over.
To achieve this effect, both the obverse and reverse dies are placed in an upright position so that the top of both designs are at 12:00. This is called 'medal alignment'.
To summarize, the eventual form (i.e. alignment) of the finished pieces was based entirely on the functionality of the piece in question and was not accidental. At least, that explains the historical usage of the two alignments.
Having said that...
Perhaps someone more knowledgeable than myself can explain why most coins struck today have the 'medal alignment'. Is this because of collectors who store their coins in holders in pages who want to be able to see both obverse and reverse of their coins correctly when looking at their coins in albums? Or is there no longer a need to examine a coin to determine its authenticity due to the standardization of coinage production (ie. all of the coins of a given series issued today are virtually identical which was not the case prior to the industrialization of coinage production two centuries ago)? Or is there possibly some other reason? I simply don't know.
Thanks to Darryl for these interesting observations. He makes some great points, and his arguments make sense to me. What do our readers think?
Wayne Homren, Editor
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