How does the mint decide what symbols and designs are inscribed on American coins?

The Director of the Mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, has the prerogative of choosing new coin designs, though changes cannot be made on any coin more than once every twenty five years, according to an act of Congress, Title 31, Section 276, enacted in 1890.

It wasn’t until the one hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth that public sentiment was sufficient to override one long standing prejudice, now rather hard to imagine: until the Lincoln cent, there had never been a portrait on a United States coin.

There is a stipulation, commanded by act of Congress, that every American coin bear a symbol of liberty. The advent of the Lincoln penny marked the Mint’s acknowledgment that certain prominent people in the history of the country who were no longer living could represent liberty.

In some instances Congress has prescribed new designs for coins. At the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, for example, Congress decided to put his portrait on the quarter. An act of Congress in 1963 placed the likeness of John F. Kennedy on the half dollar, and legislation in 1970 placed a portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower on the obverse of the dollar coin.

The Director of the Mint also responds to public sentiment, which was the motivating factor in placing the likeness of Franklin D. Roosevelt on the dime in 1946, one year after his death.

Inscriptions on the coins are required by law, as stated in Title 31, Section 324, U.S. Code, whose derivation dates as far back as 1873; it was last amended in 1970:

Upon one side of all coins of the United States there shall be an impression emblematic of liberty, with an inscription of the word “Liberty,” and upon the reverse side 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; but on the dime, 5 , and 1 cent piece, the figure of the eagle shall be omitted. The motto “In God we trust” shall be inscribed on all coins. Any coins minted after July 23, 1965, from 900 fine coin silver shall be inscribed with the year 1964. All other coins shall be inscribed with the year of the coinage or issuance unless the Secretary of the Treasury, in order to prevent or alleviate a shortage of coins of any denomination, directs that coins of the denomination continue to be inscribed with the last preceding year inscribed on coins of that denomination.