Displayed in the Visitor Center (the converted Carriage House) at James A. Garfield National Historic Site is a beautiful coin donated by Mollie Garfield, daughter of President and Mrs. James A. Garfield.
The coin is an 1881 Morgan Silver dollar. The Morgan dollars were minted from 1878 until 1904 and again in 1921. They were minted in five different U.S. mints: Denver (D), Philadelphia (no mint mark), New Orleans (O), Carson City (CC), and San Francisco (S). They were designed by George T. Morgan and hence named after him. These were the only dollar coins minted throughout this period and were often given as keepsakes (and still are today). Many wives of soldiers gave one to their husbands to take to war or wherever else they went. However, few Morgan dollars are ever engraved as Mollie’s is. Her coin is engraved with the exact date it was minted: September 19, 1881, the day of her father’s death.
Mary (Mollie) Garfield was born January 16, 1867, one of seven children born to James and Lucretia Garfield. She was one of the five Garfield children who lived to adulthood (sister Eliza and brother Edward both died at an early age). She was raised in Ohio and Washington, D.C. and in 1888, seven years after her father’s death, she married Joseph Stanley-Brown, former personal secretary to President Garfield. She and her husband eventually settled in Pasadena, California. Mollie died in 1947 at age 80.
Though this was a specially-engraved, one-time coin to commemorate President James A. Garfield’s death, other coins have been minted to mark former presidents’ deaths. The most common of these coins is the John F. Kennedy half-dollar. The coin was proposed a month after President Kennedy’s assassination and the bill to strike the coin was quickly passed. Jacqueline Kennedy, President Kennedy’s widow, was given the choice to have her late husband’s portrait on the half-dollar, dollar, or quarter. She chose the half-dollar, replacing Benjamin Franklin’s likeness on the coin. The first Kennedy half-dollars were struck in 1964 and are still being struck today.
While the death of a president is important, so is his birth. This is exemplified by the Lincoln cent, first introduced in 1909 on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth. When these cents were first introduced, the back of the coin depicted two pieces of wheat. This was changed to an image of the Lincoln Memorial in 1959 during the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. In 2009, to honor the bicentennial, the U.S. Mint produced four different backs on the penny showing Lincoln during four different stages of his life. The first features a log cabin, representing his birth and early childhood in Kentucky. Second is his formative years in Indiana, showing him sitting on a log. Next, his professional life in Illinois is interpreted with an image of Lincoln in front of the Illinois State Capitol. Finally, the U.S. Capitol represents his presidency.
Though President Garfield never had a coin (other than Mollie’s) struck to honor his death or birth, he is depicted on one coin. The new gold dollars depict former presidents, starting with George Washington in 2007. Four coins were released each year, with Garfield, the 20th President, going into circulation in late 2011.
Coins can be looked at in one of two ways. The first is looking at them purely as forms of currency. The second is one that coin collectors and a few others can understand and appreciate. This is looking at coins as pieces of history, things that will be preserved for many years honoring an important person or occasion. This is the way I view my coins, and perhaps the next time someone hands you change, you will consider yours in the same light.
-Samuel Fuller, age 17, Cleveland, Ohio-Volunteer Contributor