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The U.S. mint is rethinking nearly two centuries of coin design

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This year, the U.S. Mint releases new quarters. They honor people like Maya Angelou, Wilma Mankiller and Eleanor Roosevelt, and the redesign gave the mint a chance to rethink some odd little details of U.S. coins. Here's Dave Blanchard of NPR's Planet Money podcast.

DAVE BLANCHARD, BYLINE: Our journey into the history of U.S. coin design started with this somewhat innocuous listener question.

RANDY SIMPSON: Hi, Planet Money. This is Randy Simpson from Livermore, Calif. Have you ever noticed there are not numbers on U.S. coins? Instead, we spell out one cent, five cents and quarter dollar. So, Planet Money, maybe you can solve this important mystery.

BLANCHARD: We love a good mystery, so we decided to pull at this thread by talking to Dennis Tucker. He studies coins and money - a.k.a., he's a numismatist.

You have a culprit.

DENNIS TUCKER: (Laughter) Well, I don't know if I would call him a culprit, but he's certainly a character of note. And his name is Christian Gobrecht.

BLANCHARD: Christian Gobrecht was an artist born in the 1780s in Pennsylvania, and growing up, he was always drawing in journals and sketchbooks.

TUCKER: He was, really, pretty talented. And if you happened to be an artist in Philadelphia, then you would catch the eye of mint officials, as he did.

BLANCHARD: So, Christian Gobrecht goes to work for the mint, and he wants to become the chief engraver. But when that position opens up, he's passed over. Instead, he gets this consolation prize. He's asked to be the second engraver.

TUCKER: It's during this period that Gobrecht starts to come up with all of these coin designs that are a radical departure from what others before him had done.

BLANCHARD: Like, before Gobrecht, American coins had these formal, traditional designs - usually a woman in profile. She was the personification of liberty. Gobrecht proposed something new.

TUCKER: His design was fresh. It was a full figure of liberty. You know, she's seated, and she's very much in control of her destiny and her surroundings.

BLANCHARD: She has this casual posture, flowing robes. She feels more human. And the mint adopts it for, like, all of their silver coins. It becomes known as the liberty seated design. And more to the point of our listener Randy's question, there was another radical departure in Gobrecht's design - how the numbers were written.

TUCKER: Before Gobrecht, it was a combination of numerals and abbreviated cent signs, for example. So a half dime, which was a denomination back in the day, would have been five C period. Gobrecht changed that to half dime, spelled out.

BLANCHARD: Now, we don't know why Gobrecht made this change. But Dennis has a theory. Gobrecht didn't get the job he wanted. Remember? He was only the second engraver.

TUCKER: Maybe some of his artistic innovation was a way to strike back at that and just kind of say, I'm not your grandfather's coin designer. You know, I'm a modern artist, and here's how I'm going to interpret modern coinage.

BLANCHARD: The thing is, once a style is established, it sticks. The numeral design has now lasted for some 200 years. Pull some change out of your pocket, those little written out numbers on your coins - that's Gobrecht. But there are these American women quarters being released over the next few years, and the mint is trying to allow for a little more artistic creativity, including allowing the artists to go with a numeral design if they want to. And if that happens, it'll upend nearly two centuries of tradition that started with Christian Gobrecht, which feels, frankly, a little Gobrechtian (ph).

Dave Blanchard, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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