I came across a thread on the Collectors Society message boards about a slabbed medal whose design was based on a sketch by US Mint engraver and artist George T. Morgan. The sketch was found by researchers in 2002 at the Smithsonian Institute. It was buried in the pages of a sketchbook Morgan used to draw design ideas. This sketch was an 1876 idea for the grandest of all coins, a coin with such a high denomination that the design had to be the most beautiful ever proposed. It was the design for a $100 Union gold coin.

There appears to be very little written about the coin or why Morgan sketched the design. In 2005, the Smithsonian entered into a deal with the New York Mint to strike private issue gold and silver proof medals based on the design. The New York Mint struck 999 one-ounce gold proof medals, had them certified by NGC, and housed them in a cherry-wood box whose cover has a replica the original Morgan sketch. These medals are sold out. The New York Mint continues to sell a 1½-ounce silver proof coin also certified by NGC issued in a velvet pouch.

Morgan’s design features Miss Liberty, sitting on what appears to be bales of cotton, next to stalks of wheat, on the banks of a river with the mountains in the background. She is holding an olive branch in her left hand and a caduceus on a long staff in her right. Although we think of the caduceus as a medical symbol, it has a history dating back to ancient Greece as an astrological symbol of commerce and attributed to Hermes. It was a symbol to show the Greek authority over trading (the long staff) with the strength to enforce its authority (the wings), with the wisdom to not abuse its power (the snakes). The symbolism is interesting given the history of its use.

Snakes, or serpents, have a long history of being symbols for deceit or other negative symbols. But in ancient Greece, the serpents were a symbol of wisdom and even strength that would inspire the thinkers of the time. Since wisdom can have differing views, two snakes were used to symbolize the balance achieved by considering opposing forces. Interestingly, the Rod of Asclepius was the symbol of healing used by Asclepius, the son of Apollo, and uses one snake to symbolize rebirth—as the snake sheds and re-grows its skin—and fertility.

In later years, the Pagans were known to be fascinated by the mysticism of snakes. Pagan leaders liked to control the masses and adopted the snakes as a sinister representation of wisdom. The practice lead to snakes becoming a representation of the mystics whose faux wisdom was used to empower the animal’s handlers. The handlers would train the snakes to attack on command, which were used as threats to those who would not believe. When the crusades were fought against the Pagans, snake handlers would use their skills to attack Christian soldiers. As the Pagans were defeated and converted to Catholicism, papal edicts banned the use of snakes in all religious ceremonies and symbols. Even though the church had compromised with Pagans and many others to facilitate conversion, the church was adamant about not allowing snakes as part of any religious ceremonies.

When Morgan arrived in the United States from his native Great Britain in 1876, the dominant design on US coinage was seen on the Seated Liberty coins and the Trade Dollar. The Seated Liberty design appears to be based on Britannia with American symbols. Britannia is an allegorical symbol of Great Britain who holds a trident proclaiming her superiority of the sea and a shield emblazoned with the Union Jack saying she is ready to defend her homeland. Britannia is usually depicted wearing a helmet and near the sea. For the Seated Liberty design, the allegorical symbol for Liberty replaces Britannia, a version of the US flag is shaped as a shield showing defense of the new nation, and the trident replaced by the phrygian cap (sometimes called the Liberty Cap) on a pole that is considered a protest symbol as being pro liberty.

It can be speculated that a grand coin, such as a $100 issue, would require a design worthy of the country’s first one hundred years and the growth being seen in recent memory. Morgan may have looked at the phrygian cap and thought that the protest should be over, especially since the United States and Great Britain had normalized relations. Morgan may have thought that the caduceus would represent the new strength of the nation: commerce, after the Transcontinental Express traveled from New York to San Francisco in just over 83 hours. Morgan borrowed the bales of hay and stalks of wheat from the Trade Dollar and placed Miss Liberty on the banks of a river to represent the trading routes offered through the country.

Using the caduceus was an interesting symbolic choice. It has both noble and ignoble meanings throughout history. On one hand, it is a positive symbol of commerce. On the other hand, it is a symbol of deceit in a time when the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as the 19th President and the corruption represented by the political machine of Tammany Hall dominated the headlines. Although the concept for the coin never made it beyond Morgan’s sketch, it can be speculated that the Christians of the time may have objected to its use.

We may never know why George Morgan sketched this pattern or the symbolism he was trying to capture. But given what we know about the symbols, it shows Morgan’s talent for classic design. One can only wonder what our coin designs might have been had his presence was not resented by William and Charles Barber.

Image courtesy of user bsshog40 from the Collectors Society message boards.

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