By Sal Maccarone
The lines that distinguish the difference between art and craft are oftentimes blurred. Craft is utilitarian, art is for looking at, but sometimes a particular craft is so precise that it might as well be art.
Let us explore the world of engraving as an example. Beginning sometime during the fifth century B.C. man figured out how to decorate metal. Way back then it was just a matter of pushing, or pulling a shaped and hardened metal tool (called a burin) across another piece of softer metal, thereby scratching a line. That is pretty basic technology, and believe it or not, it stayed that way for a very long time. One difference, though, engraving quickly evolved from its purely decorative roots to the very functional.
Engravers have contributed greatly to the history of mankind. They have influenced everything from jewelry making, to printmaking, to the reproduction of newspapers, magazines and books, to the making of money. Where the making of money is concerned, engravers are all important. It is their job to create the plates (in the case of paper money) and the dies (in the case of coinage) that are used to print or stamp the currency. Two plates or dies are required for each process. In either situation the engraving is done in reverse so as to stamp or print a positive image. In the case of a coin, the die is engraved as an intaglio so that the coin is rendered in relief. The two sides of a coin or bill are referred to as the obverse for the front and the reverse for the back.
On April 2, 1792, the United States Congress passed the Mint Act. Up until that time our newly founded country was still using colonial money as a medium of exchange. The agencies that were created by Congress that day and placed under the direction of the Treasury Department were the United States Mint for coins, and the Bureau of Engraving for paper currency. It is the Chief Engraver of the mint that is responsible for the design and engraving of the dies used for coins.
There have been several gifted Chief Engravers along the way, such as William Barber (1807-1879), who was the fifth, and his illustrious son Charles Barber (1840-1917),who was the sixth. It was Charles who was responsible for the famous Barber dime, quarter and half dollar designs of the late 19th century. When Charles Barber died in 1917 while still in office, he was succeeded by his assistant George Morgan (1845-1925). Mr. Morgan was hired by Barber during late 1876 and he was soon made responsible for the design of “new pattern” coins which are the ones not yet approved for release.
By the year 1878 we were already beginning to enjoy coins designed by Morgan. The eponymous Morgan dollar was minted from 1878-1904, and then once again in 1921. The obverse of this coin shows a profile portrait which signifies Liberty and the reverse has an elaborate eagle with outstretched wings. Among many others, Morgan and Barber were also responsible for the beautiful Columbian Exposition half dollar of 1892-93, the first U.S. half-dollar commemorative coin to be minted.
Some more interesting facts about money:
- Industrial engraving is now done by means of acid etching, photo engraving, laser engraving or computer generated engraving.
- Hand engraving is still used by artists and the Bureau of Engraving.
- Charles Barber was opposed to the design of the Augustus Saint-Gaudens coins, with the double eagle and gold eagle, that were minted during the early 20th century. These are now considered by many to be the most beautiful US coin ever minted. I will be writing separately about Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the not too distant future.
- During the years that the U.S. Mint struggled with replacing silver coins with base metal coins (1965, 1966 and 1967) mint marks were dispensed with. This was done to discourage hoarding by collectors. Mint marks are used to distinguish between the branches of the United States Mint. Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco and West Point are the current active mints.