With Mother’s Day approaching this weekend, I thought it might be a good time for a post about the many mothers who appear in the collection of the American Numismatic Society. The most common way mothers figure in our collections is via medallic art, where prominent artists ranging from Oscar Roty (1846-1911) to Victor David Brenner (1871-1924) engraved medals depicting maternal ideals. Roty’s particularly elegant medal was executed as a memorial of the baptism of his son in 1893.
Brenner’s medal follows Roty rather closely and indeed much of the medallic art concerning motherhood in the Beaux-Arts era traded in these kind of sentimental images.
One exceptional item to note in this context is a wonderful medallion by Adam Pietz (1873-1961) that depicts his own mother in a realistic rather than an idealized fashion. (I should also note that the ANS has a small archive of his drawings, photographs, and papers.)
In 1914, a proclamation by Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the “second Sunday of May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” He did so as a result of long-running campaign by activist Anna Jarvis to honor the memory of her own mother and the ideal of motherhood more generally. The holiday subsequently spread around the world, in some places combining with existing traditions.
Mother’s Day took on a special significance in the context of World War I when so many mothers had sons fighting and dying overseas. See the Art of Devastation project for the many ways that mothers featured in the often grim medallic art and propaganda that accompanied the war.
On the other hand, mothers have appeared only very sparingly in circulating currency. While there is a lot of Byzantine and medieval coinage that features religious iconography of the Virgin Mary with child, more specific and secular representations of motherhood have been few and far between. A notable exception to this rule was the Obsolete Bank Note Era (1782-1866) in the United States, when images of mothers and childhood proliferated. This was not coincidentally a time when modern ideas about childhood and the nurturing role of the mother in particular were coming to the fore.
The first mother to appear on United States coinage was Eleanor Dare, who has been celebrated for giving birth to the first child born in the ‘New World’ to English parents. She appears on the reverse of the commemorative “Colonization of Roanoke” half dollar minted in 1936-37.
William Marks Simpson engraved the design, which features her holding the newborn Virginia Dare, flanked by the ships that brought the doomed colonists across the Atlantic.
The most notable mother on modern American currency is of course Sacagawea, who features on the little-used and oft-derided $1 coin. Designed by artist Glenda Goodacre (1939-), the obverse of the coin shows the Shoshone guide in three-quarter view with her son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau on her back. It’s a useful reminder of the way that mothers carry us through life. Happy Mother’s Day!
For more on motherhood and numismatics, see Anouska Hamlin’s fine article on the subject from the Winter 2010 edition of the ANS Magazine.