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Device.  The principal design element on a coin or medal (not including the lettering); often a portrait or other pictorial design. There can be only one principal device on each side; other pictorial elements – still omitting lettering – are known as subsidiary devices (British adminical), symbols, emblems, background texture or other elements in the field. The term for the numismatic type usually derives from the name of the device (Liberty head, Jefferson nickel). Also the name, or nickname, the public uses for the coin often evolves from the device as well.

The term device comes from heraldry, where it has a somewhat different

meaning. A heraldic device is a design element that includes the motto, often placed on a ribbon, riband circle or other heraldry bearing. Since heraldic design contained no portraits, the heraldic device differs from a numismatic device. In coin and medal design, where portraits are so often used, the device includes the portrait or whatever element is the principal design.

The concept of what precisely is the device of any given numismatic design has bothered numismatists for years. Even numismatic writer Walter Breen, commenting in 1970 on the Liberty Standing quarter, called the figure of Liberty as the device, but not the two brick walls she stands between. He also stated he fails to identify the device on the reverse of the Texas Centennial Commemorative half dollar of 1935 because of a too busy and crowded design. (By the above definition this is easy: the winged Victory is the device, the two portraits within circular panels, while the Alamo and six flags are subsidiary devices.)

The concept of a precise device was easier to understand prior to the 20th century when the design for a coin or medal was usually a single iconographic item, as a portrait or pictorial element. This was common because of the method of die making, where the device was carved or cut on a puncheon, the device punch, or reduction punch. This had the entire device on the punch – everything but the lettering. The device was punched into the die and lettering added by letter punches afterwards.

Once the designing of coins and medals passed from engravers to sculptors (circa 1900) with the use of the oversized model reduced by the die-engraving pantograph, a simple device (and lettering added by punches) was less appealing. It was just as easy to model the entire design, lettering and all, in one master pattern, or, perhaps, fill the entire design with detail. The device became more complex. The device still remains, however, the above definition: everything but lettering and subsidiary devices.

Occasionally, when the device fills the entire flan – an example is the obverse of

World War II series (issued by Presidential Art) – this is known in numismatics as a vignette. For such vignette designs the device should be obvious, it is the entire design.


C60 {1970} Breen [Minting Process] p 41.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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