By Frank Colletti
For just a moment let us travel back in time to 1921. The United States had just finished its part in one of the bloodiest wars in the history of the world. The Great War had ended three years before and it was a time before we learned to count wars with Roman numerals. Three years earlier, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918 (11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918) an armistice was signed terminating hostilities between the combatants in Europe. Peace had broken out, but not before 8,626,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians had died as a direct result of the war.
[This number does not include the large number of soldiers and civilians who died as a result of the great influenza epidemic that swept the world during that time.]
Certainly, the United States was not one of the great losers of manpower during the war, having lost “only” 48,000 men, compared to Germany’s 1,800,000. However, we entered the war during a period when the U.S. was struggling over the contrary ideals of getting involved in a foreign matter versus strict isolationism. Thankfully for history, the U.S. did get involved, and, as a result, the war ended on a positive note for the Allied Powers. The result of the U.S.’s actions was a turning away from involvement in world activity and a desire to look inward. Reflective of this desire, the Peace dollar was born.
Designed by Anthony De Francisci, the Peace dollar was originally designed as a commemorative coin. Accordingly to R.S. Yeoman, it could have easily been a half dollar, and this is borne out by simply looking and seeing the large number of commemorative coins that were being issued during that period.
The coin, believed by many to be one of the most beautiful coins that the United States has ever produced, was minted in two major types. In the original year of issue, 1921, the coin was struck in high relief. That is, the coin was struck with extra pressure and, possibly, struck twice, in order for all of the coin’s design to be properly struck. This design was deemed impractical for general coinage and the relief was lowered in 1922. In later years’ issues, the coin is frequently struck so poorly that many of the letters on the reverse of the coin are difficult to read, even on Uncirculated pieces.
But what did the designer create? The obverse of the coin shows a figure of Liberty with rays emanating from her hair. Although, as Walter Breen states, it is similar to figures on old Roman coins, the designer used the figure of his wife, Teresa, to symbolize Liberty as displayed on the Statue of Liberty, which had been installed only 34 years earlier. Much may be made of the fact that Liberty is looking toward the West. Although this may be emblematic of the United States’ westward expansion over the last century, it is more likely that it was designed in simple conformity with the direction that the coins had faced since the introduction of the Seated Liberty design in 1836.
The reverse of the coin is more important for our discussion of the “Peace” element of the coin. The original design that de Francisci proposed was that of an eagle breaking a sword, however, the Commission on Fine Arts felt that this could be interpreted as defeat rather than peace and rejected the model. The revised model showed an eagle perched on a lone mountain clutching an olive branch of peace in its talons and the word “PEACE” inscribed on the mountain peak.
What is the symbolism of the lone mountain peak? Perhaps much may be made that after the U.S.’s involvement in the Great War that we no longer wished to be involved in world affairs. This is evident in our rejection of the League of Nations, which we had proposed and then did not join. Or, perhaps the artist simply thought that the design looked better if it was not crowded.
However, as we look at the reverse of the coin, it is apparent that the eagle is facing into the East, and the dawn. Is it possible that this could represent the “dawn of a new age” for man? The dawn may also be thought of as the start of something new. In this case, the end of the old, with the defeat of Germany and the end of the war, and a bright new future. The Peace dollar went into regular production with the continuation of the design in 1922, although the high relief of the design was considerably lowered in order to extend the die life. Unbelievably, the relief was lowered by the Mint engraver, George Morgan, by hammering the original electroplate model flat with a board. Perhaps this was Morgan’s manner of getting even for the new design’s superseding his design, which had been in production since 1878 (the “Morgan dollar”).
Although the dollar was in production until 1935, with a hiatus from 1929 until 1933, there are no true rarities in the regular production issues. Even without any rarities, ie. low mintage, there are many very highly priced issues in the series if you wish to collect high grade and well-struck pieces. The 1934-S is listed at $4,200 in Mint State 63 [MS-63] and soars to $8,750 in MS-65. Still, a very presentable collection may be amassed in extremely fine condition for a modest cost, with only three dates, the 1921, 1928, and the 1934-S, costing more than $100.00 each. The entire set in extremely fine would cost only $1,184.00, while a set in MS-60, a very nice Uncirculated grade, would cost over $5,670.00.
Breen, Walter, Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. And Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press Inc.,
Doubleday, New York, 1988.
Coin World Comprehensive Catalog & Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins, World Almanac,
New York, 1990.Gilbert, Martin, The First World War, A Complete History, Henry Holt and Company,
New York, 1994.
Yeoman, R.S., A Guide Book of United States Coins, 64th Edition, 2011, Western
Publishing LLC, Atlanta, GA 2010