Underdog: The Story of the Peace Dollar and its unlikely engraver
1918: After 4 years of bloodshed, the Great War or as we now call it, World War I has ended. While celebration and disappointment spreads across the world, an idea is conceived. In the November 1918 issue of our very own Numismatist, an article can be found written by Frank Duffield talking about his idea for a coin to commemorate the peace in Europe. He said
“ The Government might well consider the coinage occasionally of pieces for general circulation commemorating events in American history. These might be withdrawn from circulation after a few years if thought best. Such coinage would be decidedly educational, especially in the young.
An event of international interest, and one worthy to be commemorated by a United States coin issue, is scheduled to take place in the near future. The date has not yet been determined, but it will be when the twentieth century vandals of Europe have been beaten to their knees and been compelled to accept the peace terms of the Allies. That occasion would be a most fitting one for the issue of a commemorative coin. It should be issued in such quantities that it will never become rare, and it should circulate at face value. The coinage of the usual type might well be suspended for a year to permit of such a quantity being issued. Let such a victory coin be issued. Let the obverse be symbolic of the purpose for which the United States entered the war, and let the reverse be emblematic of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the enemy. Then, for years to come, as the coins shall pass from hand to hand in the channels of trade, we shall have a daily and constant reminder of what Belgium and France and Serbia have suffered. and the price in human blood and treasure the Allies have been compelled to pay to bring to an end the wild orgy of greed-crazed and inhuman Germany; and as we handle such a coin in our daily life it would also stimulate us in a resolve to socially and commercially ostracise a nation that by its acts has forfeited all right for years to come to expect to participate with civilized nations in the markets of the world.”
Half a year later in May 1919, another article on the subject was written, this time by a person only referenced as “M. Sorenson”. He wrote:
“A VICTORY DOLLAR? We have had our Victory postage stamp, a rather tame affair, which had nothing to say about Victory .... Why don't [sic] our government issue a Victory dollar-a silver dollar commemorating the downfall of the biggest arch-criminal the world has ever seen? For obverse I would suggest Liberty, Victory or Justice-either one of the three-with her heel crushing the head of a poisonous viper. I realize that it is easy to make suggestions, well knowing that the powers that be will take no notice of them.”
However, despite these fiery article, the ANA didn’t officially support such an idea until Farran Zerbe, a famed numismatist at the time wrote a paper called “Commemorate the Peace with a Coin for Circulation” which was read 1920 ANA conference. His article was about two pages long, and as such I will not be pasting the entire thing here. However, one of the most interesting things he said was:
“I do not want to be misunderstood as favoring the silver dollar for the Peace Coin, but if coinage of silver dollars is to be resumed in the immediate future, a new design is probable and desirable, bullion for the purpose is being provided, law for the coinage exists and limitation of the quantity is fixed—all factors that help pave the way for Peace Coin advocates. And then—we gave our silver dollars to help win the war, we restore them in commemoration of victory and peace.”
After this, the ANA began lobbying for such a coin, but one thing you may notice is that none of these articles described a coin with a design even nearly resembling what we got. For this part, we must turn our attention to a young italian immigrant whose only works in coin engraving before the titan he would eventually create was a Maine centennial half dollar, one of the most unlikely creators of the last of the silver dollars.
After consideration, it was agreed by the government that a peace dollar should be created, and decided to hold a contest to find the designer. Artists would be given $100 for participation, but if they one were given $1,500; which may sound like a small amount, but was about $18,000 in today's money. Anthony de Francisci was one of the many people who entered said contest, he was the youngest out of all the competitors, and one of the least qualified in coin design. He modeled the obverse after his wife, Teresa, who afterwards wrote to her brother:
“You remember how I was always posing as Liberty, and how brokenhearted I was when some other little girl was selected to play the role in the patriotic exercises in school? I thought of those days often while sitting as a model for Tony's design, and now seeing myself as Miss Liberty on the new coin, it seems like the realization of my fondest childhood dream.”
And as such, the coin we now know of as the peace dollar was born, and is a classic underdog story for all of us numismatists to remember.