[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, John Feigenbaum. This information was originally published in 1994 in The Complete Guide to Washington Quarters.]
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By Charles E. Kirtley
No figure or subject in American history has been commemorated in medallic art more than George Washington. Starting while he was still in office, the first President has been portrayed on coins, tokens, medals, plaques, patterns and badges.
The earliest medallic portraits of Washington are found on our early coinage. There is an extensive list of early coppers portraying Washington, which were struck mainly in Great Britain. Some of the more familiar early issues include the Washington series of Colonial coinage, some early pattern coins issued by Robert Birch and early medals commemorating events in the Revolution. The most famous of these is the “Washington Before Boston” medal which was struck in France in 1786 (pictured below). The obverse shows a bust of Washington and his soldiers as they prepared to retake Boston from the British during the Revolutionary War. A gold specimen was presented to Washington himself and now resides in the Boston Historical Society. So popular was this medal that it was re-struck many times, and a version is still being made for collectors at the U.S. Mint.
The popular “Washington Before Boston” medal, originally struckin France in 1786,
is still being produced today by the U.S. Mint. Actual size: 68mm in diameter.
(Courtesy Charles Kirtley)
Washington’s death in 1799 sparked an outpouring of medallic tributes to his life and to commemorate the nation’s loss. The most important of the medals at this time were the funeral medals issued in 1799 and 1800 when his passing was publicly mourned in Boston funeral processions. The 1799 procession was commemorated by a funeral medal with a skull and crossbones on its reverse. This type was worn by the Masons who participated in the parade. The second type has a funeral urn on its reverse and was worn in the public parade in 1800. Both types depict Washington’s bust facing left within a wreath. The legend: “HE IS IN GLORY, THE WORLD IN TEARS.” encircles the wreath.
Following the Colonial period, Washington was often seen on trade tokens, his bust on one side and a merchant’s advertisement on the other. These medallic emissions were most numerous during the Civil War when literally hundreds of different tokens were made bearing a likeness of Washington.
During the Centennial of our country in 1876 there was a large outpouring of medallic issues commemorating events surrounding the birth of our country. George Washington is prominent in this series. One of the more popular issues is a medal showing him refusing to be crowned king.
Another event that precipitated many Washington medallic portraits was the centennial of his inauguration in 1889. Some of the more interesting issues include a famous portrait of Washington by Augustus St. Gaudens, designer of the $20 gold piece minted from 1907-1933.
The 20th century saw Washington’s popularity remain high in medallic tributes. Many commemoratives were issued by numismatists like Max Schwartz, Stack’s, Thomas Elder and by Numismatic News. Others were made by merchants who used Washington’s likeness on the advertising tokens.
In 1932 a large number of medals and store cards were issued at the 150th anniversary of the first inauguration. The U.S. Mint also produced a medal in conjunction with its release of the new Washington quarter. This date also coincided with the New York World’s Fair and with the Golden Gate International Exposition. Both events served as venues for large numbers of Washington material to be issued and distributed.
Most recently, large quantities of Washingtonia issues occurred during the U.S Bicentennial commemoration in 1976, with private mints, governments and others issuing coins, medals and bars depicting the first president.
The 1932 celebration was sanctioned and sponsored by the U.S. government. Other officially-sponsored issues include the U.S. Mint medal designed by Laura Gardin Fraser, who had also been a leading contender in the design for the quarter.
Medallic portraits of Washington are still being turned out today. Many private mints have issued medals depicting Washington, events in his life, and historic events in which he played a part. In the field of token and medal collecting, Washingtonia remains one of the most avidly sought after subjects.
For further reading on this subject, see “Medallic Portraits of Washington,” by Russell Rulau.
Charles E. Kirtley is an authority on American medals, tokens and related items. He operates a retail/mail-bid operation in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
This medal, designed by Laura Gardin Fraser, was minted and distributed in 1932
in conjunction with the release of the new Washington quarter. Actual size is 56mm in diameter.
(Courtesy Charles Kirtley)