Background and History

In 1892 and 1904, Augustus St. Gaudens was asked asked to design United States commemorative medals. The first would be to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing on future American soil, and the second would be for President Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration. Roosevelt was impressed by the work of the artist, who was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1848 and had moved to the United States with his parents when he was six months of age. Roosevelt was also unhappy with the current American gold coinage, so he asked St. Gaudens to work on new designs for the circulating gold denominations.

Work on the new gold coinage, in particular the double eagle, was commenced by St. Gaudens in 1905. In a letter to the President, he explained his idea for the design which had been prepared in sketches:

“I have about determined on the composition of one side, which would contain an eagle very much like the one I placed on your medal with a modification that would be advantageous; on the other side some kind of a (possibly winged) figure of Liberty striding forward as if on a mountain top, holding aloft on one arm a shield bearing the stars and stripes with the word Liberty marked across the field; in the other hand perhaps a flaming torch, the drapery would be flowing in the breeze. My idea is to make it a living thing and typical of progress.”

Letters exchanged between Roosevelt and St. Gaudens also reveal the role which President Roosevelt played in the creation of the new coin design. One of Roosevelt’s ideas was to strike the coins in high relief, as the coins of the Ancient Greece had been. He furthermore suggested raising the rim, a protection for the surfaces of the coin. Both ideas were readily accepted by St. Gaudens, who had continued working on the design.

In the ensuing months, models were prepared and further improvements were made to the original design. It was determined that the date would be featured in Roman numerals, which would be a first on American coins. This idea, however, was strongly rejected by Mint officials, in particular by the Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber. He would further oppose the creation of the new design, apparently because he was not selected by Roosevelt to create the designs. During the whole process, St. Gaudens was assisted by Henry Herning.

St. Gaudens had been diagnosed with cancer in 1906, and his condition was worsening. Before he passed away, pattern pieces were struck in ultra high relief. This was the original coin design which St. Gaudens had meant to create, but the Mint rejected it. To create a single coin, as many as nine blows were necessary from the coinage press. A total of 22 pieces were produced before the dies cracked due to the heavy pressure. Two of these were melted, and the remaining number was silently distributed. While technically a pattern piece, the 1907 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle has been included in listings of regular coinage by tradition and is extremely popular.