William Kneass was the second Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, serving from 1824 until his death in 1840. During his tenure, Kneass oversaw the production of United States gold and circulating coinage, and played a pivotal role in the development of American coinage. Despite these accomplishments, Kneass remains one of only two Chief Engravers of the U.S. Mint in the 19th century not to have designed any major circulating coins.
Kneass was born in 1781 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. While his introductory training as an engraver is uncertain, it is known that he spent his early career as an engraver of plates for bookwork. By 1815, he had established a reputation as a highly talented artist. He soon opened an engraving practice of his own in Philadelphia, which became a popular meeting place for the “leading wits and men of culture,” It is also known that during his earlier career, Kneass worked with two other engraving firms that bore his name - Young & Kneass & Co. and Kneass & Dellaker.
After the death of first Chief Engraver Robert Scot, the Mint considered many different applicants, including Christian Gobrecht. Though Gobrecht was extremely qualified, the Mint went another direction, and on January 29, 1824, appointed William Kneass the next Chief Engraver. Many researchers maintain that the decision was ultimately influenced by the strong recommendation of Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldts, a close friend of Kneass.’
Though Kneass never created any original designs for major circulating coinage, he did make many important contributions to American numismatics. One of his most significant contributions was the introduction of the restraining collar—a new method of standardizing the diameter of a coin. Up until 1828, the Capped Bust Silver dimes were known as the “large type.” These dimes were struck without the restraining collar, and thus took on a wider appearance. Kneass’ restraining collar kept the coin from spreading, thus allowing the Mint to produce thicker coins. In order to maintain the standard weight of the silver dime, the diameter was decreased from 18.8 mm to 18.5 mm. The new Capped Bust Silver dimes became known as the “small type.” This newer variety was used until 1837.
Kneass was also responsible for improving the existing designs of all coinage series. In 1829, he redesigned the Half Eagle and the Quarter Eagle (also known as the Classic Head). The new Quarter Eagle featured smaller stars, smaller letters, and a redrawn Lady Liberty and heraldic eagle. Kneass also implemented the restraining collar that gave the coin a high, plain raised rim. In 1834 Kneass redesigned the Gold Half Eagle and the Gold Quarter Eagle, removing the motto on the reverse and revising the Liberty Head on the obverse.
In 1835, Mint Director Robert Patterson asked Kneass to sketch an image of Liberty. He asked that the image be an American variation of Britannia, Britain’s allegorical icon. Kneass prepared a rough sketch but shortly thereafter, suffered a debilitating stroke. The stroke had paralyzed Kneass’ right side, and he was unable to complete most of his tasks. Patterson immediately requested permission from Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury to hire Christian Gobrecht as an assistant to Kneass. Gobrecht used Kneass’ sketch to create what would ultimately became one of the most famous designs in numismatic history—the Seated Liberty. The Seated Liberty design was used throughout the 19th century for hundreds of different pattern varieties.
Kneass passed away in office on August 27, 1840. Most were not aware that Kneass was gravely ill and that Gobrecht completed virtually all of the pattern and die work, and for this reason, many records state that Kneass designed certain pattern half dollars of 1836 and 1838. Despite the challenges of his final years, Kneass was a well-received and well-respected engraver. Mint Director Samuel Moore once wrote of him in 1835, “Mr. Kneass, our present engraver ... is an acceptable, popular and very useful officer, perhaps one of the most rapid in execution in the U.S. I do not know whether another could be found, whose celerity in his profession could have sufficed to furnish all the dies we have necessarily employed within the last five years.” Kneass was a valuable asset to the United States Mint, making many important contributions to the development of American coinage and American numismatic history.