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Coins of the Realm

When he was president, Theodore Roosevelt, a patron of arts and letters, commissioned the redesign of American coins, especially the small denominations in common circulation, from the penny to the dollar.

He was right to complain about the existing designs; at least about the nickel, the dime, the quarter, and the half. However, the Indian penny is, to my eye, easily the most beautiful of our cents: Miss Liberty on the obverse is an Indian princess, with a feather headdress and a coronet reading LIBERTY. The silver dollar designed by George T. Morgan—hence its popular name, the Morgan Dollar—is also striking, with the grand eagle on the reverse, wings outspread, clutching in its talons both the arrows of war and the olive branch of peace.

But the dime, the quarter, and the half all had the same pleasantly classical but unexceptional bust of Liberty on the obverse, and the nickel was pallid, too, its reverse dominated by a large Roman numeral V, for five cents. The word “cents” had to be added in 1883, the first year of the coin’s issue, because unscrupulous men in the hinterlands would plate the nickel with gold and pass it off for five dollars. I have one such, hardly touched by wear.

It is hard for us to imagine that ordinary people used to care about the design of public objects: coins, dollars, bridges, court houses, town halls, churches, schools, and even factories. We are...

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