Skip to content

Medal Manufacturing

Medal Manufacturing.  The production of medallic items, usually diestruck on presses (larger items are cast or electroformed), often smaller medals are made at mints as an ancillary activity to coin production. Medal making as an industry, with separate companies specializing only in making medals and similar products, did not exist until the early 19th century in Europe and not until 1892 in America.

Medal manufacturing includes more than three-quarters of the techniques detailed in this encyclopedia, from design through every step of production and with the finishing and mounting of custom-made medallic items. This indicates that coining uses much of the same technology as employed by medalmakers (which has some of its own distinctive technology, of course) but often when new striking technology is introduced it is tried first on medals before it is adapted to coins.

Medal making in Europe.  Medal making passed through three stages before a medal industry was created in Europe. The first stage was artists casting medals in their own workshops or studios (atliers). Pisanello and his followers first cast medals beginning in 1438 and this practice continued during the Renaissance. For another century medal artists worked only in their own work-shops. goldsmiths, then, were the manufactures of medallic items with a blending of objects where it is difficult to tell where medals differ from jewelry (or jewelry, pendants and such, perhaps, differ from medals). Benvenuto Cellini and Hans Reinhart the elder were noted examples of goldsmith medallists.

The goldsmiths of Nurnenberg and Ausgsburg had access to coin and medal equipment – rolling machines, screw presses for blanking and striking – to produce the first struck medals and this was the second stage of medal making. These were smaller than the cast medals of the Renaissance and early goldsmiths. These medals were nearer to coins in size and style because of the similarity of manufacture and use of coining equipment.  These goldsmiths were often the court jewelers who also manufactured decorations of honor, the collars, stars, badges of orders and chivalrous societies.

With the industrial revolution and the development of striking presses, beginning with Matthew Boulton’s Soho Mint (1789), and later the Dietrich Uhlhorn’s press (1812), medal making moved to coinage mints, the third stage of European medal making. Dies were cut much like coins. Mints had two kinds of presses – coining for up to dollar size coins –and screw presses normally used for hubbing. If the medals could not be struck on coining presses, they could be pressed, laboriously, and at a much slower pace, one at a time, on screw presses.

The Wyon family of engravers came to England, settled in Birmingham, did some die engraving for Matthew Boulton, a branch of the family also located in London. Here William Wyon was to dominate medal manufacturing, but he, his son, and many other Wyon family members were engravers at the Royal Mint. Their medal issuing was interspersed with coin engraving.

It was not until mid 1800s (the firm uses the date 1836) that Stefano Johnson was established in Milan, devoted solely to medallic productions. This marks the beginning of the private medal making in Europe. Since that time Artrus Bertrand was established in Paris; Ortel, Mayer and Laurer in Germany; Schneider in Austria, Fonson in Belgium, Pinches in England, Heguein in Switzerland, and a number of medallic companies in Sweden, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere.

Medal making in early America.  When a thankful Continental Congress wanted to issue a medal to George Washington (for his successful campaigns in the Revolutionary War) Benjamin Franklin had to go to France, and to the Mint there in Paris, to have these struck. The Washington Evacuation of Boston Medal, 1789 (also known as Washington Before Boston Medal) was the first of ten such Congressional authorized medals, for military and naval heroes. These medals were all designed and engraved by French medallists and struck at the Paris Mint (Julian MI-1, MI-2, MI-3, MI-5, MI-6, MI-7, MI-8, MI-9, MI-10, NA-1, IP-50, CM-15).

With the establishment of the United States Mint in 1792 the first coins were struck, and, perhaps (since we do not know exactly when) the first metal. Rickett’s Circus Medal was struck in either 1792 or 1793. It had a coat of arms on the obverse and the name (misspelled with two s’s) on the reverse. This first medal was struck for a private organization, one that had nothing to do with national interest, but was allowed to be made at the mint.

For the next 156 years any American organization could have the United States Mint strike a medal for them!  (As long as it was not political in nature, thus campaign medals had to have been struck by private medal makers.) For much of this time a medal industry just did not exist in America.

Early private medalmakers.  If you wanted a medal, say an award medal, your choices were very limited. You could have the medal (of any size) hand engraved, as were the first Indian Peace medals, and many early American medals. For a struck medal you were limited to less than an inch in diameter (struck by small one-man shops, operated by the engraver with a single small press). For a large medal (say, over two inches) there was no manufacturer in America that had the equipment to produce such an item. Large medals either had to be struck at the U.S. Mint or struck overseas.

Thus early American engravers controlled medal issuing for the first half century of 1800s. Only a handful of these craftsmen existed in America, mostly in New York, Philadelphia and Boston. These few private makers of small size medals did their own engraving, diesinking, and striking on makeshift screw presses, and, rarely, did medal finishing.

Usually these craftsmen would do any form of engraving – carve cameos, engrave seals, monogram silverware, do flat engraving of prints, or the roller dies for printing long strips of paper (as wallpaper!).  All this in addition to cutting dies, that is diesinking, for striking tokens and medals. Yet, not all these die engravers had presses to stamp these small items. Those who did had rather primitive equipment. If they had a press they called themselves a firm: Bale and Smith, Wright and Bale, Smith and Hartmann, or such.

A turning point in this history was a shortage of coins, particularly cents, just prior to the Civil War. Thus these hand engravers made “merchants tokens” in cent size to alleviate the cent shortage. Enterprising merchants bought tokens from engravers who would engrave dies with the name, address and some statement about the merchant’s business on them. Merchants passed these off as one-cent coins. This served both to relieve the cent shortage and be somewhat of a promotional item for their businesses.

These diesinkers could make medals as well as tokens and some did. By leaving off any reference to a denomination or exchange for some product, these items were technically a medal (but circulated for cents because of the similarity in size and composition). But all had to be less than that one-inch diameter because of the primitive striking presses, however.

In 1851 the New York jewelry firm, Tiffany & Co., made its first medal. They did the same as other organizations. Other than a few small medals (later struck in their silverware plant in Newark), and a few medals struck at the U.S. Mint, Tiffany contracted for most large medals produced in Europe. They were followed, on a smaller scale, by Gorham Company, in Providence, Rhode Island; Bailey, Banks and Biddle in Philadelphia; and later by Reed and Barton in Baltimore for a very few medals.

Modern medalmakers. It really wasn’t until the Columbian Exposition in 1892 in which medal makers were attracted to come to America to produce an unprecedented quantity of medals. August Frank came from Germany to Philadelphia, where William W. Warner, Silas Quint and Joseph K. Davison’s Sons were already established, making Philadelphia the center of medal making in America at the turn of the 20th century.

But other medal makers sprung up elsewhere: Whitehead & Hoag, in Newark (they purchased their first press in 1899 and established a medal department in a new building, 1904), for example. Earlier C.D. Childs had moved his firm from Boston to New York to Chicago, where another firm started up during the 1892 World’s Fair: Greenduck.  also Schwaab Stamp and Stencil was located in Milwaukee.

The medallic products of each of these firms were tied to the engraver employed by the firm (usually a proprietor), and the kind of equipment each had. A numismatist experienced in American medals can often look at a given medal and recognize the work of these firms they were so distinctive. In one instance where Childs received a commission for a large medal they could not strike with existing equipment they, again, had these produced in Europe.

With the importation from France of a machine to cut dies from oversize models, two Frenchmen, Henri and Felix Weil started, in 1907, what was to become Medallic Art Company in America. This firm, from very lowly beginnings was to grow to dominate medal production in this country in the 20th century.

Their concept was entirely different from all other medal companies operated by engraver-proprietors in the country. By using oversize models the Weil brothers turned to sculptors to prepare the patterns for medals, from which they made the dies (cutting them on the die-engraving pantograph – the Janvier pantograph from France). Medal making transferred from the hand engraver cutting dies exact size needed, to an artist who could work in any media – clay, wax, metal, wood, plaster – whatever the sculptor found convenient.

A metal shell, an electroformed GALVANO was made from this original model and served as the pattern to be mounted on the die-engraving machine. The galvano was a permanent metal pattern from which new dies could be produced at any time and in any size, to replace a broken die, or to easily revise the design or lettering (should that be required by the client). This process was beneficial for these stated reasons and eliminated the tedious engraving of dies by hand.

At first it was, in fact, sculptors who brought the medal jobs to Medallic Art Company; organizations would commission the sculptor, and Medallic Art served the sculptor to produce their medals. After 1929 Medallic Art, under an aggressive new owner, Clyde Curlee Trees, sought the jobs directly from organizations, then the firm commissioned sculptors to prepare the models.

Previously in the 19th century, every medal of the engraver/proprietor firms looked nearly alike (because it was the work of one or two engravers); Medallic Art medals each looked different! Their medallic work looked varied because it was by different artists. Each sculptor had his own style and technique, usually, from all other sculptors. The firm reproduced the work of over 300 sculptors in the first sixty years in business.

Medallic Art had a number of competitors: Whitehead & Hoag and Davison’s Sons at first, Metal Arts, Bastian Brothers and Robbins later on. (Whitehead & Hoag went out of business in 1964, selling out to Metal Arts of Rochester.) August Frank Company, whose medallic work had diminished after the death of its founder in 1946, sold out to Medallic Art in November 1972.  Some of these firms did reproduce the work of commissioned sculptors, most, however, employed factory artists to create their medallic models.

Thus anyone who wanted a medal struck went to diesinkers in the first half of the 19th century, then to jewelry firms after the Civil War, then, near the turn of the 20th century, to sculptors. After World War I trophy houses began to make medals, created for the most part to supply the growing need for sports award medals. Then to advertising specialty firms when businesses began employing medals for a wide range of promotional needs, commemoration and incentive awards.

Finally, in the 1960s began the rise of medallic firms established solely to create medallic items for sale to the public. Franklin Mint’s success spawned imitators, mostly short-lived, but a new class of medal manufacturers arose just to produce collector medals, the private mint.

It wasn’t until 1948 when the United States Mint stopped accepting orders from private organizations in direct competition with these private medal makers – who had, by then, acquired large presses and other equipment to strike medals of any size. But for existing orders (or where the Mint still had the dies) the U.S. Mint continued striking private medals. It was not until 1956 the U.S. Mint struck their last private medal.

Reasons for issuing a medal.  The overwhelming reason to issue a medal was to commemorate an event. This could be any event from the inauguration of a president or man’s walk on the moon to the winner of a foot race in a local athletic contest. Medals become a permanent record of this event. The attached Word List of Medal Types – words often found on the medal itself – give an indication of the many events which can and have been immortalized in medallic form.

A most interesting reason, a name change, for issuing a medal occurred in 1866. The New York Free Academy (an educational organization founded in 1847) changed its name to College of the City of New York. It issued a medal for the event, engraved by William H. Key. In later years, when organizations and institutions changed their name, they would have it changed on any current award medals causing new dies to be made (die retooling) with new varieties for collectors.

Rise of proof surface medal manufacturing.  Proof surface coins were struck by the U.S. Mint in the 19th and early 20th century as an accommodation for collectors. It resumed striking these in 1936, only to cease during World War II. It resumed again in 1950 with increasing collector interest. It proved so popular that sales of these reached exorbitant heights, far surpassing the number of numismatists or even the number of serious collectors in America. The general public was buying these and forming an interest in coin collecting.

If coins made with a proof surface were so popular with the public why not custom designed medals in proof surface? Several of the newly formed private mints tried, but one, Franklin Mint, was outstandingly successful. They created 66 series of medals and hundreds of single issues before the market could absorb no more proof surface items.

Throughout this entire development, over half a millennium, the one constant has been the artist, the person who creates a design to be immortalized in metal. It has only been the men and machines which produce that medal design that have changed dramatically in that time: the medal manufactures.

Word List #22:  Types of Medals.  Note: This list are types only, which are not to be confused with TOPICs, of which are more than 300.

accession                                      MAP SHAPE

Achievement                                       Medal of Honor                                                         

Alumni (or Alumnae)                         MEDALLIC OBJECT

anniversary                                           Memorial

Approbation                                        Merit

ART BAR                                                         Military

ART MEDAL                                                   mini

assay                                               national

award                                             ... Of the Year [as Coach,

baptismal, BIRTH                                                 Man, Student, Woman]

bethrothal                                             Next of Kin

Bicentennial                                        official

BIJOU                                                               Opening

bolo                                                 Oratory

BULLION MEDAL                                         patented

cabinet                                           PENDANT

calendar                                       personal

campaign                                                   PLAQUETTE

Centennial                                           Polar

Chairman’s                                         Police

CHALLENGE COIN                                       political

Christening                                         portrait

civil award                                       premium

Collaborative                                      President’s

COMMEMORATIVE                                      prize

Commendation                                   proclamation

congressional                            Production

CONVENTION                                                Red Cross

cornerstone                                           RELIC

coronation                                              RETIREMENT

Dean’s                                                 satirical

Dedication                                          Scholarship

Distinguished Service                         seal

Ethics                                                  Service

EXPOSITION                                                   Sesquicentennial

Fantasy                                                Show

Festival                                               signet

Fire Brigade                                        souvenir

foundation                                               Speakers

Fraternal                                             Sports Award

gallantry                                                stock

Good Conduct                                     street

grand prix                                                survivor’s

Hall of Fame                                       table

historical                                                Tercentenary

inaugural                                                Token

keystone                                       Trademark 

KEY TAG                                                         TRIBUTE

lady’s                                             TWO-PART, MULTI-PART

largess                                           United Nations

laudatory                                               Veteran’s

Life Saving                                         Visitor

list                                                    votive

Literary                                               wedding

Longevity, Long Life                         Wound

LUCKY CHARM                                             YEAR

marriage                                                   ZODIAC

The terms in small caps have entries in this encyclopedia; those terms not in small caps have meaning the same as every-day language.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


NNP is 100% non-profit and independent // Your feedback is essential and welcome. // Your feedback is essential and welcome.