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The Design and the Designer: Seated Liberty and Before

1838 Seated Liberty half dollar. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

1838 Seated Liberty half dollar. (Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

Mr. Christian Gobrecht, the 3rd Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, spent a lifetime as an artist, rising to the Chief Engraver post late in his career. He has left a legacy of beautiful coins and now-classic designs that are avidly sought by a large group of collectors today. His Seated Liberty design is arguably his most faamous, at least for collectors of classic United States silver. The other half of that argument can probably be made by serious collectors of United States gold – that his Liberty Head image, released in the late 1830’s – is his premier work. But let’s examine Mr. Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty image and do so from what might be a couple of intriguing new angles.

Mr. Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty

Prior to the unveiling of the Seated Liberty design, United States coins, be they copper, silver, or gold, were a parade of heads on the obverse and different eagle images on the reverse. The idea of any personified Lady Liberty on the obverse of our coins was something of a counter-argument or statement to the coins of European nations. Where kings ruled in those countries – and thus proclaimed it with their faces on coins – our coinage proclaimed that Liberty ruled our young land. Mr. Gobrecht certainly branched out from this, but only a bit really. While his figure is more than another head, it is still a personification of liberty, including the cap of a freeman, an ancient symbol, mounted on a pole nestled in the crook of her arm, and with the word “Liberty” prominently displayed on the shield at her hip.Serious collectors of any of the Seated Liberty denominations are aware that the design has one record to its name that will probably never be broken. This image has appeared on more denominations than any other in United States coinage. The total is six, and spans from the little half dime all the way up to the hefty silver dollar – and includes the short-lived 20¢ piece in there along with the dime, quarter, and half dollar. Serious aficionados of Mr. Gobrecht’s work are also aware that there are some variations to the image, most notably the addition of a bit of extra classical drapery at Lady Liberty’s elbow. Depending on the denomination and the date, small changes like this can add up to big ones in terms of prices.

A British Origin to the Design

A few of the well-known collector references note that the Seated Liberty figure may have served as the basis of the image seen on the United States trade dollar, another classic image that was unveiled almost three decades after Mr. Gobrecht had passed. But rather than speculate on this further, let’s go in the other direction in time. Let’s see what might have been the inspiration for his famous seated Liberty design.

Mr. Gobrecht was born in Hanover, Penn., back in 1785. As a young man, he did an apprenticeship in Manheim, Penn., and became proficient in producing the ornamental plating on various types of clocks. We should keep in mind that back then, a clock was much more a work of art than many of them are today, and an engraver was a necessary part of such a business. A clock not only had to tell time; it had to look good, and in so doing reflect the status of its owner.

Mr. Gobrecht’s shift from clocks to medal and coin design, and to a career as an artist for the Mint, appears to have started in 1823, although there might be some wiggle room there. Let’s use this date as an informal starting point however, and make note that by 1823, the British Mint had been pounding out large, copper cents since 1797. We had ended our Revolution a few years prior to Mr. Gobrecht’s birth, and had fought another war with Britain – the War of 1812 – when he was a young man, and so we can imagine that he had seen these large cents somewhere in his youth. Perhaps British soldiers had them, since any British paymaster would be expected to pay his men in coin whenever possible (it kept morale up!). We can’t be sure, but the image of Britannia as queen of the seas, seated with her trident in her left hand, and holding an olive branch in her right, while a shield with the Union Jack on it is next to her, looks quite a bit like our own Seated Liberty.

A Young United States Origin

The reason United States coinage has its origins in the 1790’s, when the Revolutionary War had concluded in 1783, was that right after the war, the Articles of Confederation were the governing document of the newly independent country – and they permitted each state to produce its own coins. As well, there were attempts by individuals to produce coins of their own for the new nation, or at least for their area.

What collectors now call the “Nova Eborac” coppers – the Latin for “New York” – were issued in these years between the end of the war and the start of a national Mint. Dated 1786, they sport a figure that still looks pretty much like a king on the obverse, but show a seated figure on the reverse, complete with a pole topped by a Liberty cap, and an olive branch. Plus, a shield is at the figure’s side.

Connecticut was another state that took up the idea of making their own coins, and produced quite a series, with the reverses being dominated by, guess what, a seated figure in what is called classical drapery, holding a pole topped with a Liberty cap, also holding what appears to be an olive branch, and seated by a shield. Dated 1788, these pieces are eagerly sought after by collectors of pre-Federal coinage, and can command high prices in high grades.

While there were plenty of other types of coins issued in this span of years, and there were quite a few other designs, it’s tough to think that Mr. Gobrecht never set eyes on any of them. Even if our quickly-stated theory about British paymasters doesn’t hold any water, it’s difficult to believe that a young Christian Gobrecht never had any of this small change in his pocket.

Before the Pre-Federal U.S. Coinage

It can be considered almost backwards to believe that the 1797 British pennies were influenced by pre-Federal U.S. coins, especially when Britain was still one of the biggest players on the world stage in the later 1700s and had a well-established Mint. So, hopping back to the other side of the Atlantic, we find that even though Great Britain had some rough times when it comes to producing coinage throughout the eighteenth century, the Royal Mint had been pounding out coppers in the early part of the century. They always sported the king’s royal noggin on the obverse. Does anyone care to guess what dominated the reverse?

A Century of Seated, Allegorical Figures

Whether it is a seated figure of Britannia, or a seated figure of Liberty, this image is one that had been shared by a nation and its colonies – then later by two nations – for more than a century when Mr. Gobrecht created the image we in the collector community enjoy so much today. No one has yet found documentation as direct as a daily journal in which he states something like, “The idea just came to me to dust off and upgrade the old seated figure from British coinage,” because it is unlikely that any such document exists. But it is almost impossible to think that an artist of Mr. Gobrecht’s caliber had no connection to the coins of an earlier time, and no appreciation for their beauty and their imagery.