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Generations in Numismatics: Coins and Medals

By Scott Miller for the American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……
 

Recently, during my weekly visit to the American Numismatic Society (ANS), I witnessed and then became involved in a discussion started by some of the younger staff members (to be fair, they are all younger staff members from my point of view) over who belongs to which generation — Millennial, Gen Z, and so on. As a Baby Boomer, the first generation to have a name thrust on us virtually from birth, I am not particularly concerned with the fine distinctions of each or even why each generation now needs a name. Perhaps this is a little unfair, as we Boomers managed to snag two terms, though references to the “Me Generation” were never meant to be flattering. Despite the constant use of these generational parameters, there are virtually no numismatic references to them, or even to the few names belatedly given to earlier ones, such as the Greatest Generation or the rarely used Revolutionary Generation (in reference to the Revolutionary War, not the 1960s).

This is in sharp contrast to earlier years, when the depiction of generations on coins and medals was not uncommon.

Probably as a result of the many European wars fought to fill a vacant throne, monarchs in the beginning of the 17th century sometimes issued medals depicting their many children as a means of proclaiming the stability of the future succession to their crowns. Louis XIV of France issued one in 1693 depicting, on the reverse, his son Louis, the Dauphin, and the Dauphin’s three children (Fig. 1).

In 1732, George II of Great Britain responded with a medal depicting portraits of himself and his wife, Queen Caroline, on the obverse and, on the reverse, his seven surviving children, with Frederick, Prince of Wales, in the center (Fig. 2). The message is clear: the Hanovers were a more stable royal family than the Bourbons.

Figure 1. Bronze Medal of Louis XIV of France, 1693. ANS 1964.254.433.
Figure 1. Bronze Medal of Louis XIV of France, 1693. ANS 1964.254.433.
Figure 2. Silver Medal of George II of Great Britain, 1732. ANS 0000.999.37361.
Figure 2. Silver Medal of George II of Great Britain, 1732. ANS 0000.999.37361.

During the early 19th century, the trend for dynastic issues displaying multiple generations on coins continued with a medal struck to commemorate the visit of the royal family to the Paris Mint in 1833 (Fig. 3). On the obverse are facing portraits of Louis Philippe and Marie Amelie, while on the reverse are depicted the king’s sister and his eight surviving children.

Figure 3. Bronze Medal of Louis Philippe I, 1830–1848. ANS 1940.100.2409.
Figure 3. Bronze Medal of Louis Philippe I, 1830–1848. ANS 1940.100.2409.

Several nations elected to go with coins rather than medals to proclaim the extent and stability of their Houses – including Bavaria in 1828, which issued a thaler coin depicting the queen and her eight children on the reverse (ANS 1931.32.7), and Russia, which issued a one-and-a-half ruble portraying the royal family in 1836.

While dynastic medals continued sporadically throughout the 19th century, they seem to have largely ended with the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria in 1897, at least partially the result of the fall of monarchies following World War I.

During the last century, there are the occasional issues that pop up, such as one by the Ford Motor Company issued in 1953 in celebration of its 50th anniversary (Fig. 4). On the obverse are conjoined busts of three generations of company presidents and Ford family members: Henry, Edsel, and Henry II.

Figure 4. Bronze Medal of Henry Ford, 1982. ANS 2023.20.1.
Figure 4. Bronze Medal of Henry Ford, 1982. ANS 2023.20.1.

The notion of generational unity in medallic art is not new; it is only new in the insistence that a particular generation be given a distinctive name. For a quarter of a century, Lady Ethel Harris created portrait medallions of friends and relations. She titled her 1928 book cataloguing those works Portrait Medals of a Generation, and remarked that the medals “may be found of some interest as portraying a typical group of my contemporaries of the first quarter of the twentieth century.” In a similar vein, Theodore Spicer-Simson was commissioned to create a series of medals portraying male British literary figures of his time (Fig. 5). These were illustrated in a book published in 1924 entitled Men of Letters of the British Isles and include medals of authors like Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, H.G. Wells, and William Butler Yeats. While clearly outside the scope of his commission for inclusion in the book, Spicer-Simson also created a number of medals depicting women writers, including one of Lady Gregory, whose autograph tree proudly bears Spicer-Simson’s monogram (Fig. 6).

Figure 5. John Drinkwater by Theodore Spicer-Simson, 1921. Private collection.
Figure 5. John Drinkwater by Theodore Spicer-Simson, 1921. Private collection.
Figure 6. Lady Gregory by Theodore Spicer-Simson, 1922. Private Collection.
Figure 6. Lady Gregory by Theodore Spicer-Simson, 1922. Private Collection.

As they say, the more things change, the more things stay the same. I can recall my father telling me that he remembered seeing gold coins in circulation. I remember silver dollars being available for face value from the bank. One day it will be your turn, and perhaps at some distant time you will look back and reminisce to future generations how people actually used coins and other physical money.

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Medieval Money at the Morgan Library - David Yoon ANS

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American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Societyhttps://numismatics.org
The American Numismatic Society (ANS), organized in 1858 and incorporated in 1865 in New York State, operates as a research museum and is recognized as a publicly supported organization. "The mission of The American Numismatic Society is to be the preeminent national institution advancing the study and appreciation of coins, medals and related objects of all cultures as historical and artistic documents, by maintaining the foremost numismatic collection and library, by supporting scholarly research and publications, and by sponsoring educational and interpretive programs for diverse audiences."

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