1908 represents the first year that a Mint facility of the United States other than the Philadelphia Mint produced the cent denomination for circulation and collectors. Besides the Philadelphia Mint, the San Francisco Mint was the only other Mint to strike the Indian Head cent. This 1908-S Indian Head cent was graded Mint State 64 red and brown by Professional Coin Grading Service. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)
by Gerald Tebben
Boy, I tell ya, 1908 just can’t get no respect.
When collectors think of important dates in coinage history, 1908 rarely rates a mention. Say 1907 to a collector, famed for its Saint-Gaudens gold coins, or 1909, esteemed for its Lincoln cent, and you’ll get a knowing nod. Say 1908 and you’ll get a puzzled look.
While the year resides in a valley between the towering dates of 1907 and 1909, great things were afoot or in play for the nation’s coins a little more than a century ago.
A collection of 1908 coins would include the first cent struck at a facility other than the Philadelphia Mint, the first sunken relief designs on circulating coins and the first Saint-Gaudens coins to bear the national motto.
From 1793 through 1907, all copper coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. That changed in 1908 when the Bureau of the Mint, responding to increasing demand for small change in the West, began producing cents at its San Francisco facility. By the time the first 1908-S Indian Head cents appeared in change that fall, though, the Indian cent’s days were numbered. Work had already begun on new designs for release in 1909.
Another change involved the gold $10 eagle and $20 double eagle F7, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The coins, generally considered to be the finest designs ever to grace American coins, made their appearance in 1907.
The 1907 coins lacked the motto “In God We Trust.” President Theodore Roosevelt thought it was blasphemy to place God’s name on something as lowly as money. Congress, reacting to public sentiment, ordered the motto’s use on the denominations.
In 1908, Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber reworked Saint-Gaudens’ designs to include the motto.
The biggest innovation, however, was reserved for the gold $2.50 quarter eagles and $5 half eagles. The $2.50 and $5 coins released in 1908 were unlike anything the Mint had ever produced before.
Sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt’s design—an Indian on the obverse and a modified version of Saint-Gaudens’ eagle from the $10 coin on the reverse—was used on both of the lower gold denominations. The innovation was in how Pratt handled the relief. He used a “sunken relief,” in which the raised designs were formed in a recessed area of the die, so that the high points of the relief were slightly below the level of the fields.
The innovation in relief was criticized by some.
Philadelphia coin dealer Samuel H. Chapman took exception to everything about the coin—from the “emaciated” Indian to the coin’s incuse recesses which he called “a great receptacle for dirt and conveyor of disease.”
Nonetheless, the coins remained in production until circulating gold coinage ended during the Great Depression.
Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.
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