For a long time, America was a one trick pony when it came to coin design. Lady Liberty showed up on every coin before the mid 1800s, except for an occasional eagle. At least the design of Liberty varied. There’s a couple dozen different versions of her, including a couple people often don’t realize are her.
The Large Cent
Before 1857, American pennies were 28mm in diameter, which is substantially larger than today’s coins. Bearing a variety of different designs of Lady Liberty, they are collectively known as large cents. They were made of pure copper.
As an aside: America has no coin formally known as a penny. The proper name for it is a cent. The penny is the British equivalent, worth one pence.
The Indian Head Penny
The Indian head penny doesn’t actually depict a Native American. It’s not even a man. It’s Lady Liberty wearing a Native American war bonnet. The argument was that Liberty’s usual Phrygian cap, which has ancient roots, was more a symbol of the freed slave than the independent freeman. It was argued “the featured tiara [i.e. war bonnet] is as characteristic of the primitive races of our hemisphere, as the turban is of the Asiatic” and that it was more appropriate to represent those who “were never in bondage to any man.” One can only assume the writer had a very romantic view of Native Americans.
The first real person to be depicted on a cent is Abraham Lincoln, which has been in use since 1909.
The Mercury Dime
The Mercury dime doesn’t depict the Roman god Mercury, nor does it contain the element mercury. Mercury commonly wore a winged helmet, looking similar to the image on this dime. Mercury is also commonly young and effeminate, which also fits. Finally, Mercury was a god of commerce, so it’s not completely absurd for him to show up on money.
But it’s not Mercury. It’s Lady Liberty. The artist just put wings on her hat to represent freedom of thought.
The first real person to be depicted on a dime is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which has been in use since 1946. It’s illegal for US money to depict living people, so this once only barely made the cutoff: Roosevelt had only died a year earlier. Roosevelt’s strong support for the March of Dimes charity is one reason he ended up on this specific coin.
I have been creating jewelry from old coins since 2017. A historian by education, I never drill, grind or glue my coins, which range from modern to ancient. Check out my work here at remintedjewelry.com as well as on Etsy and eBay.