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Mistaken Misogyny? Andrew Mellon, Laura Fraser & George Washington Portraiture

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Numismatics allows each of us to study history, appreciate art and ponder the decisions of citizenry, politicians and government. Of course, the inner workings of coinage design and selection are not always made public, and this fact can lead to speculation or even fabrication.


A numismatic event that I believe is fabricated is associated with a series that I have had a longstanding interest in and this is with Washington quarters. Similar to most numismatists, I have several collecting niches that overlap a certain amount and that, as a conglomerate, make my collection a whole. Two of my interests merge in the Washington quarter series and these are the series itself, one of only two series that I have ever actively sought to collect by date, and superbly toned coinage. Fortunately for me, I have over the years been able to obtain some astonishingly toned Washington quarters, as can be inferred by my icon coin, the reverse of a 1952-S Washington.


The impetus for this thread is neither superbly toned coinage nor the issued Washington quarter series. Rather, the impetus for this thread is a famously rejected design for the Washington quarter series that was later used as a modern commemorative in one of the US Mint's more prescient moments.


The modern commemorative, shown below in MS and PF, is the 1999 George Washington $5 gold pair, both MS and PF, to commemorate the bicentennial of Washington's death. The work as issued in 1999 differs from the 1931 submission primarily in the attitude of the eagle and surrounding stars. (1) I had owned this pair of commemorative gold coins once before but had sold them at a FUN show to raise quick cash for an intended purchase. It was a good decision as the coin I purchased with those funds is still in my collection, a beautifully toned type III three-cent silver, and now I am reunited with this two-coin set.





A matter of undisputed fact is that Andrew W Mellon served with great success and dignity as Secretary of the Treasury from March 4, 1921 through February 12, 1932. During this time he served under Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. As Secretary of the Treasury, one of Mellon’s responsibilities was to be the final authority on matters of coinage design selection. The extant correspondence of Mellon regarding coinage indicates that he took this responsibility seriously and that he used his own ideas of artistic merit as being credible. In this case he backed up his opinions through extensive philanthropy including a fellowship in his name, the gift of his extensive art collection to the nation and, in 1937, $10 million to build the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. An oil portrait of Mellon during his Secretary of the Treasury years is below. (2)




In 1931, in the midst of the Depression, the country was swept up in Washington mania and all things dealing with Washington were greatly admired. The idea of a half dollar commemorative to honor Washington arose but President Hoover indicated he would veto such a bill. He would, however, support the creation of a commemorative Washington quarter, which many had hoped might replace the then very unpopular Standing Liberty design. As it was, this came to pass.


A contest was opened to the public to allow designs for the new Washington commemorative quarter to be submitted to the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). The CFA did not have final acceptance or rejection powers over any design submitted, however, the CFA with sculptor Adolph Weinman on its panel had an advisory role to the Secretary of the Treasury. Records indicate that the open competition was disappointing with most submissions having little artistic merit.


An October 27, 1931 memorandum from the Secretary of the CFA to Andrew Mellon states that of the over 100 designs submitted that the CFA and Weinman believed only seven designs had merit. This note requested that the Secretary of the Treasury review the seven chosen models so as to make his choice among them. Between this date and November 4, 1931 the CFA chose the models submitted by Laura Gardin Fraser while Secretary Mellon chose the models submitted by John Flanagan. The CFA had requested to allow Fraser to rework some elements of her design to fit coinage purposes and Mellon directed that her work, along with that of Flanagan and two others, be allowed to be reworked so that all four model pairs could be inspected after a CFA critique.


A letter of November 10, 1931 from the CFA to Secretary Mellon shows the interest that the Secretary had in this coinage issue and also his artistic considerations as the letter states that the CFA agrees with the Secretary as to changes that should be incorporated in the designs submitted. However, after the reworking of the models, the CFA and Secretary Mellon were still at odds over the best design. This may be attributed, in part, to the process by which the final design was chosen; Secretary Mellon was apparently inspecting large drawings or plaster casts of proposed designs while the CFA was looking more closely at coinage-sized models. In this way the two parties were not inspecting the same models, they were looking at models that were biased by the scale they were viewed in.


CFA Secretary Moore tried to persuade Secretary Mellon that the scale of the models would change his position and in a letter dated January 20, 1932 Secretary Moore laid out the CFA opinions on the coinage-sized models. They argued that the Flanagan design became “artistically unfortunate” with an “unnatural arrangement” of the hair that was visible in the reduced format. They also characterized the reverse as “pictorial rather than medallic in character”. This did not sway Secretary Mellon and, although he left office on February 12, 1932 he never changed his mind.


The new Secretary of the Treasury, Ogden L Mills is hardly ever brought up in the discussion of the Washington quarter, however, he had every opportunity and right to ignore his predecessor’s choice and to choose either his own model or to agree with the CFA. A March 23, 1932 letter from Secretary Mills to the CFA states that Mills, too, preferred the Flanagan design instead of the Fraser work. In a last attempt to have the Fraser model accepted, the CFA sent Secretary Mills a strongly worded letter on March 31, 1932 that called for the Fraser model to be put into production. Secretary Mills seems to have been less interested in engaging the CFA than former-Secretary Mellon was as the return letter from Mills was short and to the point. In his letter of April 11, 1932 Secretary Mills informed the CFA that close attention had been paid to the model selection previously and that a reexamination of the models in question was performed at the behest of the CFA. However, Mills also preferred the Flanagan design and wrote back to the CFA “You will realize, of course, that the duty of making the selection falls upon the Secretary of the Treasury and not upon the Commission of Fine Arts, the function of that body being purely advisory”. At this point production of the new Washington quarter commemorative began with the Flanagan design. (3)


At some time in numismatic history, this decision process was labeled misogyny. The earliest reference I have ever been able to find with this twist is from Walter Breen where he wrote “It has been learned that Mellon knew all along who had submitted the winning models, and his male chauvinism partly or wholly motivated and unwillingness to let a woman win (the competition)”. (4) The source of the opinion that Mellon was a misogynist casts a large shadow over the credibility of the statement. It has long been numismatic opinion that Breen tended to fabricate tales and data to fill in gaps in his knowledge and his epic tome serves as evidence of this where his footnotes are complete regarding many facts surrounding the Flanagan design but they are completely missing when it comes to the misogyny assertion. This, coupled with Breen’s well-documented, tortured life choices and ideas regarding sexuality and the roles of men and women makes it hard to consider this a credible source in this instance. Unfortunately, the numismatic press has at times taken what Breen wrote as researched truth and has repeated Breen’s words often enough that a new generation of numismatists believe this to be fact.


The only things that can be known for fact regarding Secretary Mellon and the work of Laura Gardin Fraser (shown below) are that Mellon preferred the Flanagan work for the Washington quarter but that he also awarded to Fraser the commissions for the Grant silver half dollar and gold dollar, the Fort Vancouver silver half dollar and the Oregon Trail silver half dollar (with her husband James Earle Fraser) commemoratives. This list of commemorative issues, along with the Alabama issue, which was underway before Mellon became Secretary of the Treasury, indicate that Mellon chose Fraser’s designs when he believed they were best. (5)




As disappointing as the Flanagan Washington quarter might seem today, it was a harbinger of designs to come. In quick succession the Buffalo nickel, Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half were replaced by largely linear, flat, derivative designs featuring awkward reverse elements. Oddly, the Washington quarter, Jefferson nickel and Franklin half all have their obverse portraiture based upon Jean Antoine Houdon works, as prescribed by Congressional mandate. Also, the Washington quarter might be thought of as the more artistically complete coin within this group, a view shared by the preeminent United States numismatic art critic, Cornelius Vermeule who wrote “Judged by the level of numismatic art in the generation following 1946, however, Flanagan’s Washington quarter was a pioneering success”. (6)


A discussion of Flanagan’s work will not be included here, but following this link will bring you to an earlier thread I wrote about an intriguing plaquette that might be the handiwork of Flanagan. In this thread there are additional points about the man and his work.


(1) The US Mint and Coinage, Don Taxay, p364, Sanford J Durst Publishers, 1966

(2) Oil painting shown on the United States Department of the Treasury web site

(3) Contents and quotes taken from all letters between the CFA and Secretaries of the Treasury Mellon and Mills appear in The US Mint and Coinage, Don Taxay, pp360-366, Sanford J Durst Publishers, 1966

(4) Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of US and Colonial Coins, Walter Breen, pp364-365, Doubleday, 1988

(5) Image of Laura Gardin Fraser at work from the archives of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame

(6) Numismatic Art in America, Cornelius Vermeule, p180, Belknap Press, 1971

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It's probably safe to ignor anything Breen wrote with regard to sex or sex bias. Great piece of research and writing. Frankly I find the Frazer reverse bulky, unbalanced and germanic in the artistic sense, and agree with Mellon. The Frazer obverse however I find much nicer and more powerfully rendered, appropriate for our first President. Of course there is a dearth of female fine art in the Mellon here in DC but that is a problem nationwide.


Again growing up in a political area, I would be more inclined to believe that the design selection was influenced on the basis of party bias than misogyny-- but have no more evidence than Breen does to so speculate.


I think Mellon was known for selecting top works from each of the top artists, and in that sense had developed "good" taste. To bad he didn't chose the design from coin sized models as perhaps that would have favored the Frazer obverse.


Excellant write-up whichever design one likes--and pretty commems.

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Thank you for that post Tom.

I first read the misogyny story in Breen's Encyclopedia, believed it and was appalled. Your post has shed an informative light on this incident and I now tend to agree misogyny was not a factor.

Personally I prefer the Flanagan obverse and the Fraser reverse. Her eagle feels dynamic and alive to me, his feels static and posed.



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