While you may have seen some of their designs on coins in your collection, did you ever stop to consider the story of the artists who created the Buffalo Nickel, the Oregon Trail Half Dollar, the 1922 Grant Gold Dollar, or the 1921 Alabama Half Dollar? Laura Gardin Fraser and James Earle Fraser were an intriguing husband and wife duo who both created several beloved coin designs during their active artistic careers, including the aforementioned pieces.
In an era where women’s contributions outside the home were rarely recognized, Laura Gardin Fraser became an acclaimed sculptor and earned the distinction of being the first female coin designer for the US Mint. Born Laura Gardin in 1889, she studied art at the Art Students League in New York City after graduating from high school. It was here that she met her future husband, the sculptor James Earle Fraser. Despite their shared interest in sculpture, she had significant talent in her own right and won several prizes while attending art school as well as professional commissions later on. On her own, she created several medals and coins that are actively collected today.
James Earle Fraser was born in Minnesota in 1876, but spent time living amongst Native Americans in the Dakota Territory, which likely inspired the Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar that he later co-designed with his wife. He studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the Ecole des Beaux Arts in France, where he began working closely with renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Fraser returned to the United States from France around 1900 and soon received many commissions back at home. His career took a leap forward when his beloved design for the Buffalo Nickel was chosen and minted by the U.S. Mint from 1913 to 1938. He began teaching at the Art Students League in 1907, and by 1913 the Frasers had married and had opened a studio in Connecticut together.
In their many years of work together, the Frasers were prolific in creating designs for medals, coins, statues, busts, commissioned portraits, and more. In addition to countless more personal works such as commissions or historical sculptures, the Frasers designed the Buffalo Nickel, the Oregon Trail Half Dollar, the Grant Commemorative Gold Dollar, and the 1921 Alabama Half Dollar.
One little-known fact is that Laura nearly was the designer of yet another familiar coin when she was the winner of a 1931 competition to design the Washington Quarter. However, the Treasury Secretary at the time, Andrew Mellon, selected a different design that we are familiar with today. Even so, this design was eventually used for a commemorative gold coin in the 1990s.
Despite her near-miss with the Washington Quarter, the Frasers designed several iconic pieces of numismatic art that are beloved by collectors today. When you next look at a Buffalo Nickel or one of the commemorative coins that they designed, you can remember their shared artistic legacy.