How come portraits on coins are in profile while those on bills are full face?

Dear Cecil:

How come the portraits on coins are always in profile while the ones on paper money are always full face?

Cecil replies:

You think this is stupid question, eh? Pull out some cash and have a look. The coin portraits are in profile, every one. The old white guys on currency, on the other hand, are all in full face. (Well, up to twenties, anyway.  I like to keep my liquidity low.) Is it coincidence … or plot?

Fact is, while full face portraits on coins aren’t completely unknown, they’re definitely rare, mostly showing up on commemoratives. The reason is that it’s tough getting a realistic likeness in full face, given the constraints of the medium. The relief on modern mass-circulation coins is low, typically just 16 thousandths of an inch, to permit them to be cranked out by the boatload on high-speed equipment. That doesn’t give the coin designer much room for the detailing that, on paper money or a stamp, makes a full face portrait easily recognizable. In a profile view, on the other hand, you can often tell who’s being depicted from the silhouette alone.

Currency designers prefer full face or three-quarter views for the same reason any portraitist does — so the subject can face the viewer. The only time coin designers can depict someone in full face is on commemoratives, which are more carefully struck and can be in higher relief. Even so the eye sockets are often set so deep that the subject looks like the victim of a famine.

Full face portraits on coins were more common once upon a time. They enjoyed something of a vogue in the middle ages, mainly because, even though they were totally unrealistic, they were simple to execute with the primitive tools of the time. But as Renaissance princes acquired more power they began to look askance at the amateurish full face depictions of their august selves on the realm’s coinage. Forsooth, they said, my two-year-old couldst do better than that. Guess I better have the royal coiner disemboweled. Mintmasters switched to the profile pronto.

Coin historian Richard Doty has dug up two examples of English coins illustrating the change during the reign of Henry VII, 1485-1509. The portrait on the first coin, apparently minted early on, is a nondescript full face view that could have been most anybody. Henry, who had reached the throne by overthrowing his predecessor, probably concluded that it would be smart to let people know who was in charge and so the later coin shows him quite realistically in profile. Or at least it realistically shows somebody. Paranoia being no less a factor then than today, maybe it was the royal gardener, so as to throw off assassins. Be that as it may, profiles on coins have been pretty much standard ever since.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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