E-Sylum regular Dave Lange of Numismatic Guaranty Corporation writes a monthly column for The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association. The articles are also posted on the NGC web site, and this week Dave's article on the history of lettering on U.S. coins was posted. It's a marvelous choice of topic, and the history is fascinating. I don't recall this subject being given a separate treatment anywhere else. Here's a short excerpt, but be sure to read the whole thing.
By the time the US Mint began its operations in 1792, there were artisans who specialized in the creation of letter and numeral punches for the printing and engraving trades, among other skills. A good example may be found in the set of punches future mint engraver Christian Gobrecht created for the US Mint in 1825, while he was still self-employed.
The problem with having a complete matching set of such punches is that a few will fail at some point. Replacements for these damaged tools were not always obtained from the same source, and the result was an obvious mismatch in the mottoes and legends on subsequent dies. Collectors of early federal coins can point to numerous examples, such as the 1803 dimes having letter A's that are narrower than both the remaining letters and the A's in other dime varieties of that date. Numerals, too, suffered from the loss of a single punch, as seen in the half dollars of 1828. Most of the several obverse dies used that year have small 8s that are clearly not from the same set of punches as the larger 1s and 2s.
With the arrival of the Contamin portrait lathe in 1835, the US Mint was able to create master dies that included all characters aside from the date and mintmark, thereby confining such variations in style to those features alone. While the lettering was thereafter consistent from one date to the next, it was still applied to the master die with hand punches and could thus be a bit irregular. The master dies created by James B. Longacre are notorious for their drunken lettering, which was poorly spaced and failed to follow a single arc. This may be seen most clearly in the gold dollars of 1849-89.
Later US Mint chief engravers perfected the placement of lettering. Both Barbers — Charles and William — were skilled in maintaining neatly aligned legends and mottoes. William still punched his characters directly into the die steel at the master die stage, but son Charles worked in clay or plaster to create most of his designs. After sculpting the main devices in relief, he would then make a negative cast into which the lettering was either punched or sculpted. Another casting would result in a completed positive model that could then be reduced mechanically to create a master hub. Charles Barber did vary from this technique in one notable exception—the Lafayette Dollar. For some reason he punched the legends into each of the several working dies used. This resulted in slightly irregular (and sometimes repunched) lettering that makes the various dies distinctive and collectible.
To read the complete article, see:
USA Coin Album: Take a Letter
Wayne Homren, Editor
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