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The Grant Memorial Half Dollar

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Most of this post consists a lot of my opinion, but opinion based on logical conclusions from facts:


The Grant Memorial Gold Dollar and Half Dollar were struck to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ulysses S. Grant. The obverse of both coins feature a right profile bust of General Grant as adapted by Laura Gardin Fraser from a photograph by Mathew Brady (civil war photographer).[1] The reverses depict the boyhood home of Ulysses S. Grant surrounded by several very large trees. Interestingly, this coin is very similar to a medal struck for the occasion by Whitehead & Hoag (manufacturer of political buttons, badges, banners, and medals). However, the obverse of the medal features a three-quarter right facing view of Grant’s bust while the reverse displays a full view of the house without the trees.[2]


Like most early commemoratives, the Grant Memorial commemoratives had their share of detractors. On top of the usual complaints, (die varieties and misappropriation of funds) the editor of “The Numismatist” Frank G. Duffield had this to say about the artistic merits of the Grant commemorative coins, “The head of Grant on the coins is in profile and shows him as he probably appeared in the later years of his life, with closely cropped beard, not withstanding he is wearing a military coat. This head is not as suitable or life-like for a coin portrait as the head on the small medallet issued for the occasion, illustrated last month, if it was the intention to show him as he appeared during the days of the Civil War, when he was under 45. On the reverse of the coins is shown his cabin birthplace, on each side of which are trees of such a height that the cabin appears dwarfed. The surroundings of the cabin at the time of his birth may have been such as are pictured on the coins, but for the sake of better effect a little realism might have been sacrificed without detracting from historic interest.”[3] Nevertheless, Frank G Duffield sums up the Grant Memorial commemoratives as such, “In design and execution they are the equal of any of our recent commemorative issues, all of which have proved exceedingly popular with collectors”.


Today I think much of the collecting community unknowingly concurs with Frank G. Duffield’s opinion since the Grant Memorial Half Dollar is not one of the more popular commemorative coins. The problems with this coin are both artistic as described by Mr. Duffield and technical. From a technical standpoint there is obverse weakness in the strike that is apparent in Grant’s hair above his ear. Interestingly, this weakness is not as apparent on the gold coin. Additionally, there must have been numerous problems with the dies used to strike this coin since most of the coins produced display die finish lines.[1] These raised lines are the result of repairing and/ or cleaning of the dies to extend their life. The magnified obverse picture I took clearly shows those lines.


Artistically, there are some design constraints placed on coins that are not necessarily applicable to medals. Coins are mass produced while medals generally aren’t. Reducing the stress on the die during striking is crucial to extending the life of the die and thus keeping production costs lower. Next, the relief on coins is much lower than medals due in part to coin stacking considerations. Finally, and maybe most significant are the political constraints that determine which designs are to be used. Sculptors are very creative in their art and design restrictions oftentimes limit their creativity. For instance, Mr. Duffield complained about using a profile bust as a model. However, most if not all of the coins featuring a bust in that day were all in profile. Today if you were to compare the nearly full faced bust on the Grant presidential dollar to the 1922 Grant memorial half dollar, you would most likely agree that the profile on the presidential dollar is artistically superior to that of the half dollar.


In spite of all this going against her, I believe that Laura Gardin Fraser made the most of the hand she had been dealt and the proof is in the details. From my macro picture detailing the lower obverse of my coin you will notice how Laura adds texture to the collar of General Grants coat by engraving crisscrossing lines into the collar. This gives the illusion of depth and realism to the bust as does the level of detail given to General Grant’s necktie. When viewed in the hand without magnification it is amazing how much difference the little details make in the overall look of the coin.


Finally, I find it interesting the diverse monograms Laura Gardin Fraser employed in her many works of numismatic art. Of interest is the initial G for Laura’s maiden name just beneath Grant’s bust. In his book, “Coin Clinic 2: 1,001 More frequently Asked Questions” Alan Herbert gives the following reason for the use of the initial G, “The G is for the middle name of the designer, Laura Gardin Fraser. She is the wife of James Earle Fraser, who designed the Buffalo Nickel. Since that coin had been introduced in 1913, with the incuse F initial, the mint felt that is was not practical to use an F for her as well, and as a result over the VDB initials of Brenner’s which had barely been settled, deemed it inappropriate to “advertise” her work by putting LGF on the Grant coins. As a compromise the G from her middle name was put on the coin.” My only question now is that if this is true, how did she get away with using the initials LGF on the 1921 Alabama Centennial half dollar?


1 Commemorative Coins of the United States by Q. David Bowers, Chapter 8

2 The Numismatist, April 1922, pg. 188

3 The Numismatist, May 1922, pg. 228-229





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