James Barton Longacre (1794 – 1869) was the fourth Chief Engraver and Sculptor of the United State Mint, serving from 1844 to his death. During his long tenure at the Mint, Longacre produced some of the most beautiful recognizable coins in the history of American numismatics.
Longacre was born in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Raised in an impoverished household, he left home in search of work at the age of 12. The independent youth ended up in Philadelphia, where he became apprenticed to bookstore owner James F. Watson. Almost immediately, Watson recognized Longacre’s skills as a portrait artist and subsequently arranged for him to continue his apprenticeship with George Murray, a local banknote engraver who at one time had also employed Christian Gobrecht, who would eventually become the third Chief Engraver of the Mint. Under the tutelage of Murray, Longacre developed his foundation and honed his skills in the craft. Then, in 1819, he established his own firm, specializing in engraving and portraiture.
Longacre received many important commissions during this time, building his reputation and establishing his position as a capable and even impressive artist. Many were impressed by his meticulous attention to detail and superb craftsmanship, and before long, Longacre had acquired many supporters, including famous South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun. In fact, Senator Calhoun proved instrumental in Longacre’s appointment at the U.S. Mint. When Chief Engraver Christian Gobrecht passed in 1844, Senator Calhoun used his political influence to see that Longacre was seriously considered for the post. Several months later, on September 16, 1844, Longacre was officially appointed as the next Chief Engraver.
Longacre’s appointment to Chief Engraver was not without dispute, as many critics cited his lack of experience in coin and medal engraving. But it was internal issues at the Mint that posed the biggest challenge to Longacre. Political corruption, illegal side-vending, and other unlawful practices plagued the Mint at this time.
In efforts to minimize the oversight and power of Longacre’s role as Chief Engraver, Mint Director Robert M. Patterson and Chief Coiner Franklin Peale became extremely vocal about their disdain for Longacre’s work.They even alleged that while Longacre was a remarkable portrait engraver, he was an inept coin engraver. In 1850 Patterson tried to replace Longacre with Charles Cushing Wright, but was unable to secure Longacre’s dismissal. Relief did not come until 1854, when Patterson’s successor as Mint Director, James Ross Snowden, fired Peale for using Mint facilities for private purposes. The changes helped clean up the political corruption at the mint, and alleviated much of the pressure on Longacre.
Despite such deterrents, Longacre designed numerous coins during his tenure at the Mint, many of which are amidst the most beautiful in U.S. numismatics. One of his best known pieces was the Indian Head cent, which served as the standard design of the penny from 1859 through 1909. Another of Longacre’s famous designs was the Liberty Head Double Eagle $20 gold piece, which was produced from 1849 until 1889. Longacre was also responsible for the designs of the Indian Princess pattern coins, the Shield Nickel, and the Flying Eagle cent. Many other coins, commemoratives, gold coins, silver coins, dies, and patterns were the product of Longacre’s influence.
Longacre served as Chief Engraver for a quarter of a century, yet it was not until well after his death that his contributions to American coinage were truly appreciated. From his impoverished childhood to his trying career, Longacre faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles throughout his life. That he weathered such challenges, and ultimately prevailed, is a testament to both his courage and talent. Longacre created some of the most beautiful coins in American numismatics, renowned even today for their beauty, craftsmanship and durability.