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National Medal

National Medal.  A medal of national character or interest; a medal struck by a national mint. In the United States “national medals” is a loose term for all the medals produced by the United States Mint at present, but only about half of those of the past. It includes all the medals authorized by U.S. Congress (congressional medals) plus all those sold to the public by the United States Mint (list medals). The term excludes private issue medals (once widely manufactured by the U.S. Mint but which have not been struck since 1956).

The term national medal has legal meaning in that it is mentioned in the United States Code (section 31, paragraph 368). This states that dies for national medals can be executed and the medals struck at the Mint with the approval of the Director, provided production of the medals do not interfere with the production of coins; further, no private dies can be made at the Mint, nor can the machinery in the Mint be used for private purpose.

Nineteenth century.  The wording in the current Code is in stark contrast to the situation in the 19th century. For most nations early in their history, private medal presses with the capability to strike large medals just do not exist (it comes with a highly industrial development and a refined cultural need). In most countries the national mint is often the only source where large medals of artistic design can be produced. So it was in the United States as late as the 1890s.

Individuals, and organizations (both governmental and private), had to apply to the Philadelphia Mint as the only American maker of such medallic work. The only medals the U.S. Mint would not strike in the 19th century were political or campaign medals (although this rule was apparently broken for the Mint striking the Lincoln Cabinet Medal, PR-35, in 1964, and the John Charles Freemont Medal, PE-11, in 1863, which had been used during his presidential campaign of 1856). All campaign medals had to be struck by private medal makers. For the most part these were created by diesinkers who did not have presses of great capacity, thus most campaign medals were small diameter, token-like medals.

Left to their discretion, the directors of the mint were fairly liberal in allowing medals of any kind to be produced at the mint. Thus even wedding medals, Sunday school medals, parade medals, dog show and other ephemeral medals were struck at the national mint. These clients had to pay for the cost of making the dies, the blanking and striking, plus the cost of the metal composition (although they would sometimes furnish their own dies, or their own metal!).

About half of all the medals struck by the U.S. Mint from 1792 until 1900 could be considered personal or private, certainly not of a “national character.” Whether any medal met the test of national interest was not required during most of the 19th century.

Twentieth century.  Since 1892, and early in the 20th century, the rising infant medal industry sought out this business. Private American medal manufacturers grew in the 20th century until there existed ample production facilities available, eliminating the need for the U.S. Mint to strike such pieces.

Private medal manufacturers mounted their most aggressive campaign against the U.S. Mint for striking private medals during the depression in the mid 1930s. Orders had fallen until they had work for only half days. Despite this plea to get the mint out of the business which should have gone to private industry, the U.S. Mint continued.

It accepted private medal orders until 1948 but continued to strike those medals

for which they had the dies. Only since 1950 has the definition of national medals been codified to eliminate the striking of personal and private medals by the U.S. Mint. The last such private medal was struck in 1956.  See private issue.


O37 {1977} Julian.

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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