How come the portraits on coins are always in profile while the ones on paper money are always full face? –Jim Bohannon, Arlington, Virginia

Aside to the Teeming Millions: What do you mean, this is a stupid question? This is a great question, although I’ll grant you Ted Koppel probably isn’t going to devote a show to it. While full-face portraits on coins aren’t completely unknown, they’re definitely rare, showing up mostly on commemoratives. The reason is that it’s damned hard to get a realistic likeness in full face given the constraints of the medium. The relief on modern mass-circulation coins is low, typically just 16/1000ths of an inch, which permits them to be cranked out by the boatload on high-speed equipment. That doesn’t give the coin designer much room for the detailing that makes a full-face portrait easily recognizable on paper money or a stamp. But shown a profile, you can often tell who’s being depicted from the silhouette alone.

Not that coin designers are necessarily happy about the situation. Judging from my investigations in the art museums, most portraitists prefer full-face or three-quarter views, no doubt because the artistic mind finds them more interesting to draw. That’s why you commonly see them on paper currency. Occasionally coin designers get a chance to do full-face portraits on commemoratives, which are more carefully struck and can be in higher relief. Even so the eye sockets often have to be set so deep the subject looks like a famine victim.

This being the rancorous 90s, we are now obliged to drag in politics. While profiles have always been common on coins, full-face portraits enjoyed something of a vogue in the Middle Ages, mainly because they were simple to execute with the primitive tools of the time. However, they were totally unrealistic, and as Renaissance princes acquired more power they began to look askance at the amateurish full-face depictions of their august selves. Forsooth, they said, my two-year-old could do better than that. Guess I better have the royal coiner disemboweled. Mint masters switched to the profile pronto.

Coin historian Richard Doty has dug up two examples of English coins illustrating the change during the reign of Henry VII, 1485-1509. The portrait on the first coin, apparently minted early on, is a nondescript full-face view that could have been most anybody. Henry, who had reached the throne by overthrowing his predecessor, probably concluded that it would be smart to let people know who was in charge, and the later coin shows him quite realistically in profile. Or at least it realistically shows somebody. Paranoia being no less a factor then than today, maybe it was the royal gardener, so as to throw off assassins. Be that as it may, profiles on coins have been pretty much standard ever since.


I would like to know the story of the stapler, who invented it, why, how, and when. Particularly, I want to know if it came before or after the staple. –John Leatherman, Dallas

I’ve been hearing a lot about this child-abuse thing. Television, radio, friends and neighbors, everybody’s talking about it. About how we have to save the kids. About children’s rights. Well, I’m here to tell ya . . . child abusers have rights too, ya know!!! Now don’t get me wrong–I’m not a total advocate of child abuse, but what’s wrong with a little random violence? –“Bernie” Saint Bernard, Lowell, Massachusetts

I understand electricity is made by electrons flowing through a wire. But where does the generator get the electrons from? My guess is it steals them from atoms. Even though they’re supposed to be laying around all over the place. Then when they get to the end of the line and go to ground there must be one hell of a pile of them that I have never seen. I know they’re small but maybe if I had a better pair of glasses or a microscope. Thank you. –Franklin, no address

That does it. We are definitely changing the ink we print these newspapers with.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.