Joseph Wright, as we remember him, formally Joseph Wright, Jr. is a numismatic story of what might have been but was not. In 1792 and 1793 he did work for the new Philadelphia Mint. The beautiful pattern quarter dollar of 1792, Liberty on the obverse and an eagle on a globe on the reverse, is attributed to him, this per an entry in a Mint account book dated December 17, 1792: “Struck off a few pieces of copper coin.” As the Birch pattern cents, by Robert Birch, were of a different design (also in style used on the 1792 half dismes), this leaves the Liberty / eagle on globe coin as a Wright possibility. No one is sure for which denomination this copper (also known in white metal) pattern was intended, but specialists generally agree that the quarter dollar is most likely.
In 1793, following the creation of the Chain and Wreath copper cents by others, Wright was in the position of becoming the official engraver at the Mint – “first draughtsman and die sinker.” In August of that year he created the Liberty Cap cent, the beautiful design inspired by the Libertas Americana medal created in Paris under the direction of Benjamin Franklin. Cents of this design were produced later in the year and in small numbers, as evidenced by their great rarity today in any grade.
In this era, continuing into early in the next century, yellow fever often raged in Philadelphia, its cause being unknown at the time. Wright contracted the disease and on September 12 or 13 passed away from its effects. He did not live to see the cents he had created. Not long afterward, Robert Scot, a local engraver of printing plates and other items, was given the engraver position. Scot remained in the post until his passing in 1823. In later years much engraving work was done by others, most notably John Reich, who was an assistant on the Mint staff from 1807 to 1817 and who since 1800 had done work as an outside contractor.
Joseph Wright, Jr. was born in Bordentown, New Jersey in 1756 to Joseph and Patience Lovell Wright. His father was a cooper by trade and also a well-to-do landowner. Patience had an interest in art and with her children made small figures, including faces, out of putty and wax. When her husband died in 1769 she moved to New York City, where at 100 Queen Street she opened a studio and wax works in a district that was home to artisans in other trades, such as jewelry and engraving.
There was a strong market for wax heads and faces that could be affixed to mannequins and used by museums and others to represent figures in history. She later moved to England, where she became well known in her specialty. It is said that when the fires of revolutionary discontent were burning in America, she secreted certain confidential information in wax figures she sent back to the United States.
As to Joseph Junior, he remained in America and is thought to have been placed under the care of a guardian. In the year of his father’s passing he enrolled in the College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania. In 1775 he joined his mother in England, where he remained during the American Revolution. In the meantime he graduated from the Royal Academy of Arts at Somerset House, the first American-born person to have that honor. In 1781 he went with his mother to Europe, where he spent much time in Paris. While there he painted portraits, including of American emissary Franklin.
In 1782 Joseph Wright came back to America. His reputation preceded him, and he received many commissions, including making a mold of the face of General George Washington.
On December 5, 1789, in Philadelphia he married Sarah Vandervoordt. Success continued to attend his efforts up to the time he signed with the Mint. As noted, his life was cut short in 1793. The same epidemic also took Sarah.
Today, among the engravers at the Mint, the memory of Wright is honored as one of the most talented ever to attain that position.