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Who was James B. Longacre? 

James B. Longacre was an American artist remembered for his portraiture and engraving. Longacre was the fourth Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint and is best known for his coin designs. James B. Longacre designed the Flying Eagle and Indian Head pennies, Shield nickel, Liberty Head gold double eagle, and more. 

Background of James B. Longacre 

Childhood

James Barton Longacre was born in 1794 on a farm in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Longacre’s mother died while he was young, and he found the home life with his stepmother intolerable after his father remarried.  

When he was 12, Longacre ran away to Philadelphia and found work apprenticing in a bookstore under owner John Watson, who made him a part of the Watson family. In the years that followed, Watson saw that James possessed a portraiture talent and released him from apprenticeship to pursue art in 1813.  

Artistic Beginnings

Longacre stayed in Philadelphia and began working as an apprentice to George Murray of the Murray, Draper, Fairman & Co engraving firm. The firm was established by Robert Scot, the United States Mint’s first chief engraver, and employed another essential coin artist, Christian Gobrecht. In this apprenticeship, Longacre produced portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Hancock used for a copy of the Declaration of Independence.  

While the series sold well, it was criticized for its writing, and some critics thought it only sold well for its use of Longacre’s illustrations. Bolstered by the success of his encyclopedic work, Longacre published a four-volume work, the National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, in partnership with James Herring of New York City. The series included portraits of then-President Andrew Jackson, former President James Madison, and many others. 

Moves Toward the U.S. Mint

The politicians and leaders of his time were consistently impressed by Longacre’s work. Former Vice President and then-Senator from South Carolina John C. Calhoun called Longacre’s portraits “one of the finest specimens of American advancement in the art.” 

James B. Longacre was not a stranger to strife or struggle. During the Panic of 1837, he declared bankruptcy and had to personally travel from town to town in the midwestern and southern U.S. states to sell his works. Later in the same year, Longacre opened an engraving firm, Toppan, Draper, Longacre & Company. The firm found fast success amid a large demand for engraving the notes issued by state banks and opened a branch on 1 Wall Street in NYC.  

James B. Longacre’s Mint Career 

Christian Gobrecht had been the Chief Engraver for the U.S. Mint from 1840 until his death in July of 1844.  As a result of Senator John Calhoun’s praise, Longacre was chosen to replace Gobrecht by President John Tyler in September of 1844.  

There were no designs required for his first several years in this position, as his predecessor had already completed redesigns for every U.S. coin produced from 1835 through 1842. While he did not work on coin designs, he did perform daily work punching dates into working coin dies. The New Orleans Mint issued several notable error coins under Longacre’s tenure.  

Among these was the doubled date 1822 half dollar, and 1846 overdate half dollar. It is possible these errors could be attributed to mint staff or the chief coiner working without consulting the Engraver’s Department, but it is not known who is responsible. 

Conflicts at the U.S. Mint

During his tenure as chief engraver, Longacre dealt with underhanded staff and supervisors who worked tirelessly to remove him from the office and besmirch his name. Mint Director Robert M. Patterson made attempts to persuade Longacre to resign and repeatedly asked for his removal.  

This is exactly what transpired before issuing the gold double eagle.  

In 1849, a member of the Mint staff warned Longacre that another officer, chief coiner Franklin Peale, sought to work against him on the design of the double eagle and gold dollar. Peale’s alleged plan was to have these coins designed outside the mint, thereby making Longacre’s work redundant.  

In response, he spent the month of March working on dies for the gold dollar. Longacre continued working on the double eagle through late 1849, and when he had completed the dies, Peale rejected them and stated they were too deeply engraved to impress the coin. When a frustrated Longacre reported to Patterson that Peale had delayed acceptance of the dies, Patterson told Longacre that Zachary Taylor’s administration had decided to fire him. Instead, Longacre traveled to Washington, D.C., where a number of lies regarding his work were made clear. 

When the first double eagles were struck in 1850, Patterson complained that they did not strike well, although the double eagle found favor with the American public and became the preferred method for storing gold.  

Later, in 1850, Patterson again asked for Longacre’s removal and alleged that Zachary Taylor himself decided that Longacre be dismissed from his post. Longacre retained his position, nonetheless.  

In 1851, when Congress authorized a 3-cent silver coin, Longacre prepared a simple piece with a star on the obverse and Roman numeral III on the reverse. Patterson approved this design but later recanted due to Peale’s request to propose a new design himself. Peale’s design re-used parts of Christian Gobrecht’s design work from an 1836 issue and both Peale and Longacre’s designs were sent to the Treasury Secretary, who chose Longacre’s design.

Longacre had already sent the Treasury Secretary, Thomas Corwin, a letter detailing his use of imagery for the coin. 

Mint Career After Patterson and Peale

In July of 1851, Patterson retired from the U.S. Mint. James Ross Snowden took the office of Mint Director and later fired Peale for using mint labor and resources for personal gain and profit. Peale and Patterson were later shown to have been working together to steal metal from bullion deposits.  

In 1853, silver prices began rising and Congress chose to reduce the silver content of the half dime, dime, quarter, and half dollar coins. Longacre was tasked with redesigning Gobrecht’s recent redesigns so that the new coins could easily be visually distinguished from the older issues. James B. Longacre suggested adding rays to the area surrounding the heraldic eagle on the reverse of the half dollar and quarter, and arrows near the date.  

After no better ideas were put forth either from mint staff or the American public, Longacre’s idea was chosen, although the rays shortened the lifespan of the die and were removed within one year. The arrows were removed after 1855.  

Iconic Coins by James B. Longacre

When Congress authorized a $3 coin in 1853, Longacre’s aim was to distinguish it from the $2.50 gold quarter eagle. At that time, many artists used female Native Americans to depict the United States, and Longacre did this as well. He used a planchet that was both wider and thinner than Gobrecht’s quarter eagle. The gold dollar was revised in 1853 and for this, Longacre repurposed his $3 coin design. For the reverse of these, he crafted a wreath of agricultural staples like corn, wheat, tobacco, and cotton, representing both northern and southern farmers.  

When commodity prices rose in the following years, the U.S. Mint began looking for a way to replace the large cent with a smaller coin. After many varied designs and formats were tested, including an annular cent with a hole like a donut. Eventually, an adaptation by Longacre of one of Gobrecht’s flying eagle designs and the wreath used for the gold dollar were chosen. 

Issuing the Indian Head Penny

Due to difficulties in coining the flying eagle cent, it was discontinued after only two years of issue. In 1859, the Indian Head cent was first issued. Indian Head pennies featured Longacre’s design of Liberty wearing a Native American headdress and first depicted an olive wreath on its reverse. In 1860, the reverse was modified and displayed an oak wreath with a shield.  

James B. Longacre’s Legacy

Longacre went on to design the Shield nickel, Seated Liberty half dime, and dime reverses, and worked until his death in 1869.  

While some critics may decry Longacre’s designs for a lack of innovation or artistic vision, his coins remain an integral part of the American collective consciousness. His contributions to U.S. numismatics are seen in the designers that followed him, such as George T Morgan, Victor D. Brenner, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  

It could be argued that Longacre’s designs not only impacted but influenced the developing iconography of the United States of America as the nation began to reconcile the Civil War. 

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