The two cent piece is one of the oddball denominations that were once part of the American monetary system. Minted for only a brief period from 1864-1873, the coins are now largely forgotten and if encountered are generally considered to be something unusual that is hard to imagine as having ever been used in commerce. Yet the two cent piece does have the distinction of having been the very first coin to display the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST.” It is also the only other coin besides the one cent piece that was made out of copper for circulation after the 1850’s (the half cent was also made out of copper, as was the large cent both discontinued in 1856.) As such it certainly is an historical coin to consider. The design includes many features that can be discussed individually, each with a different background and history.
First of all we have to note that like many other designs introduced in this time period, the two cent piece was designed by James Barton Longacre, fourth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint from 1844 until his death in 1868. Besides the two cent piece, he had also created designs such as the Indian Head Cent and the Liberty Double Eagle, which are fairly well known to the American public even if they are only vaguely familiar with classic United States coinage.
When looking at a two cent piece in hand there are several design features that stand out and which trace their history back to Ancient times. First of all, on the obverse, is a large shield. The shield, often seen on 19th century American coinage, signifies the arms of the nation. We have to remember that this coin was designed and introduced in the middle of the American Civil War, and features such as those are very important when placed in their correct time frame.
There are also other design elements present on the obverse. Behind the shield we see two small branches, of what appears to be an olive tree. The casual observer might never notice that most of our coins feature some sort of olive branch in one shape or fashion, although there are exceptions. Yet, it has grown to become an important element not only one coins but also on seals, as the majority of United States seals feature an olive branch as well. The reason for this dates once again back to antiquity, when it was used in Greece and later spread throughout Europe, signifying peace and victory. The use of olive branches was found in bridal ceremonies, where they were worn by brides, sporting events (given to winners of the Olympics), and extensively in Greek mythology. Early Christian art also features olive branches, often paired with a dove, symbol of peace. It was this meaning that was prevalent and commonly accepted in both Britain and America in the late 19th century, eventually dropping the dove and while still retaining its original meaning of peace and victory.
Perhaps the most important part of the obverse design and the one that would eventually see usage on virtually every piece of coin and currency is found on a scroll above the shield. This is the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST”. The motto would eventually be adopted as the official motto of the United States (in 1956), but first appeared on United States coinage on the two cent piece presently discussed. Some interesting impressions concerning the two cent piece and its motto can be found in a letter from Mint director Pollock to Secretary of the Treasury Chase, partially reprinted in Don Taxay’s book The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Regarding the design Pollock writes:
“The devices are beautiful and appropriate, and the motto on each such, as all who fear God and love their country, will approve…They are submitted for your consideration”.
Since its first appearance on United States coinage the motto has been subject of much debate. The motto appears to have originated from the original Star-Spangled Banner, where the exact wording occurs. It was one of two mottoes considered at the time, the other being GOD OUR TRUST, which is found on a number of patterns for this and other denominations, but would never make it onto circulating coins. The larger silver and gold denominations would see the addition of “IN GOD WE TRUST” shortly after the Civil War, when the Seated Liberty and Liberty designs were altered to add a scroll with this motto.
The reverse of the coin features a main element that is encountered on other coins as well. Most notable is a wreath, tied on the bottom with a ribbon, and only displaying a small opening on the top. The wreath contains wheat stalks, as well as what appear to be corn leaves. The wreath is an ancient symbol of strength, still used at sporting events were winners generally get a wreath placed around their neck after their victory. Other uses of wreaths have been found throughout both the ancient and modern world, such as on doorposts were they are generally used as good luck charms. Finally one will recognize its use at funerals, where they are often placed on the grave, representing eternal life. Once again this is a custom that dates back to ancient Greece, although there is no relationship with the victory/strength wreath found on the two cent piece.
Other design elements on both the obverse and reverse include the date on the obverse, the denomination on the reverse as well as the mandatory UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The obverse design would be used in slightly altered form in 1866, when the Shield Nickel was introduced, also designed by Longacre. Other design elements had a history which dated back to the earliest US coins (such as the wreath) or which would leave a lasting impression on United States coin and currency (the motto “In God We Trust”). As such the design of the two cent piece is very interesting, not only because it dates back to an important part of American history (the American Civil War) but also because it tells us a bit how certain design elements become rooted in American coinage.