The Coins and Medals of Laura Gardin Fraser
1921 Coin





Coin Details

Origin/Country: United States
Item Description: 50C 1921 ALABAMA
Full Grade: PCGS MS 64
Owner: coinsbygary

Set Details

Custom Sets: The Coins and Medals of Laura Gardin Fraser
Competitive Sets: Garys Old Commemoratives   Score: 1145
Gary's Type Set   Score: 1145
Research: NGC Coin Explorer NGC Coin Price Guide

Owner Comments:

The 1921 Alabama Centennial half-dollar represents two significant firsts in United States coinage. One, the obverse of the coin portrays the conjoined busts of Alabama’s first governor, William Wyatt Bibb and then current governor, Thomas E. Kilby. This made Alabama Governor Thomas E. Kilby the first living person to be featured on a United States coin. Next, the coin was sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser and as such she became the first women ever to design a US minted coin or for that matter any other world coin. [1]

These and many other factors, including the date, origin, and politics surrounding the issuance of this coin tended to overshadow the artistic talent of this coin’s designer. Now, after nearly a hundred years, those other factors don’t seem to be nearly as important as they once were. Instead, what impresses me most about this coin is the artistic skill used by the coin’s designer, Laura Gardin Fraser to create a truly remarkable coin.

The obverse of this 1921 Alabama Centennial Half-Dollar as stated before features the conjoined busts of William Wyatt Bibb and Thomas E. Kilby. The bust of Thomas E. Kilby was likely modeled after a relief portrait of him done by Mrs. Fraser. [2] The relief of both busts are finely detailed and give the coin’s obverse depth and contrast. This is especially evident on the left cheek of Governor Kilby. Every curve and valley seems to give his bust depth and a life-like look. This look may be summed up by the difference between using a live model versus a two-dimensional photograph or painting to create the galvano used to make the hub.

In the lower obverse field is an array of 22 stars representing Alabama as the 22nd state admitted to the Union. The rim toning, likely the result of being mounted in a paper album, is nature’s contribution to the appearance of this coin. The rim toning attractively accents the obverse and focuses the viewers eyes on the white central-devices artistically rendered by Laura Gardin Fraser. Two contact marks on Kilby’s forehead at the hairline are the only distracting marks on an otherwise pleasing obverse. Incidentally, the Alabama Centennial Committee considered the eagle as the coins obverse and the conjoined busts as the reverse.

The main device on this coin’s reverse is a rendition of the state seal adopted on December 29, 1868. This rendition of the state seal features an eagle perched on a Union Shield clutching a bundle of four arrows in its talons. Held by the eagles beak is a banner on which is written Alabama’s motto, “Here We Rest”. Interestingly, it took two years after the official centennial celebration in 1919 before the coin was finally released late in 1921.

Throughout the early history of our coinage many of the eagles appearing on US coins seemed more symbolic than true. What I mean by that is that the eagles portrayed on our early coins were more heraldic in nature. Interestingly, the images of eagles on US coins became more life-like in the early 20th century during what President Teddy Roosevelt called a “renaissance” in American coinage. [3] In his book “Numismatic Art in America,” Cornelius Vermeule describes the Alabama centennial eagle as such, “…And the defiant eagle of the reverse is handled in a spirit worthy of Saint-Gaudens or the best patterns for silver of the national centennial era”. Certainly the eagle on the reverse of the Alabama Centennial Half-Dollar is representative of that renaissance.

Mature bald eagles have over 7000 feathers. [4] This presents any sculptor with the problem of making their eagle look like a fully feathered bird. Laura Gardin Fraser brilliantly achieves this on the Alabama Centennial Half-Dollar by layering the feathers on the eagles wings and breast rather than displaying them in rows. This gives the viewer a sense of motion that starts in the ruff of feathers at the base of the eagles neck. The eagle's neck feathers on this coin are ruffled and contribute to its life-like look. Bald eagles have the ability to puff up and rotate their feathers to either insulate or cool their bodies. They may also puff them up when they feel threatened. [4] Finally, the primary feathers are long and subtly waved as if the wind is blowing over them. This also contributes to the sense of motion and gives the image depth that makes the eagle appear life-like. I was able to capture this motion in the lighting of my picture. To contrast the coin I am also picturing a two-dimensional drawing of the Alabama State Seal of 1868.

1 The Numismatist July 2013, p. 35
2 Meadowlark Gallery
3 US Mint
4 American Bald Eagle Information

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