Among the collection of Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park is this first-hand account by Henry Hering, sculptor and studio assistant. Hering describes his work on the design of the 1907 Gold Coinage at the request of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. This account provides a unique perspective on one of Saint-Gaudens’ final pieces and one of the most celebrated coins in American history.
HISTORY OF THE $10 AND $20 GOLD COINS OF 1907 ISSUE
By Henry Hering
The issuing of the $20 and $10 gold coins was the outcome of a dinner engagement Mr. Augustus Saint-Gaudens had with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. It was the latter’s “pet crime” (as he called it) to issue a coin which would compare in beauty and relief with the old Greek coins and he asked St. Gaudens if he would undertake the work. By doing so he created a bad feeling among the officials of the Mint because up to this time no outsider had ever designed a coin for the government.
Owing to St. Gaudens’ ill health I executed both coins under his direction, from his designs. Consequently, I was in charge of the work and engineered the proceedings at the Philadelphia Mint. I proceeded to make a model in very high relief, knowing perfectly well they could not stamp it in one strike, my object being to have a die made of this model and then have strikes made in order to see the various results.
I took the model to the Philadelphia Mint and was introduced by the Director to Mr. Barbour, who was the chief engraver. When he saw the plaster model of the $20 gold piece, which was about nine inches in diameter, he rejected it and said it was impossible for any mint to coin it. I told him my reasons for doing it and that we would have to experiment. After considerable discussion he finally decided to make the die.
In the meantime, I returned to the studio and made another model much lower in relief. I had about finished with the second model when the Mint informed me that the die of the first model was ready for experiment. I immediately went to Philadelphia carrying the second and revised model with me. When I showed it to Mr. Barbour it was no more practical than the first model and he refused to have anything to do with it. However, we went to the press room to see how the experimental die (the first model) would work out; so a circular disc of gold was placed in the die and by hydraulic pressure of 172 tons, I think it was, we had our first stamping, and the impression showed a little more than one half of the modeling. I had them make a cast of this for my guidance. The coin was again placed on the die for another strike and again it showed a little more of the modeling, and so it went, on and on until the ninth strike, when the coin showed up in every detail. This coin I took to Mr. St. Gaudens, who in turn sent it to the President, and I think Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt still has it. I do not know of any more being struck, as we had finished with that die.
Up to this point the Mint had two models of the $20 gold piece. So, I returned to the studio with my documents — meaning casts of the various stampings from die of first model, and decided to make a third model, the relief of which was lower than the impression I had on the cast of the first stamping. I now thought I had surely covered the ground as far as experiments could go. To my surprise Mr. Barbour rejected it again, saying it was still too high in relief. However, it was this third model which finally went into circulation, except that he reduced the relief of it much lower than my model.
Between all these events I examined the reduction of my model, which seemed to me very poor, Mr. Barbour claiming it could not be done better.
It just so happened that during my student days in Paris, France, there lived a sculptor named Janvier who invented a reducing machine which was perfection and the French government, and, in fact, all the other European governments, installed Janvier’s machine in their mints. So, it occurred to me to look over the machine the U.S. Mint was using.
It was a machine about forty years old and consequently very much out of date. I told Mr. Barbour so but it made no impression on him, so I made my report to Mr. St. Gaudens who in turn told the President. Of course you can imagine what Teddy’s feelings were on hearing the U.S.A. was so much out of date. The outcome was an early visit to the Mint to see another reduction, this time of the $10 gold coin. This Mr. Barbour showed us with great glee and after looking it over I found it also a very poor reduction, whereupon Mr. Barbour informed me that it had been done by the Janvier machine, which the Philadelphia Mint had installed.
Of course I had to tell him that a bad reduction can be made from a good machine and that probably he was not sufficiently well acquainted with its mechanism. He was not aware that in the beginning I had protected myself by having Mr. Janvier make me a reduction of the $10 piece from my model in three different heights of relief. With this document I could not fail to see the weakness of Mr. Barbour’s reduction, but I did not show him these samples of Janvier’s reduction, because I thought they would come in handy later on—and they did.
Throughout all this period Mr. St. Gaudens’ health had been failing rapidly and it was then the summer of 1907. The President, not hearing anything of the coin, evidently learned that Mr. St. Gaudens was growing worse physically and dispatched the order to the Mint to issue the $20 gold coin. To this order the Mint presumably answered that it was not practical and would take too long to stamp. I understand the President again ordered the piece issued if it took the Mint all day to stamp one. As a result the Mint took the die to the second model, which evidently had been made in the interim, because I do not remember seeing it until November 14, 1907, which was my last official visit to the Mint.
They struck several hundreds of them by the hydraulic press, which probably required five or more stampings to produce a complete coin. The coin you have is one of them. I think it was right after my visit of November 14, 1907 that the high relief coin was put in circulation, that is about November 18, 1907. The banks criticized these coins as being impractical because they would not stack. This was true because in making so many stampings the gold finally pressed itself through the collar of the die, giving the coin a fringe on the surface of the rim. This would never happen with one strike, and had the Mint made a die of the third model we would have had a very good coin. Instead, they used the experimental die.
Mr. St. Gaudens died in August, 1907 and the real $20 gold piece in low relief, revised by the Mint from my third model, with the date in numerals instead of Roman letters, went into circulation at either the end of 1907 or in January, 1908. They wanted me to approve it, which I refused to do, and Mrs. St. Gaudens could not receive payment until it was approved. Finally, in the spring of 1908 Mrs. St. Gaudens’ lawyer and her son, Homer St. Gaudens, called at my studio in New York and asked me to go to the Philadelphia Mint with them to settle up the affair. We arrived there at a meeting of about ten of the officials of the Mint who wanted to know why I did not approve the $20 gold piece then in circulation. I told them the coin was not a good reduction of the third model and to prove my case I produced for the first time the three Janvier reductions of the ten dollar gold piece and asked them all to compare it with their own. This settled all arguments and the matter was dropped and the coins went into circulation.
Sample citation: Manuscript: “History of the $10 and $20 Gold Coins of 1907 Issue,” undated, SAGA 10389, Box 1, Folder 20, Henry and Elsie Hering papers, 1894-1923, Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park, Cornish N.H.