Years ago Washington’s birthday was one of the most important national holidays. It was celebrated on February 22, this being the anniversary day of his birth in 1722 as expressed in the revised calendar. Then that changed to George’s birthday being on a Monday near February 22. Lincoln’s birthday was specifically observed as well. Today, in 2013, we only have one actual American historical figure honored, that being Martin Luther King, Jr. On the religious calendar we have the birthday of Jesus, celebrated on December 25, although the actual date is not known. Lincoln, Washington, and others are combined into President’s Day, a modern catch all somewhat similar to Halloween (the origin of which was an evening to celebrate all Roman Catholic saints rather than doing this separately. However, I must not forget St. Patrick, the Irishman who has his own day and, as this is a numismatic column, worthy of mentioning in connection as his coins were once distributed in New Jersey in colonial times. Then we have Punxsutawney Phil, who has his own day on February 2, an American mammal we all enjoy.
Turning to a more serious vein, presidents have been important in American numismatics for a long time. This began in a significant way during the presidency of George Washington, the first to hold this office. Today tokens and coins related to Washington can be found in the early pages of A Guide Book of United States Coins, not to overlook the extensive section on Washington quarter dollars, and here and there commemorative coins depicting the Father of our Country. Thomas Jefferson, the third president (he followed John Adams) is memorialized on nickel five-cent pieces as well as on certain commemoratives. Abraham Lincoln is familiar of course on our penny, but also on so many other coins that in the 1920s Robert King composed a listing of many hundreds of tokens and medals. In recent times Fred Reed, distinguished author, editor of the Token and Medal Society Journaland Paper Money, has written two landmark books on Lincoln, one dealing with his image and the other dealing with various coins, tokens, medals, advertising products, and other things bearing his name or image. Both are available from the Whitman website and are worth owning. As to the greatest president after Washington, who certainly takes the honors, Lincoln is a prime candidate. Among my favorites in the rest of the field is Teddy Roosevelt who, sadly, has been noticeably lacking from regular or commemorative coinage, although a teensy, weensy, picture of him as part of the Mount Rushmore group can be see on some commemorative coins. Other presidents could be mentioned, of course, including “Silent Cal” Coolidge, who as a living president in 1926 was depicted on commemorative half dollars.
Beyond coins, a nice selection of presidents can be found on American currency old and new. Washington is the most familiar on $1 notes. Non-presidents are also represented, most familiarly Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin.
Tokens featuring presidents, used for monetary substitutes, are a rather rare breed of cat, although enough exist that a nice display can be formed, such as of Civil War tokens. Medals are another thing entirely, and all presidents have been honored in one way or another, some of them with multiple productions.
Viewed from any angle, presidents are indeed a dynamic and fascinating part of American numismatics.