With the conclusion of the American Revolution and the establishment of the Constitutional Government, the United States became a haven for those who wished to better their previous lives in Europe. One such immigrant to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania around 1800 was Johann Matthaus Reich from Bavaria. Reich was a skilled engraver who sold himself into indentured servitude in order to finance his passage to the United States.

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson recommended John Reich to be hired as engraver at the Philadelphia Mint. President Jefferson had served as Cabinet officer in charge of the Mint while Secretary of State to President George Washington. He had developed a good “eye” and working knowledge of all aspects of the minting process while in France. Reich was unable to secure a full time position of engraver, but was hired for other duties. His freedom was also purchased by an unknown mint official at this time. Reich had a superb eye for the intricacies of coin engraving; in the opinion of many, much more so than the current Chief Engraver Robert Scot. Scot had designed most of the coins at the mint since the second year of operations in 1794.

By 1807, Scot at age 62, with failing eyesight, was agreeable to (due to once again the urging of President Jefferson) the hiring of John Reich as Assistant or Second Engraver by the new Mint Director, Robert Patterson. This overdue promotion was indeed timely, for Reich had become bored with his menial task assignments so much that he had contemplated returning to Europe. Patterson immediately assigned Reich to the task of redesigning most of the coins then in circulation. Reich began with the two most important coins for commerce, the half dollar and the half eagle.

The design for the Capped Bust half dollar is one of the most enduring in American numismatic history. Reich chose for the obverse a buxom portrait of Liberty facing left flanked by 13 stars. Liberty wears a cloth cap with the inscription: “LIBERTY.” This image gave the coin a distinctly European look, unlike anything that had preceded it from the Mint. The reverse features an eagle with a heraldic shield symbolizing the Union on its breast. It holds in its claws three arrows symbolizing strength and an olive branch representing peace. At the top of the eagle is the inscription:” UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” Directly above the eagle is a scroll with the incuse motto: “E PLURIBUS UNUM.” The denomination: “50 C.” is on the bottom of the coin. This coin features a lettered edge with the inscription: “FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR.” Reich used his own signature device of a small notch on the outside point of the13th star. The design for the gold half eagle was modified slightly to accommodate the requirements of the smaller diameter coin. Both coins were released in 1807 bearing the same date.

A similar design for the gold quarter eagle was issued in 1808. Also in 1808, using a modified version of his Capped Bust obverse, Reich designed a new cent coin that featured an adaptation of the reverse wreath design of Robert Scot. A half cent followed in 1809 that mirrored the cent. The Capped Bust dime would debut in 1809 and the quarter in 1815. Both coins were identical to the half dollar with the exception of the lettered edge of the half dollar being replaced by a reeded edge on the smaller coins.

An important innovation by Reich was to put the denomination on gold and silver coins. This had not been previously done at the mint. By 1815 what John Reich had accomplished, for the first time in U.S. Mint history, was to create a set of circulating coins with a common obverse device; that of the Capped Liberty. No one knows for sure who was the inspiration for this woman depicted on Reich’s coins. A 19th century writer speculated that the model was “Reich’s fat German mistress.” Reich modified the half eagle in 1813 to create what was to be known as the Capped Head design.

In 1817, Reich resigned from the employ of the Philadelphia Mint. He had lasted only 10 years with no promotion or pay raise and little praise from Scot. Robert Scot, Reich’s supervisor would stay at the Mint as Chief Engraver until his death in 1823. However, none of Scot’s designs would last as long as Reich’s Capped Bust half dollar; twenty nine years.