Question: It seems to me that the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM is used on some United States coins and not on some others. Is there a reason for this?
Answer: A survey of American coinage reveals that E PLURIBUS UNUM seems to have been used somewhat randomly, especially over the first century. The legend E PLURIBUS UNUM translates to “one composed of many.” It is included in the Seal of the United States and at the time of the seal’s creation was considered one of the new nation’s mottos.
Found on coins of the present era, this motto has a rich history, even dating back to copper issues of the 1780s, when it was used on such diverse items as Immunis Columbia issues, New Jersey coppers, Kentucky tokens, and several issues bearing the portrait of George Washington. Among the Washington pieces, it is interesting to note that the 1791 Large Eagle and the 1792 Eagle with Star have this motto transposed as UNUM E PLURIBUS.
The Coinage Act of February 12, 1873 included the statement “… upon the reverse shall be the figure or representation of an eagle, with the inscriptions ‘United States of America’ and ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ and a designation of the value of the coin … ” However, this rule does not seem to have been strictly followed, even on coins designed after 1873.
On half cents minted from 1793 to 1857 this motto wasn’t used at all. This was true of one-cent pieces until 1909, when it first appeared at the top of the reverse on the Lincoln cent. When Frank Gasparro redesigned the Lincoln cent reverse in 1959, E PLURIBUS UNUM could be found above the Lincoln Memorial.
Two-cent and three-cent pieces lacked the motto, as did nickel five-cent pieces until the debut of the 1883 Liberty Head nickel, which had E PLURIBUS UNUM at the bottom of the reverse below the wreath. Later in 1883 it was made smaller and repositioned to the top of the reverse, when the word CENTS was added in its previous position. From then on in the nickel series the motto remained through the Buffalo and Jefferson series.
On silver coins, E PLURIBUS UNUM appeared on some early issues, usually those featuring a Heraldic Eagle reverse design. The motto disappeared on Liberty Seated coins, but reappeared on Morgan and trade dollars and also on some of the Barber coins that first appeared in 1892. After the Barber silver series were ended, E PLURIBUS UNUM reappeared on all silver denominations and has remained a part of these designs ever since. The use of this motto was similarly erratic on gold coins, used on some designs but not on others.
Most commemorative half dollars have E PLURIBUS UNUM, sometimes even when there wasn’t enough room for it and it could not be fit logically into the design. On the 1922 Grant half dollar and even on the tiny Grant gold dollar, the motto is crammed in on the left side of the coin, requiring it to be split into four lines E / PLURI / BUS / UNUM.
In present times, E PLURIBUS UNUM can universally be found on United States coins, along with LIBERTY, IN GOD WE TRUST and, of course, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.