Daniel Chester French was commissioned to prepare the Catskill Aqueduct Medal in 1917. He chose a female head as his theme and modeled it in classical style. This included a beaded border of dots that further emphasized the classical treatment. It was sponsored by the American Numismatic Society (to their credit!) and issued in three-inch cast size in bronze and silver. It was also struck in dollar size 1 1/2-inch bronze and silver and thus became a so-called dollar, what collectors call a special class of silver-dollar size medals of somewhat souvenir status.
In 1932 president Clyde Curlee Trees of Medallic Art Company, which had produced the die-struck medals, chose the female head from the obverse of this medal to become his company’s trademark. He eliminated the classical circular beaded border but kept the female head intact. He ordered dies made in five different sizes (without the border) and the design became famous for its appearance in the company’s advertising, stationery, nameplates, business cards, even as a mintmark (first used by the firm in 1968).
In honor of its creator, Daniel Chester French, the trademark became known, throughout the company and in the medallic field, as the “French Head.” Also in a fortunate confluence of words and names, it also honored the native country of Medallic Art founders and the source of medallic art as an art medium, as French artists have been strong proponents of sculptural bas-relief and the glyptic field of medallic art. Further, France’s national mint in Paris has been a strong proponent of medallic art for over three hundred years.
Thus, medallic art – small “m” small “a” – became Medallic Art – capital “M” capital “A.” And Daniel Chester French’s classical female head symbolized both very well. President Trees had made an ideal choice. The symbol has stood the test of time and the approbation of the art field.
This symbol is ideal for another reason as well. Trademarks were first invented on medals! The father of the art medal, Pisanello (Antonio Vittore Pisano,1397?-1455?, Italian sculptor, painter, inventor of the art medal,1439) , added little symbols to his portrait medals. These had very obscure meanings.
Lottie Salton, writing on her husband’s collection of Renaissance medals in 1959, revealed the name for a Pisanello portrait symbol was Impresa. She said you really had to know the person very well to understand the meaning of the symbol. Other medalists copied Pisanello’s idea, adding an impresa to their artistic creations.
This continued forward from the fifteenth century and the use of logos exploded in the modern world. But instead of continuing the obscurity, these symbols became simplified – and symbolic – of an entity, whether an organization, institution or even a nation.
Thus every organized body in the world today has a trademark, logo or symbol, to identify their existence – thanks to Pisanello! And his impresa symbols first appearance on medals!
Fast forward to 1968. Franklin Mint had become widely successful promoting proof-surface coin-relief medals. This had created a demand by Medallic Art’s clients for similar medals. This year was the celebration of Illinois 150th anniversary, its Sesquicentennial. Head of the Illinois Sesquicentennial Commission was Malvin Hoffman. He had held a similar position in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair where he had become acquainted with Medallic Art Company personnel and products at that time.
For the Illinois celebration Hoffman wanted the best artist and the best medal. He chose a native Illinois sculptor, Trygve A. Rovelstad to create the models and Medallic Art to produce the art medal. But he also had the Franklin Mint produce a proof-surface, coin-relief medal.
President Bill Louth recognized his firm should have struck all the medals for this event; he realized Medallic Art could have more business by being able to strike coin-relief medals. Previously the firm had provided coin-relief pieces only by striking on their 250-ton medal press, a slow process.
So, Medallic Art bought its first coining press. In Germany. From Schuller. And flew it to New York City! Time was critical. (However the profit from that one Illinois job more than offset that whopper of an air-freight bill!)
Since everything struck before was on knuckle-joint presses – by multiple striking – the concept of single-strike capability was unique to the firm. Louth wanted a trademark for Medallic Art coin-relief medals. He chose the term UNIMEDAL for a single-strike piece.
He called for conference in his office of all management, salesmen, production foreman and the author. “I want a trademark before you leave the room,” he challenged us. Even with the accumulated knowledge of all assembled we could not come up with a symbol for a single-struck item.
“Okay,” he said, “we’re going with the French Head.” And so Rovelstad’s relief model for an art medal was remodeled for lower relief (that could be struck in a single blow). A small outline of the French Head within a circle was added to the plaster. On the struck pieces in 1½-inch size it was only a few millimeters wide. But there it was: French’s female head in outline form, in another permutation.
The original event that inspired Daniel Chester French’s creation in 1917 was to honor the completion of the aqueduct (from the Catskills to New York City for the city’s water supply). For French to have created such an artistic design is sheer genius. The aqueduct proved successful, and although it has been refurbished 80 years later, it is still supplying New York City with its ever-increasing water needs.
French’s head was also successful, both on the medal and for Medallic Art’s trademark. It also provides a lesson for medallic artists everywhere – an inspiration to create their finest artistic work despite the subject, no matter how mundane. After all, the original medal was created to honor a water pipe!