The Phrygian or "Freedom" Cap

The 10-cent note of the fourth issue is one of the most sought after of the more available fractional varieties, simply because it, like the 15-cent bill that followed it, is beautiful.

The model for Lady Liberty is said to have been a young woman named Mary Hull. American coinage and currency have personified Liberty—always in feminine form-—in disparate aspects since their inception. In 1793, the first denominations produced in the newly completed mint in Philadelphia included half cent and large cent coins featuring a "flowing hair" profile of our lady. She was a wild one, still out of breath from the Revolution, her hair sailing behind her as if she were still racing to battle, to freedom. Too, several of those early copper issues had the lady carrying a pole over her shoulder with a cap atop the pole, the very same cap of freedom placed on the head of Mary Hull by veteran engraver Charles Burt.

Born in Edinburgh in 1823, Burt lived most of his life in the US and died here is 1892. Like most artists of any era, he took what work was available whenever he could find it. His works included original subjects, but were most often taken from existing paintings and etchings from which he would create engravings on commission. As a freelance artist, his work covered the gamut of subjects from portraits to vignettes. Some of his art includes engravings of American Indian subjects, both portrait and group scenes. He was most famous though, for his portrait work and his contributions as chief engraver for the Treasury Department.

His creations can be found on many American bills, and not just the fractional series. His image of Martha Washington, for example, graces the reverse of the 1896, one-dollar silver certificate which is part of what has become known as the "Educational Series", a grouping generally recognized as the most artistic in the history of US currency. His other fractional contributions include the famously disgruntled pose of William Meredith on the ten-cent note of the fifth issue, and the sublimely rendered likeness of Lincoln on the 50-cent bill of the fourth issue.

. . . but, to return to the history of the cap of freedom: Scholars tend to agree that the cap originated in antiquity, in an ancient land that is now mostly Turkey called Phrygia. Earliest examples and samples suggest the cap was soft, usually colored red, and, as it is on Mary Hull, peaked, with the peak pulled forward. It would be a waste of scholarly time to investigate the reasons for the design. Best guess would be that it was simply a way of identifying the Phrygians as a particular people in a region where the dominant culture and hegemony were constantly shifting as tribes, conquerors, and emerging city states vied for control.

It's real significance for colonial America-—known simply as the colonies or "Columbia-—originated in classical Rome. In Rome, donning the Phrygian cap signified you were a freed slave, and also identified your children as citizens of Rome. In that context is was taken up by the American revolutionaries, carried on poles, and lead the way into battle as an unlikely symbol of precious freedom.

By no means strictly an American icon, the freedom cap can be found around the globe on government buildings, flags, and banners, and its symbolism remains constant, representing the human need, and willingness to fight, for freedom. I'm not sure what it means to the Smurfs.