[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, Gloria Peters & Cynthia Mohon. This information was originally published in 1995 in The Complete Guide to Shield and Liberty Head Nickels
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James Barton Longacre
James Barton Longacre, born in 1794, escaped the life of a farmer by leaving his Dela-ware County, Penn., home when he was 12 years old. His mother died when he was very young and his father, a Swedish immigrant, had remarried. Longacre sought the anonymity and opportunities of the growing city of Philadelphia. He apprenticed himself at a bookstore where his employer, John E. Watson, soon recognized his talent as a portraitist. Watson promoted a second apprenticeship for Longacre with engraver George Murray so that the young man could further his artistic skills. Longacre showed increasing talent, and his portraits of Washington, Jefferson and Hancock were included in an 1818 facsimile of The Declaration of Independence. Trading upon his growing reputation, Longacre started his own business in 1819, a short distance from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. One of his projects during this period was a nine-volume collection called “Biographies of the Signers of The Declaration of Independence.” The sales of this set of books was largely the result of Longacre’s fine work as an engraver.
Longacre’s next project, a partnership, was publication of the four-volume “The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans,” which had 144 plates by 26 engravers. His portraits were initially sketched from life, enabling him to meet a number of politically powerful persons, among them John C. Calhoun.
In July 1836 a specie circular was issued ordering federal land agents to accept only gold or silver when selling public lands. As a result, land sales fell sharply, precipitating the financial panic of 1837. Longacre’s portion of the sales of “The Gallery” were badly impacted and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. By this time, he had a wife and 3 children, with another due shortly. (Ultimately Longacre and his wife Eliza [Stiles] had a family of five.) He sold his shop and began traveling, peddling his works wherever he could.
In 1844 the office of chief engraver became available at the Mint due to the unexpected death of Christian Gobrecht. Longacre sought the appointment and with the backing of Calhoun, then Secretary of State, he was appointed chief engraver on September 16, 1844. It is unlikely that Longacre would have wanted this employment in the field of coin designing and die sinking, as it was outside his area of expertise, had it not been for his financial need and his strong sense of responsibility to his family.
At first he seemed well-received by Mint Director, Robert Patterson, who described him in a letter dated August 20, 1845: “The present incumbent, Mr. Longacre, is a gentleman of excellent character, highly regarded in this community, and has acquired some celebrity as an engraver of copper; but he is not a Die-Sinker. Indeed I do not know that he has ever made an attempt in this art. For the mere routine work of the Mint, however, it is not required. So long as one can rest contented with our present coins, the making of dies used for the Mints will be a mere mechanical operation, and the office of Engraver little more than a sinecure.”
Later that year, Patterson wrote:
“The present incumbent in the office of Engraver of the Mint, a Mr. Longacre, has shown, as I think, more taste and judgment in making devices for an improved coinage here than have been exhibited by any of his predecessors. He has shown too that he is quite competent to make the required models from his drawings, and he is now engaged in this work.”
Eventually, problems arose between Longacre, Chief Coiner Franklin Peale and Patterson. According to Taxay’s The U.S. Mint and Coinage, Peale was allegedly involved in a number of “irregularities” at the Mint including illegal use of employees for outside work and minting of medals for sale privately. The ethical Longacre performed his duties in a quiet, non-critical way; however, soon either complicity or confrontation became his only choices. He refused to go along with these activities. The consequences were accusations, sabotage of his work, complaints about his ability, lack of cooperation and on-going harassment.
Q. David Bowers, in his United States Silver Dollar and Trade Dollar, Vol. 1, states:
“Longacre was to become a controversial figure at the Mint (partly because of John C. Calhoun’s help in obtaining the engravership) and was the subject of several notable disagreements with his superiors. Today in numismatics it is fashionable for scholars to call Longacre incompetent or worse (despite the excellence of his designs for the Flying Eagle Cent, $3, double eagle, and many patterns), and to lay at his doorstep many of the date-punching blunders that occurred during his tenure, the 1844-0 Doubled Date and 1846 6 over horizontal 6 half dollars being two notable examples. It is not really known whether or not he was responsible for such errors.”
During his term of office, Longacre was assisted by several other engravers, including Anthony Paquet, who served as an assistant engraver from 1857 to 1864. William H. Key, from Brooklyn, succeeded Paquet and served for several years. T.F. Cross, a native of Sheffield, England, also worked for several years with Longacre.
For the first five years Longacre was primarily involved with die production. Richard Snow’s Flying Eagle and Indian Cents book reports:
“Pressure was not on Longacre for the first five years, as all that was required was die manufacture. The mundane work of die production was, when possible, delegated to assistants. This accounts for the many die errors found in these years. Longacre was somewhat of a perfectionist in his own work, but failed to instill this trait in his subordinates. … Longacre’s diary notes that he used outside sources for various punches.”
In 1849 Longacre produced the first dies for two new issues, the double eagle and the gold dollar. He created a new face of Liberty showing fresh strength and beauty. He used a similar head with a different headdress in 1854 on the $3 gold piece, in 1865 on the nickel 3-cent coins, and on the Indian Head cents of 1859.
Meanwhile, complaints from Peale escalated about Longacre’s alleged lack of ability as a die sinker. The first dies for the double eagle were completed in 1849 and Peale criticized them, writing to complain to Patterson that the coins “cannot be brought up by the usual coining process. The depth of the head of the obverse is such, that the steel will not sustain the pressure necessary for a perfect impression. To this is to be added the minor disadvantage of the head beyond the border of the coin, preventing its being ‘piled’ (as it is technically expressed) and exposing it to abrasion.”
According to Walter Breen, the sole surviving specimen of a double eagle pattern, which resides in the Smithsonian, apparently shows no evidence of these problems. In December 1849 Patterson suggested to Treasury Secretary Meredith that C.C. Wright might be a suitable replacement for Longacre. Longacre completed new dies and Peale refused to strike any examples so that Longacre could judge their quality. When Peale finally did strike the trials he once again told Longacre that they were unsatisfactory. Pushed beyond his tolerance, Longacre wrote Patterson to describe the problems he was having. Patterson’s response was to call Longacre into his office to tell the engraver that he was shortly to be removed from office and to advise Longacre to resign before that occurred. Longacre chose to fight back and traveled to Washington to appeal to Meredith. Longacre retained his job, thanks to his perseverance. A lesser man would have surely surrendered in the face of the odds. Patterson never forgave him and continued to complain about the imperfection of the double eagle die design.
The bulk of Longacre’s work was ahead. He worked for 15 more years at the Mint, producing new coinage designs that included the small cent, 2-cent, silver 3-cent, nickel 3-cent, gold dollar, gold 3-dollar and the double eagle. Longacre altered designs to show the change in the metallic content of the coins as required by the Mint Act of February 21, 1853. He added rays to the reverse of the half and quarter dollar dies; and added arrows at the date to the obverse of the halves, quarters and lesser denominations. The rays on the reverse of the coins were later removed because they shortened the life of the dies.
In 1856 he designed the flying eagle cent design, drawing heavily on the drawings and designs of Titan Peale and Christian Gobrecht. Two years later, Longacre designed one of the most popular of his circulating coin designs, the Indian head cent. A persistent and untruthful account of his inspiration for the Indian cent was that his oldest daughter Sarah, visiting his workroom, donned a war bonnet and, captivated, he sketched it for the new coin. There are several points that give the lie to this charming but fallacious story: 1) Sarah was not a young girl at the time that the drawings were done; 2) the headdress was taken from drawings of Indians, not an actual model. The similarity of Sarah’s profile to the one on the coin more likely came from the tendency of any artist to create features that he admires, and Sarah certainly had the Longacre profile with the straight family nose.
Longacre’s 2-cent piece and Shield nickel were unique in the designs of American coinage, as were his 3- cent pieces. Longacre also has the honor of designing the first coin with the motto “In God We Trust,” which was subsequently a standard of all U.S. coins. Among his other credits must be added that he re-designed the Chilean coinage in 1867, receiving $2000 for this private contract.
In 1867, Longacre worked to improve the 5-cent design. He made a number of patterns, but the only significant change was removal of the rays from the reverse.
Longacre died on New Year’s Day 1869.