This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The Phrygian cap, a soft cap worn on the head with the top pulled forward, has been a symbol of liberty and freedom since Roman times. Freed slaves of the era wore the cap to denote their status. Also known as a Liberty cap, it was seen during the French Revolution, and has been used in other cultures, including many countries in the Americas.
A beautiful medal, called the Libertas Americana medal, was engraved in Paris, France, in 1782, using designs, mottoes and concepts by Benjamin Franklin. This lovely and symbolic piece bears a portrait of a young Liberty with flowing hair, with a Liberty cap on a pole. The early coinage designs were undoubtedly inspired by this medal; a collector only has to compare a 1793 half cent obverse with the obverse of this medal.
The Liberty cap was seen on many early federal coins, and at least one Colonial coin, either worn by Miss Liberty, or displayed on a pole. The “Immune Columbia” pieces of 1785 show a Liberty cap on a pole. Besides the half cent, some large cents of 1793 bear a Liberty cap design, showing Liberty facing the opposite way as on the half cent. Type collectors and large cent specialists know that of the three major design types of 1793, the Liberty cap large cent is the rarest. This design was used on half cents from 1794-1797, and on large cents from 1793-1796.
The Capped Bust silver coins of the early 19th century show Liberty with long, curly hair, wearing a large Liberty cap, inscribed with the word, “Liberty.” The first gold coins of the 1790s show a matronly looking Liberty wearing the cap, with hair twirled around it; later years of the quarter eagle and half eagle show a Liberty head similar to the Capped Bust design. The Liberty portrait was changed to a head and not a bust in later years, a rare and desirable type known to gold type collectors.
Seated Liberty coins also utilize the Liberty cap, held on a pole by Miss Liberty. Some new collectors and those unfamiliar with coins have called this a “flag,” when it is actually the Liberty cap displayed on a pole.
Barber silver coinage show a mannish looking Liberty wearing the cap on her head, along with a laurel wreath, a symbol of victory. The popular Morgan dollar shows a Liberty head adorned with a Liberty cap, with bolls of cotton and stalks of wheat.
Coins of the modern era do not display the Liberty cap often; its symbolism is largely forgotten. The Mercury dime, actually a “winged Liberty head” dime, shows a portrait of Liberty wearing a cap with wings, to symbolize liberty of thought. A medal by the artist, Adolph Weinman, shows this same motif on a Liberty head strikingly similar to that used on the famous dime.
The last regular issue United States coin showing a Liberty cap was the Walking Liberty half dollar, last minted in 1947; Miss Liberty wears the cap, but it’s hard to spot on a casual glance, as Liberty is shown in full figure, walking toward a rising sun. This attractive design, called the most beautiful of all silver coinage designs, was brought back in 1986 for use on the one-ounce silver American Eagle, and is being used to this day.
Caps being worn and displayed on poles were seen on American coinage, but the Liberty cap was a major design component on a few notable patterns. A pattern for a gold dollar, made in 1836, shows a Liberty cap by itself, on the obverse, surrounded by rays. This design was used in an 1836 Mint medal, commemorating the beginning of steam coinage on Feb. 22 of that year. This lovely pattern is available in a number of different metals, including gold, silver and oroide, an alloy resembling gold. It is also relatively plentiful, as far as patterns go, with 60 or so specimens in all metals known to exist.
The resplendent Liberty cap design was also used for another pattern, one for a three-cent piece, in 1850.
The Liberty cap can also be seen on a number of foreign coins, notably issues of Mexico and France. The French Revolution broke out just 13 years after the American Revolution and the participants also looked to classical antiquity as their inspiration.
The Mexican coins bear a strong resemblance to the Liberty cap design used on the pattern coinage. Collectors interested in the Liberty cap on coins can search for many different coins and medals from different countries.
This classical motif is not seen often in modern times, but its symbolism lives on for numismatists who appreciate the Liberty cap, and what it stood for, in the early years of America and its coinage.