James Longacre

James Longacre Biography

James Barton Longacre, who would become the fourth U.S. Coin Chief Engraver for the U.S. Mint and a talented designer and portraitist, came from modest roots. He was born in 1794 on a farm in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, to Sarah and Peter Longacre. His mother died when James was a young boy. After his father remarried, James found home life intolerable and ran away at the age of 12 to nearby Philadelphia. The boy found work as an apprentice to Philadelphia bookseller James F. Watson, who took him in as part of his family. Watson recognized Longacre’s skill as a portrait designer, and when the boy was 18 years old, Watson allowed him to leave his apprenticeship to work with George Murray, a banknote engraver with the firm, Murray, Draper, Fairman & Company in Philadelphia. Longacre worked with Murray for six years, during which time he built a solid reputation as an engraver of metal plates for printing illustrations and paper money.

Early Career

In the years before he joined the Mint, Longacre married Eliza Stiles and had a family. Their first child, daughter Sarah, was born a year after they married in 1827 and she was followed by three sons and a second daughter. Ten years later, after the economic Panic of 1837 stunted sales of Longacre’s four volumes of the Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, he declared bankruptcy and peddled his books from town to town through the South and Midwest. His wife, Eliza, and eldest daughter, Sarah, managed the shipping and finances from home. Later that year, however, he returned home to Philadelphia and opened a banknote engraving firm with partners, Toppan, Draper, Longacre & Co. With high demand for engravings for state-issued bank notes, the firm prospered and opened a branch office on Wall Street in New York City.

 The Path to the U.S. Mint

Longacre ventured out in 1819 and started his own business in Philadelphia engraving bank notes and creating engravings for book illustrations. His first commissions included plates for S.F. Bradford’s Encyclopedia in 1820, and an engraving of General Andrew Jackson based on a portrait by Thomas Sully. He produced portraits of the nation’s founding fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock, which were published in a book, Declaration of Independence, by John Binns. In 1834, Longacre and artist James Herring of New York City published a series of biographies on influential Americans titled, National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. The work featured portraits of prominent political and military leaders – many of whom Longacre met personally – including Andrew Jackson, James Madison, and former U.S. Vice President and Senator John Calhoun from South Carolina. Calhoun was impressed with his work and became one of his advocates – so much so that when U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Christian Gobrecht died in 1844, Calhoun used his influence to appoint Longacre to the position in September 1844. Political infighting marred Longacre’s first few years working with Chief Coiner Franklin Peale and Mint Director Robert Maskell Patterson, the first of whom utilized the Mint’s resources for personal gain. But the conflict dissipated after Peale was fired by Director James Ross Snowden in 1854, by which time Patterson had retired (in 1851).

In addition to designing Liberty Head double eagles, Longacre designed the gold dollar in 1849, the Flying Eagle cent in 1857, which proved difficult to strike, and its replacement, the Indian Head cent issued in 1859, the Shield nickel in 1866, the gold dollar in 1854, and the two-cent piece in 1864 as well as many patterns and medals. From 1866 to 1867, Longacre redesigned the coins of Chile. He served the U.S. Mint with distinction until his sudden death on January 1, 1869. Longacre’s Liberty Head design, with modifications, endured until 1907, until it was replaced with Augustus Saint-Gaudens new motif.