Historical Markers
Frank Gasparro Historical Marker
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Frank Gasparro

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
727 Carpenter Street, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
November 11, 2002

Behind the Marker

Everyone in America and many other people throughout the world know the art of Philadelphia-born Frank Gasparro (1909-2001): they just don't know that he is the artist.
Rear side of penny with Gasparro's initials
Penny with Gasparro's initials

In 1959, Gasparro won the competition against twenty-one others to design the new reverse side of the Lincoln-head penny, which had come into use fifty years before. Although some people complained that his inclusion of Lincoln's statue in his image of the Lincoln Memorial looks like a smudge, he insisted that without it the Memorial looked like a library. When people asked Gasparro his occupation, he told them he was a sculptor; when they asked where they could find his work, he replied "In your pocket." Over 367 billion of these pennies had been issued by the year 2000.

Wanting his son to follow in his footsteps as a musician, Gasparro's father tore up Frank's early drawings, saying that artists starved. But when young Frank persisted, his father sent him to study at the Graphic Sketch Club, later the Samuel S. Fleischer Art Memorial, a free school still in operation in Philadelphia. He next studied sculpture with Giuseppe Donato, who had worked as an assistant to Auguste Rodin, and then went to the markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he earned two prestigious scholarships that sent him to Europe. There he acquired a love for Greek art, later reflected in many of his designs.
A relief medallion of Frank Gasparro in profile
Relief medallion of Frank Gasparro

In 1942, the United States Mint hired Gasparro as a junior engraver after he had worked on his own and for the Works' Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression. He became chief engraver in 1965 and retired in 1981. Among his other designs were the reverse of the John F. Kennedy half-dollar, both sides of the Eisenhower dollar, and numerous commemorative coins honoring baseball players, John Wayne (the Mint's all-time best seller), and the Olympic Games. He was chosen to design the American Numismatic Association's Centenary Medal in 1991; he described it as "my best attempt to show the America of today. I wanted to symbolize the bringing together of the farmer and rancher, with the mountains from the West meeting the city and industry from the East. I wanted American with her arms open, welcoming everyone to Chicago," the site of the centennial convention.

Gasparro is also associated, unfairly, with the fiasco of the Susan B. Anthony dollar introduced in 1979. When the mint rejected his design for a "Flowing Hair Liberty" based on the first, 1793 United States penny and mandated Anthony's portrait, Gasparro found two pictures of her at age twenty-eight and eighty-four. Feminists found her too young in his first sketch; others too old in the second. Gasparro was sure his final sketch would be rejected as well but its stern determination was a hit with committee officials. Unfortunately, the coin itself, too much resembling a quarter, did not appeal to the public; Gasparro insisted that the fault was not the coin's, but the fact paper dollars were not retired, as have been Canadian dollar and British pound notes.
Frank Gasparro with students
Frank Gasparro with students

Gasparro lived in the Philadelphia area most of his life, and repaid his debt to the Fleischer School by teaching there after he retired. He held his last class at the age of ninety-two, three weeks before he died.

The art of engraving, as Gasparro practiced it, was derived from classical sculpture. The Greek temple design of the Lincoln Memorial, the Great Seal of the United States, the bust of liberty, all suggest the sculpture of the early republic and the early twentieth century, which sought to bring a timeless order to a vibrant society. The strong profiles of prominent figures such as Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, and even Susan B. Anthony also gave the public the feeling that the coins in their hands represented the virtues they desired in their leaders.
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