By Guy Christopher, Originally Published on Money Metals Exchange
The very first word anyone ever saw on a circulating United States coin was the word “LIBERTY.”
From half-cents to silver dollars, each featured the likeness of an unnamed woman. The images varied, thanks to different engravers, but together they became recognized as Lady Liberty.
Many, maybe most, of young America’s citizens were illiterate. “Liberty” may have been the first word they ever learned to read.
If not, they surely knew her face. The Revolutionary War for them was not ancient history.
The Founding Fathers knew all gold, silver, and copper is sound money and didn’t mind that American coinage circulated alongside colonial and foreign coins depicting kings and queens.
But Lady Liberty alone belonged to the United States. Her anonymous image spoke plainly to a cornerstone of human freedom – private wealth – in your hands, belonging to you, no counter-party strings attached.
After all, her picture was right there on the money!
Her looks would change with the fashions and the times, as she graced most gold and silver American coins for 154 years. She was variously adorned with the arrows of war, the shield of readiness, or the garlands of commerce and trade.
Then, almost unnoticed over just a few years, Lady Liberty began to vanish.
The U.S. government and the Federal Reserve presided over the poverty and debt of the 1930’s Great Depression, stealing employment and financial liberty from one of every four Americans. Lady Liberty also paid a price.
America’s bedrock gold coinage was obliterated in 1933 by Franklin Roosevelt’s confiscation order, sending millions of Lady Liberty’s gleaming images to be melted down.
She had already been quietly removed from the quarter-dollar in 1930, making room for George Washington’s 200th birthday celebration.
She vanished again from public view when the iconic silver dollar was discontinued in 1935.
When she was minted on the last Winged Liberty dime (1916-1945), it marked a sad chapter in the curious case of the vanishing Lady Liberty.
The Winged Liberty was never intended to depict a Roman deity.
Nevertheless, Americans confused the design with Mercury, a mythological patron of commerce. The name stuck, leaving us with the “Mercs” we stack today in bags and rolls of 90% silver.
The model for Winged Liberty was a woman, Elsie Stevens, a friend of the coin’s engraver – not a male deity. But in the public’s mind, the coin was never known as a “liberty dime,” although that’s exactly what it was.