Peace Dollar Model Had Special Claim to Fame
BY ED REITER
Teresa de Francisci was a modest, unassuming woman. For many years, however, she had a distinction possessed by few other Americans: Her likeness appeared on one of the nation’s coins.
The coin was the Peace dollar, the last true silver dollar made for circulation by the United States Mint, and Mrs. de Francisci served as the model for the modern-looking Miss Liberty it portrayed.
She had the inside track for that job: Her husband, sculptor-medalist Anthony de Francisci, was the coin’s designer. They were still relative newlyweds at the time, having met and married shortly before – and both were new Americans, having come from their native Italy in the turn-of-the-century wave of immigration from southern Europe.
Teresa de Francisci
The future coin model – then Teresa Cafarelli – was only a small girl when she came with her mother in steerage class from Naples to New York. Legend has it that when she first saw the Statue of Liberty, she assumed a similar pose, foreshadowing her portrait on the dollar. She later cast doubt on this account, but admitted it made good reading.
“Considering how young I was, I don’t really think it could be true,” she said. “But somebody wrote that once, to make the story sound more interesting, I suppose – and you know how things like that come to be accepted as fact. It does make an interesting story.
“Later,” she added, “I was, of course, impressed by that statue. I think it’s a wonderful statue, and I think it means a great deal to almost everyone who has come over here from another country. And I’ve been very grateful to this country all my life.”
Teresa Cafarelli graduated in 1918 from Clinton High School in Clinton, Mass. – the first Italian-born girl to do so. She was introduced to de Francisci by her brother Michael, who had met him at art school in New York.
“That was Anthony’s Waterloo,” she said with a gentle laugh, adding quickly: “I mean that in a kidding way. We really had a very good marriage. I had a lot of understanding of his work, and we always had a lot of communication.”
The de Franciscis were living in New York when the coin opportunity came along in 1921.
“We were living in a fourth-floor walk-up in Manhattan, on West 60th Street,” she told me in an interview many years later, “and Anthony had his studio there, as well. And that’s where I posed for the coin.
“What he wanted,” she said, “was a portrait of Liberty – an idealized portrait of what it represented to him. I posed for it; whatever he got from life, he got from me. But he didn’t set out to make a portrait of me, and I wouldn’t really say that’s what it was.”
Perhaps not, but there is a striking resemblance between the Peace dollar’s fresh-faced portrait of Miss Liberty and photographs of Teresa de Francisci taken at about the same time. Her hair, then dark brown, turned silver white with age and her once-smooth brow grew creased, but even years later she still had the classic profile of the youthful coinage model.
Anthony de Francisci got the coin commission by winning a limited competition. He was one of nine artists invited by the Treasury to participate.
“Anthony never expected he would win,” his widow confided more than half a century later. “He was so young at the time, and some of the finest men in the country were invited.”
The field was exceptionally strong, including such first-rate artists as Adolph A. Weinman, designer of the “Mercury” dime and Walking Liberty half dollar; Hermon A. MacNeil, creator of the Standing Liberty quarter; and Victor D. Brenner, designer of the Lincoln cent.
Anthony de Francisci wasn’t a rank beginner by any means. Just one year earlier, he had designed the 1920 commemorative half dollar marking the centennial of the state of Maine, a well-received accomplishment that probably led the Treasury to invite him. But he was only 34 – and despite his reputation as a talented young sculptor, he seemed to have little chance against such glittering superstars in the field of medallic art.
That’s certainly the way he viewed the odds.
“Anthony was so certain he would lose,” his widow said, “that he told his artist friends, ‘I’ll give you a silver dollar if I win.’ Then, when he did win, we ordered 50 pieces from the Mint – and he gave them all away to keep his promise. He never even kept one for himself.”
Today, those 50 pieces have more than merely sentimental value. The 1921 Peace dollar had a relatively low mintage of just over 1 million, and well-struck specimens in top condition can bring thousands of dollars.
The de Franciscis never even kept one for themselves.
“We were never collectors,” Mrs. de Francisci explained. “Anthony was content to do the creating and let others do the collecting.”
As winner of the contest, her husband did receive a prize of $1,500 – a very substantial sum in those days. Each losing artist got $100 for taking part.
Mrs. de Francisci recalled the competition as having been “very, very quick.” The participating artists didn’t receive formal invitations until Nov. 19, 1921, and they had just three weeks to submit their sketches. Then, when the sketches were approved, they had only four days more to complete their plaster models – since coin production was scheduled to start, amazingly enough, before the end of the year.
“They gave the artists very little time,” Mrs. de Francisci said. “But Anthony was quick and facile. In fact, he submitted two completely different designs for the reverse.”
The federal Commission of Fine Arts, which judged the entries, first chose a de Francisci design showing an eagle breaking a sword in its beak. Later, however, the panel reversed itself and chose instead his other design – the one that appeared on the coin – which shows a more passive eagle resting atop a crag and looking off into the horizon.
“It was considered unpatriotic to have an eagle breaking a sword – even on a Peace dollar,” Mrs. de Francisci related. Critics, it seems, considered this as a symbol of defeat.
The Peace dollar was issued annually from 1921 to 1928. It went to the sidelines after that before returning for two final years in 1934 and ’35. It was the last 90-percent-silver U.S. dollar coin.
Anthony de Francisci went on to create many important works, both large and small – but, while his output included numerous medals, he designed no further coins. One of his final medallic works was the official inaugural medal for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. He also served for nearly 50 years as an instructor of sculpture at Columbia University in New York. He died in 1964 at the age of 76.
Teresa de Francisci outlived her husband by three decades, dividing her later years between a New York apartment and a quiet retreat in Rockport, Mass. She was 94 when she died in 1994, survived by a daughter, Gilda, the couple’s only child.
In a sense, of course, she’s still alive and vibrant for collectors. Her image and her spirit are immortalized in silver on a graceful dollar coin.