Shields have been in use since ancient times and known since medieval times as a display of a family coat of arms. Knights carried their shields into battle. The shield is still known as a powerful symbol and a meaningful object in heraldry.
It is not widely known that shields come in a variety of different shapes. The shapes include the edged, the badge, the elegant, the ornate, the classic, and the continental, among others. Historians believe that the shape was determined by the time period and the region in was used. Modern heraldry artists choose shapes to suit the design.
Many U.S. coins use the shield on coins dating back to Colonial times. With a new Union Shield design in use this year on the cent, it is time to think about them all. The shield on the new cent is called “emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and unified country.” The Union Shield, as it is called, was in use during the Civil War; it appears on frescoes in the halls of the United States Capitol.
The use of a shield on U.S. coins is nothing new, as copper coins of New Jersey bore a shield on the reverse, along with the familiar legend, “E Pluribus Unum.” The coins were minted in 1786, in New Jersey and New York. The 1787 Excelsior coinage of New York showed an eagle with a shield on its breast, while the Massachusetts cents and half cents of the same year also had an eagle with shield design.
Many Washington pieces of the post-colonial era have designs using a shield. The 1792 “Washington President” coins depict an eagle bearing a shield on its breast. The Getz patterns also depict a similar design, some with a large eagle with a large edged shield. The “Liberty and Security” tokens show a different looking shield, divided in two; the edged shield shows stripes on one side and stars on the other.
Early federal coinage included silver coinage of the heraldic eagle design, appropriately named, as this design shows an eagle bearing a shield on its breast. The shield is of the edged design, and is seen on the silver coins from tiny half dimes to large silver dollars.
Capped Bust coinage of the early 19th century show an eagle with a shield on its breast. Seated Liberty coinage, minted from 1837-1891, have a seated Liberty figure holding a shield, while the reverse of the silver coins shows an eagle with a shield on its breast; shields appear on both obverse and reverse. The shields used on Seated coinage are of the edged shape, probably the most common shape seen on United States coinage.
The two-cent piece, first minted in 1864 and the first U.S. coin with the motto “In God We Trust,” had an attractive obverse design with a large shield of the elegant shape. The shield design has been called quite similar to that used on the first nickel, the Shield nickel, but a close study shows that the shield used on the nickel in 1866 is more ornate, with a fancier edge.
Coins that use a shield as a major device bear a closer look. Engraving within the shield itself shows fine lines going across, or going up and down. This engraving is a way of depicting color, blue and red in the case of United States shields. The color depiction is seen even on the issues of the 1780s.
The elegant shield is also seen on the Indian cents of 1860-1909 at the top of the wreath on the reverse. A more ornate shield is seen on the silver three-cent piece of 1851-1873, emblazoned atop a star on the obverse.
Miss Liberty, as she is seen on the Standing Liberty quarter, actually holds a shield in her left arm, in an attitude of protection. Her drapery uncovers the round shield, which has a rendering of a United States shield on it. Liberty’s right hand holds an olive branch of peace, giving the message that peace is desired, but prepare for war. This coin, considered one of the most beautiful U.S. coins, was issued just after World War I in 1916.
The Liberty Head gold double eagle also shows an eagle with a shield on its breast. This shield appears a bit different, more ornamental, after the motto, “In God We Trust,” was added in 1866. The quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle of the era all depict the familiar eagle with shield on the reverse.
The modern Kennedy half dollar shows an eagle with a shield on its breast, modeled after the Presidential seal. No state quarters bear a design with a shield, although a few modern commemoratives do include a shield as a part of the design. A large shield containing 13 stars is seen on the 1992 Olympic silver dollar, with a somewhat different shield used on the 1994 Capitol dollar. The 1992 shield is more of the edged design, while the 1994 shield shows the stars arranged differently, is smaller, and is more similar to the elegant shape.
Older commemoratives, too, utilized the shield on a few coins. The Gettysburg half dollar of 1936 shows classic-shaped shields of the Union and Confederacy, separated by a bundle of fasces. The 1915 Panama-Pacific half dollar shows an eagle atop a shield.
Some of the loveliest and most popular pattern coins bear a shield as part of their design. The Amazonian quarter, half dollar and dollar are considered to be some of the most beautiful coins that were never regular issues. This design shows Liberty bearing a shield and a sword, with an eagle by her side. The reverse also shows an eagle with a shield.
A favorite design among pattern specialists was used in 1875, for a 20-cent piece. A simple shield bearing the number 20 appears on the reverse. Another famous design is known as the “shield earring” design; Miss Liberty actually wears the shield on her ear.
The concept of a “shield cent” is nothing new. Patterns for a shield cent (and a new shield nickel) were issued in 1896. The edged shield on this piece has a ribbon across it, with the word “Liberty,” with two poles in back of the shield, supporting a Liberty cap and an eagle. Both the cents and the nickels were struck in a variety of metals. One of the cents, struck in nickel, was sold in 2004 as an “impaired proof.”
A shield has been used for centuries as a way to display a family crest or coat of arms. Coins of the United States utilize the shield in many different shapes and different ways. The shield bearing the stars and stripes of the United States is proudly displayed on coins to this day, and likely will be used for many years to come.