relief of Pratt gold too much change for many
Innovative designs draw mixed reaction from U.S. populace
in 1908 BY
PAUL GILKES - COIN WORLD STAFF
November 3, 2008
Bela Lyon Pratt's Indian Head gold $2.50 quarter eagle and
$5 half eagle, simultaneously released into circulation Nov.
2, 1908, drew mixed reactions from the general populace.
The two coins are the first and only U.S. coins to have all
of the obverse and reverse design elements in "recessed
relief." The design elements are raised, but instead
of projecting above the fields as on all other U.S. coins,
are instead recessed below the fields.
Some hailed the coins as an advancement in design techniques
for U.S. coins. Others blasted the new designs, not necessarily
just because of their design aesthetics, but because the recessed
elements might trap dirt and verdigris during handling posed
a possible health risk, critics warned. Some critics at the
time also said that the newly designed coins could be easily
counterfeited. That warning proved accurate; certain dates
within the Indian Head quarter eagle and half eagle series
are among the most counterfeited of all U.S. coins, according
to the major grading services.
The recessed relief designs in 1908 sparked a heated public
debate among Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, an art collector
in Boston who championed the Pratt designs; and Philadelphia
numismatist and antiquarian Samuel Hudson Chapman and Denver
banker George H. King, both of whom were critical of the Bigelow-Pratt
The debate was carried out in the pages of the February 1909
issue of the American Numismatic Association journal, The
An evolutionary process
Writing in the October 1792 issue of American Museum magazine,
Matthew Perry, according to Don Taxay in The U.S. Mint and
Coinage, had urged Mint officials during the early months
of the Mint's operation to strike intaglio coins.
A similar design concept, according to Taxay, had occurred
to Bigelow. President Theodore Roosevelt was still riding
high with emotion over the execution of Augustus Saint-Gaudens'
designs for the gold $10 eagle and $20 double eagle as design
efforts were being contemplated for the quarter eagle and
The Bigelow-Pratt designs were not the first to be considered
for the two smaller gold denominations in 1908. The Mint engraving
staff had begun work on reducing the double eagle designs
for use on the $2.50 and $5 coins. Mint officials stopped
the work when Congress ordered the motto IN GOD WE TRUST be
restored to the eagle and double eagle. The suspension provided
an opening for Bigelow.
A close friend of Roosevelt's, Bigelow pitched the idea to
the nation's chief executive for retaining a "relievo
[relief] design, but depress it below the field of the coin,"
according to Taxay. Because of Bigelow's relationship with
Roosevelt, Taxay surmises, it wasn't difficult for him to
advance his proposal in a Jan. 17, 1908, letter to the president.
Bigelow recommended the commission to design the quarter eagle
and half eagle go to Pratt, an up-and-coming Boston sculptor
familiar with Saint-Gaudens' work.
While Pratt's obverse of an American Indian was an all-new
rendition, his eagle on the reverse was a modified version
of the Saint-Gaudens design on the reverse of the eagle, as
recommended by Roosevelt.
Pratt completed his designs June 29, 1908, and forwarded the
models the same day to U.S. Mint Director Frank A. Leach.
The designs for the two denominations were identical except
for size. The quarter eagle had a diameter of 18 millimeters,
the half eagle a diameter of 21.6 millimeters.
Once the designs were approved, die preparation apparently
was executed without any obstacles. Roosevelt sent a package
to Big¬elow on Sept. 26, 1908, in which he enclosed copies
of the models for the half eagle as well as the first half
eagle struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The president requested
that Bigelow accept the coin and models with his compliments
as well as those of Leach.
Unfortunately, according to Taxay, the coin was stolen before
Roosevelt's correspondence reached Bigelow.
Despite Pratt's request to be advised of any contemplated
changes, U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber unilaterally
touched up Pratt's obverse model.
Soon after the quarter eagle and half eagle entering circulation
on Nov. 2, 1908, comments about the new designs, some unfavorable,
began to be expressed.
notified Pratt of the public opinions on the new coins, both
pro and con. Bigelow also noted that some publications had
credited him as the designer, although he had only taken his
technical idea to Pratt for the artist to translate with his
skill and creativity.
Roger W Burdette, in his book, Renaissance of American Coinage
1905-1908, explains that when the coins were first being issued,
much of the credit was going to Bigelow.
Bigelow attempted to ease Pratt's obvious growing discontent
in a Nov. 17, 1908, letter to the sculptor. Pratt didn't publicly
respond to the public's reception to his coins until early
in January 1909, according to Burdette.
Letter to Roosevelt
Coin dealer Chapman wrote directly to Roosevelt on Dec. 7,
1908, chastising the results of Pratt's artistic labor.
"It was the hope of everyone that when out new coinage
appeared we would have one of great beauty and artistic merit,"
Chapman wrote in his letter to Roosevelt. "But the new
$5 and $2.50 gold pieces just issued totally lack these qualities,
and not only those of beauty, but actually miss the practicability
to which every effect of beauty in relief has been sacrificed."
Calling the Indian's look "emaciated" and its treatment
"crude and hard, with sharp, abrupt outlines," Chapman
was also critical of the replication of Saint-Gaudens' eagle
for the reverse. Chapman stated in his letter to Roosevelt
the eagle wrongly was referred to as an American bald eagle
when it more closely resembles the golden eagle, indigenous
The designs of the two gold coins also lent themselves to
counterfeiting, according to Chapman.
"The placing of the design below the surface of the flan,
with deeply incised outlines, gives the effect of having been
engraved into the metal, and can, therefore, be closely imitated
by any metal chaser with the graver, without dies or moulds,"
Chapman wrote to Roosevelt.
"And I am certain that if this had been suggested to
the Secret Service officials it would never have been issued
by the Treasury Department, and the issuance ought to be immediately
stopped and the coins recalled, for everyone will be in danger
The recessed design elements, especially the sunken portion
of the Indian's neck, "will be a great receptacle for
dirt and conveyor of disease, and the coin will be the most
unhygienic ever issued," according to Chapman.
Chapman said the coins also had a tendency not to stack properly
on bank trays, although stackability was one of the principal
claims for the coins.
Upon subsequently receiving a copy of Chapman's letter to
Roosevelt, Bigelow rebutted Chapman's criticisms in his own
letter to Roosevelt, dated Dec. 10. Bigelow defended Pratt's
artistry, likening the results to Egyptian sculptures and
wall carvings. "The bas-relief effect is , accentuated
and not diminished by the shadow of the sharp outline,"
Bigelow wrote to Roosevelt.
Indian's portrait was taken from a contemporary photograph
and according to Bigelow any criticism of the final result
of the coin should be directed at Barber, who retouched the
details from Pratt's original models in the die-making process.
The matter of the use of the eagle was decided at the time
of the execution of Saint-Gaudens' design for the $10 reverse,
Bigelow also debunked Chapman's theories of the less-then-hygienic
qualities of the new issues as well as their stackability.
He did, however, agree with Chapman's assessment that stronger
relief would give the coins more uniformity in thickness.
King, a banker with Denver National Bank,
sent an unsolicited letter to The Numismatist that appeared
in the February 1909 issue along with the correspondence from
Chapman and Bigelow.
King labeled the new coins impractical because they were subject
to wear without a protective rim and would not fit properly
in coin trays. King was critical of the varying thicknesses
of the coins and the incuse areas of the coins trapping dirt
in the recesses.
The Numismatist noted that bankers on the East Coast explained
that their customers, who often sought gold coins during the
Christmas season, were rejecting the Pratt-designed coins
in favor of coins bearing the Coronet designs.
Widespread public objection was voiced to the new coins not
stacking properly, according to The Numismatist. The journal
also cited the hygiene issue.
Also expressed in The Numismatist was the concern over excessive
wear, causing a possible loss in value if coins redeemed for
their metal content, which was determined by weight.
Chapman, meanwhile, continued his personal diatribe against
the Indian Head quarter eagle and half eagle coins in a Dec.
16, 1908, follow-up letter to Roosevelt.
According to Burdette, Pratt publicly commented on the new
gold coin designs at a January 1909 lecture presented before
the Thursday Evening Club in Boston.
"We knew we had a good design. Mr. Roosevelt
said so," Pratt said, according to Burdette's research.
"The models were sent to the Mint and there slaughtered
after the manner in which the Mint always treats designs.
They milled the edge, chopped off the margin, remodeled the
feathers and did other things. ...
"One of the principal advantages of this coin is that
it is nearly friction proof, as nearly so as a coin can be
made, the background being slightly above the level of the
relief, the broad surfaces of the background taking all the
wear and being perfectly smooth, the friction loss is very
Pratt's available papers, according to Burdette, indicate
the sculptor didn't completely accept Bigelow's explanation
for the way the artist was treated throughout the coin design
process and after the coins were released.
"In all respects, Bela Pratt was treated shabbily by
the president, the Mint and his collaborator," Burdette
Criticism of the designs fell on deaf ears, as the gold coins
contin¬ued to be produced intermittently through 1929.
The quarter eagle was struck from 1908 through 1915 inclusive
at the Philadelphia Mint, and again from 1926 to 1929 inclusive.
The Denver Mint struck the Indian Head quarter eagle in 1911,1914
The Indian Head half eagle was struck at the Philadelphia
Mint from 1908 through 1915 inclusive, and again in 1929;
at the Denver Mint in 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911 and 1914; at
the San Francisco Mint from 1908, to 1916 inclusive; and at
the New Orleans Mint only in 1909.