Mint History - 1792

October 1792

The following article appeared under the title "Thoughts on Coinage" in The American Museum, or Universal Magazine, For October 1792, Volume 12, No. 4, pp. 203-204.  The unnamed author's proposal to use incuse designs on United States coins was unheeded and remained forgotten until 1908, when Bela Lyon Pratt's incuse designs appeared on the Indian Head Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles! - magazine provided by Early American History Auctions, Inc.

Foreign coins now in circulation among us, and indeed in general the coin of every nation, is roughly executed. Artists of little merit have been employed in cutting the dies, or if artists of eminence have been employed, they have not exerted their talents, not even in the execution of the precious metal coins. The labour of cutting an indifferent die, and that necessary to execute one with care, is nearly the same -- more talent only is requisite to execute the latter; which talent, once handsomely paid for, repeats itself in every coin struck with that die; and to coin from an indifferent die is as expensive, as to coin from one better executed.  A coinage from dies executed by artists of eminence, might perpetuate, as well as medals, remarkable events.

Independent of this consideration, a more weighty reason operates in favour of executing with extraordinary care, the coins of the united states, the security which such care would afford against forgery.

The business of die-cutting, in any considerable degree of perfection, is a difficult art, requiring a considerable share of natural talent, well improved by a knowledge of drawing, and long experience in it. This is evident from the very limited number of eminent artists in this line, even in Europe. Hence will arise the difficulty of finding persons able to counterfeit a well-executed coin; which difficulty arises nearly to an impossibility, when it is considered, that artists of eminence will be exposed to few temptations, to deviate from an upright line of life, to pursue one highly criminal: besides, in case of a forgery, the probability of being detected becomes greater, as the number of persons capable of executing it is smaller. This would deter, even if bad principle, distressed circumstances, and great talent in a difficult business, could be found united in one person.

Coins, in their usual form, subject the state to considerable loss by friction. The prominent and rough surfaces of the emblems on them, are much exposed to friction, and by coming repeatedly into contact, are soon defaced, with a loss of weight to the coin, as well as of its whole beauty. This last would be a serious objection, if the coin was the work of an eminent artist, so executed as to prevent counterfeiting.

To avoid these inconveniences of coins with emblems in relievo, it is proposed that to strike them in cavo. Then plain and smooth surfaces will come in contact, instead of prominent and rough -- the friction will be less, owing to the polish of the rubbing surfaces; it will produce less effect in wearing, owing to the greater quantity of surface in contact, and what is rubbed off by friction, will less affect the beauty of the coin.

The optical effect produced by a medal in relievo, and one in cavo, is the same, and they are not to be distinguished at a distance, without attention to the place whence the light strikes them.

One inconvenience, it may be said, would arise from coin on the proposed plan. It could not be handled with so much celerity, as it would lie closer to any plane surface than the common coin. To obviate this inconvenience, it is proposed to make the edge rouning, and, to avoid friction, smooth, and the ornaments on it also in cavo.