The Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (a congressionally established public committee that advises the secretary of the Treasury with design and theme recommendations for U.S. coins and medals) met at United States Mint headquarters in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 2017. This meeting had been postponed one week by the mid-March blizzard that snarled travel plans around the East Coast.
One of our main agenda items was to review and discuss candidate designs for the 2018 World War I Armed Forces silver medals. These will be packaged and released with the upcoming WWI centennial commemorative silver dollar, celebrating Allied victory and the end of the Great War. Each of five medals will represent a branch or service of the military (Army, Navy, Air Service, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) and its contributions to winning the war. A sixth medal, if the Mint accepts a motion from the committee, would depict the Home Front and the contributions of women to the war effort.
With more than 60 design proposals and 5 military branches involved, the Mint and the CCAC have put a lot of time and effort into planning this historic program.
My approach for reviewing the designs and making my recommendations was to favor obverse/reverse pairings that told a “before” and “after” story—basically, “Over Here” (representing the recruitment, mobilization, training, or other preparation of American troops in the United States) and “Over There” (showing the troops armed and in action, contributing to Allied victory in the war). I felt that using each military branch’s emblem on the reverse, as recommended by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (the other committee that reviews U.S. coins and medals), would make them too similar to privately issued military challenge coins, and would cut in half the already limited real-estate of two 1.5-inch canvases. On the other hand, committee members, as well as military representatives present at the meeting, noted the popularity of challenge coins (which are given as thank-you’s or mementoes, and collected by service members as well as civilians). “We sailors like our emblem,” as committee member Herman Viola, a veteran, put it. After discussion we moved to recommend to the secretary of the Treasury that each medal feature its service insignia on the reverse, with as many of the inscriptions moved to the reverse as possible. This will free up the obverses to focus on art rather than wording.
After design manager April Stafford introduced the medal program to the committee, Chair Mary Lannin opened the discussion and invited senior-ranking member Donald Scarinci to begin.
Scarinci—never one to hold back his opinions—made a contrast between the committee’s recommended design for the upcoming 2018 World War I commemorative silver dollar and the sketches in this batch of medal proposals. The 2018 dollar, he noted, has a creative, captivating, modernistic design with medal-like qualities. With the Armed Forces proposals, compared to the silver dollar, “we have medals that look like coins, and a coin that looks like a medal”—a contrast that, he judged, wouldn’t package well, and therefor would result in poor sales. “Medals sell because their designs are pretty,” he emphasized. “They need to be something special for people to buy them. They’re not coins.” He gave as successful examples the recent Roosevelt medal that sold out its mintage in just two weeks, and the 2016 American Liberty silver medal that sold out in a matter of minutes. He also compared the medal proposals to other, more innovative World War I coins and medals issued by Great Britain, Australia, and other nations, saying that none of the proposal sketches would be award winners or serious competition for more stylized works. He linked this program to the creativity of the U.S. Mint’s recently launched American Liberty gold-coin program, which includes silver medals based on the gold designs. The Mint’s innovation in medals, if it continues to be well received, has the potential to lead to innovation in coins, to the benefit of American coinage of all sorts. On the other hand, Scarinci warned, low sales in the World War I Armed Forces program might be misinterpreted as something being wrong, sales-wise, with medals, rather than a failure of these particular designs or the way they’re packaged and sold.
I agree with Donald Scarinci that we’re at a “tipping point” with the Mint’s modern medals program. The seeds of innovation have been planted, and they have the potential to blossom and be harvested if properly nurtured. They also risk dying on the vine, if the bottom line—sales, which depend on resonance with hobbyists and the general public—fail to materialize. Encouragingly, from conversations with collectors and round-table discussion at the Mint’s November 2016 Numismatic Forum in Philadelphia, I think this World War I program has strong potential. Mintages should be set properly—low enough to generate excitement and a perception of scarcity, but high enough to avoid droves of frustrated customers being turned away. The fact that the medals will be silver, not bronze, is a plus, as is their Proof (rather than Uncirculated or bullion-finish) format. Precious metals and Proofs are popular with the general public as well as coin collectors. Furthermore, the medals will have a built-in audience of active and retired service members of each military branch, and their families and friends—a considerable host added to normal demand from the hobby community. Attractive packaging, savvy marketing, and fair distribution, of course, will be important in the program’s sales success.
Herman Viola reminded the forum that he is an advisor to the World War I Centennial Commission, and he shared his insight from serving that body. “There is immense interest around the world in these medals,” Viola said. “Don’t worry too much about sales.” The Mint’s artists, he observed, had submitted good work, with their designs showing technical and historical accuracy.
Committee member Erik Jansen shared some of Donald Scarinci’s concerns. “I’m frustrated with pictures on metal,” he said, calling the proposed designs “lacking in symbols and long on pictures.” He also wondered if the price point for a dollar-and-medal package—$100 or more—might be too high for many collectors. He recommended issuing the medals individually and in a lower-priced bronze format. (For comparison, the Mint’s 1.5-inch medals in bronze are priced at $6.95 and its 3-inch medals in bronze are $39.95.)
Committee member Mike Moran also compared the medal proposals to the upcoming World War I silver dollar. (Moran, Scarinci, and Lannin each served on the jury, or subcommittee, that focused on that particular commemorative-coin program. Congress specified that the coin’s open competition would be juried by three members each from the CCAC and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.) Describing the silver dollar’s chosen design (which, as of this writing, has not yet been made public) as “poignant,” he said that the medal designs neither complement nor contrast the coin—rather, many of them compete with it, but without the same level of quality. He summed up the designs as “just okay,” noting that many are overly cluttered with busy detail. He recommended using the branch’s emblems on the reverse, to avoid duplication of scenes (such as two scenes of battle) and to help avoid confusion over, for example, the Army and the Marines (who wore the same uniforms and fought with the same weapons). “In the end,” he said, “art sells coins and medals.”
Committee member Thomas Uram, having studied recent coinage designs, recommended that the Mint’s artists scale back the amount of surface frosting, and include more contrast between fields, design elements, and lettering. Regarding the use of emblems for each medal, he noted that the 2005 Marine Corps silver dollar sold out its mintage limit and won a coveted Coin of the Year award in international competition—all of this while featuring the Marine Corps emblem on its reverse. He recommended that the World War I medals showcase the insignia of each military branch. Uram further remarked on a lost opportunity to expand beyond the traditional physicality of coinage—“Why not square, octagonal, or pentagonal shapes?” he asked. The World War I medals will be the diameter of the standard silver dollar (1.5 inches).
Committee member Heidi Wastweet remarked on the inherent sexism of the designs submitted, calling it disrespectful to not depict women and their contributions to the American war effort. She recommended that a “Home Front” medal be added to the program—an idea that was floated in March 2016 during initial CCAC discussion of the medals. Later in the meeting, Mike Moran would make a formal motion for this addition, with Wastweet seconding. Wastweet also noted the “overabundance of verbiage” in many of the designs. She recommended using the military branch emblems as an organizing factor, with all (or most) verbiage moved to the reverses. This would free up the obverse designs, allowing more negative space and making them more medallic, rather than coin-like.
Committee member Jeanne Stevens-Sollman posed a question to the Mint: “What are we trying to achieve” with the medals program? She asked rhetorically about their presentation: “Are we showing a movie? Sending postcards? Or are we conveying to the viewer what the U.S. contributed to victory in the war?” She observed that medals often benefit from verbiage when it’s used to educate the viewer and guide them in what they’re seeing.
The Army Silver Medal
For the Army silver medal, many committee members recommended design O-04 for the obverse. This shows a doughboy standing at the ready, holding his rifle, with the American flag waving in the background. It’s a motif familiar from photographs and recruitment posters of the era, and if the wording is moved to the medal’s reverse, it will make a bold central design.
Many of the other obverse (and reverse) designs are too busy to translate well to a dollar-sized planchet. Fine detail would be lost on such a small canvas.
To me, O-03, showing a gas mask, bayonet, shovel, barbed wire, and other tools, spoke too much of the technical aspects of battle, rather than the human side of the conflict. Erik Jansen described it as a frankly disturbing tableau showing “the horrors of war.” Committee member Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, conferencing by phone, spoke of the historic Hell Fighters unit, and recommended that they be acknowledged. In our March 2016 meeting, Chris Isleib, director of public affairs for the World War I Centennial Commission, had also mentioned the Hell Fighters. “[World War I] was the birth of the 369th Harlem Hell Fighters infantry unit, which was a regiment that was sent to fight in French uniforms with French units because of the racial segregation in America,” Isleib noted. “When they came back after fighting in more combat than any other unit in America they faced racism as soon as they arrived back here in America. This unit also had regimental bands; the 369th and 379th actually brought jazz to Paris.” Abdul-Jabbar’s choice for the obverse of the Army medal was O-05.
After discussion and voting, the committee’s recommendation is for a simplified version of obverse O-04, and the Army emblem of R-03.
The Navy Silver Medal
For the Navy medal, the Mint’s artists submitted fewer design proposals. Of the three obverse sketches, my preference was for O-01—it’s an active scene that showcases a destroyer at sea, an exploding depth charge, and kite balloons on reconnaissance (an important Navy function during the war). O-02, showing the USS Wadsworth escorting a convoy, is a dynamic design with some very artful flourishes, but on a 1.5-inch surface the plume of the depth charge in the background would make it look like the ship itself was exploding. Erik Jansen called attention to the attractive wave in O-02, but observed that the design would risk losing its detail in the sculpting.
“None of these designs capture my grandfather’s experience in World War I,” said committee member Robert Hoge. He noted that many sailors during the war were sick, and those who were healthy took care of the ill, with few of them seeing any exciting action.
Dr. Dennis Conrad, a naval historian for the Department of Defense, phoned in to the meeting. He agreed with the idea of using the branch insignia as reverse designs.
Jeanne Stevens-Sollman brought up the obverse of the 2016 Mark Twain commemorative silver dollar, designed by Artistic Infusion Program artist Chris Costello and sculpted by Mint medallic sculptor Michael Gaudioso. Specifically, Stevens-Sollman remarked on the creative depiction of the smoke from Twain’s pipe. She opined that such creativity could help busy designs avoid redundancies of texture and frosting among different detail elements. She also emphasized that there can be energy in a design’s text, not just its symbols, and that text can be treated as an artistic element itself.
Chair Mary Lannin expressed a preference for obverse O-02, but reduced to its bare essentials—keeping the ship’s essence and making the design more medallic.
The Air Service, American Expeditionary Forces, Silver Medal
Eight obverse designs and eight reverse designs awaited our study for the silver medal of the Air Service (which would later become its own separate military branch, in 1947). For the obverse, I found O-02 to be the most artistically medallic in composition and fabric. It shows an aviator in three-quarters profile, looking up to the sky, his scarf streaming in the wind, combined with a winged propeller inspired by an Air Service insignia. A compass symbolizes the air-combat units’ “power and precision in all directions,” as noted by design manager April Stafford. Among the reverse designs, to me reverse R-05 is the most dynamic, showing a SPAD XIII plane in a dogfight with two German triplanes, with the French countryside seen as a dramatically tilted horizon line that expresses motion and the controlled chaos of such combat.
Erik Jansen called out O-05 and O-06, each showing a World War I pilot. He also liked reverse R-06 used as the obverse, but stripped down without the inscriptions. He noted its depiction of the precision of the airplane as a weapon. Mary Lannin agreed with this assessment, saying that R-06 would resonate with air aficionados. Robert Hoge called the O-04 design “iconic” in its depiction of an aerial dogfight, but suggested dropping out the detail of the countryside.
After discussion and voting, there was strong preference to use reverse R-06 as the medal’s obverse, with its design reduced to the main elements and inscriptions moved to the reverse. Design R-08, showing a military aviator insignia, is our recommendation for the reverse.
The Marine Corps Silver Medal
For me and for several other committee members, reverse R-05 stood out as a dramatic depiction of a U.S. Marine in World War I combat. A “Devil Dog” (as the Germans called the Marines) is shown in the heat of battle in Belleau Wood. Having run out of ammunition, he overpowers a German machine-gun nest using his rifle as a bludgeon. This design includes the inscription SEMPER FIDELIS, “Always Faithful,” the USMC motto. Robert Hoge also called out R-05 as a strong design for the obverse, and Donald Scarinci said, “If this were a coin, it would be awesome”—noting that “There are a lot of designs that would be nice as coins” while not succeeding as medals. “O-06 is more medal-like,” he said, referring to a design showing a helmet set behind the Marine Corps emblem.
The Marine Corps historians who were present at the meeting noted that the R-05 scene is “Hollywoodized,” and that such hand-to-hand combat was rare at Belleau Wood. They emphasized the significance of that particular battle: the important Allied victory at Belleau Wood is intrinsically connected to the Marine Corps, and in fact the region remains a pilgrimage site for U.S. Marines a hundred years later. For this reason, reverse design R-01, with its contemplative scene of one Marine standing guard in the war-blasted woods, while another kneels to pay respect to their fallen comrades, is their preferred design.
Heidi Wastweet noted that, after a quick flip through the entire design portfolio, Marine Corps reverse R-05 was the only one that mentally stayed with her. She praised its depiction of the brutality and courage of war. From a sculpting and production perspective, she warned against the design’s lettering running over the soldier’s leg, calling it “very detracting and technically difficult.” She also noted that the relief of obverse O-06 would have to be shallow, and that collectors want greater depth than it would afford.
After more discussion of simplifying the elements of R-01 by moving some inscriptions to the reverse, our recommendation is for R-01 to be used for the obverse and R-06 for the reverse.
The Coast Guard Silver Medal
The Coast Guard sketches included a mixture of patriotic symbolism (with Miss Liberty guiding a guardsman to his destiny and duty), ships at sea, and officers and men in action. One of the most dynamic designs is O-04, showing a lifeboat from the cutter Seneca riding a wave in heavy seas as it moves toward the torpedoed steamship Wellington. Coast Guardsmen in the lifeboat have sighted men in the water and are on their way to rescue them. This was a preferred design for many committee members (including myself). Dr. William Thiesen, a Coast Guard historian who phoned in to the meeting, agreed with this preference, noting the importance of rescue missions in the Guard’s wartime functions (in addition to beach and coast patrol).
Herman Viola emphasized the importance of the Coast Guard cutter Tampa, which was sunk by a German U-boat with the loss of 115 men—the war’s single largest loss of life in combat for naval operations. REMEMBER THE TAMPA is an inscription on two of the obverse designs, O-03 and O-04.
Our recommendation is for obverse O-04 to be combined with the World War I–era Coast Guard emblem of reverse R-04.
The Future of the World War I Silver Medals
Before the CCAC meeting, Mint staff had already met with subject-matter experts from each military branch to discuss themes and historical accuracy. The CCAC also talked about the World War I medals in our March 2016 meeting in Washington. It was these early discussions that led to the design proposals we reviewed in March 2017. Now the Mint’s artists will take the guidance of the Commission of Fine Arts, and of the CCAC, in addition to the comments of military representatives shared in our meetings this week, and fine-tune their designs. If our committee motion is accepted, a sixth medal representing the Home Front will be added to the five military pieces. Ultimately the secretary of the Treasury has final approval over the designs of U.S. coins and medals.
The World War I medals will accompany the release of the 2018 World War I American Veterans Centennial silver dollar. ❑
Dennis Tucker is the publisher at Whitman Publishing, LLC, and a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee.