The (Bizarre) History of American Coinage

A while back I stumbled across this article at British newspaper The Guardian‘s website. It’s a filler piece written by a young man named Richard Morris. In it, he discusses the “five best” and “five worst” things about the year he spent studying at the University of West Georgia in the United States. One of Morris’ “worst things” was American coinage:

I’m not very good with numbers, so maybe this didn’t help me, but I still cannot understand American coins after living here for 10 months. One of the coins which is larger actually has a lower value than a coin which is smaller (and of the same colour), go figure. “Dimes” and “nickels,” still mean nothing to me.

Of course, to many of you the real mystery might be why anyone would travel 4,270 miles to go to West Georgia! SERIOUSLY: THOUSANDS OF UNIVERSITIES IN THE UNITED STATES, AND YOU CHOSE THAT ONE?? But that’s neither here nor there. And it is true that many foreign visitors have trouble with American coins. So let’s take a look at the history of American coinage and see if we can make sense of it all.

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Modern American coins go back 221 years, to the Coinage Act of 1792. The act authorized the construction of the US Mint in Philadelphia, the very first building erected by the federal government under the new Constitution. The act also made the dollar the national currency of the United States, finally abolishing the hodgepodge of British and Spanish coins that had been used before. The act also defined several types of coin, which I’ll summarize below:


A mill is a thousandth of a dollar, or, to put it another way, a tenth of a cent. The name comes from the Latin millesimum, which means “thousandth part”. The funny thing is, even in 1792 mills were useless as a unit of currency. One couldn’t buy anything with a mill coin, so the Mint never bothered to make any. A few states made mill coins out of cheap materials like tin or paper for the purpose of paying taxes, but for the most part, mill coins have never existed.

But just because mills don’t exist as coins doesn’t mean they don’t exist as units of currency. In most American locales, property taxes are calculated using mills. Counties assess the value of each property in their jurisdiction and apply a millage rate to calculate the amount of tax a landowner owes. For example, a county might assess a piece of property as being worth $250,000. If the tax rate is 5 mills, then the homeowner owes $1,250 in taxes ($250,000 x .005 = $1,250). Mills are also used in a couple of industries: electric power is usually measured internally in mills, and stock brokers often charge their clients in mills rather than percentages.

But outside property taxes, the average American sees the mills most often with gasoline prices. In every US state, gas prices have nine mills tacked on the end, so that gas might cost $3.109 per US gallon. Why this is so is a mystery. Some say it came about thanks to a 1933 increase in the gas tax from 1¢ to 1.5¢ per gallon. Others say it’s just “charm pricing”, which is to offer an item for $1.99 instead of $2.00, because our brains process the former as being significantly cheaper than the latter. Still others believe a more likely story: that back when gasoline emerged as a consumer item in the early 1900s, it was sold in such small amounts and at such low prices that mills actually mattered.

But gas prices reveal something else about American culture: the universal dislike of mills. With the exception of property taxes, most every American will discuss such small units of currency as fractions of a cent instead of mills. No one ever thinks of a gallon of gas costing $3.10 and 9 mills… it’s $3.10 and 9/10 of a cent. And this might be because of trading stamps.

For almost a century, retailers across the United States offered trading stamps with every purchase. You’d save the stamps and redeem them for things like clocks, toasters and lamps. You may even remember the “54-40 and Fight” episode of The Brady Bunch, in which the kids agree to pool their saved trading stamp books, but chaos breaks out when the boys want to use the stamps to get a “boy’s item” (a row boat) while the girls want to use them for a “girl’s item” (a sewing machine).

Green Stamp

Of course, the stamps weren’t free. Companies like Sperry & Hutchinson charged retailers to join their programs, and charged for each roll of stamps the retailer ordered. And retailers, not surprisingly, passed these costs on to consumers as higher prices. In 1904, the state of New York passed a law requiring trading stamp companies to offer cash rebates in addition to housewares and sporting goods. Companies like S&H placed a value of one mill on each stamp, meaning that one could trade a book of 1,000 stamps for a dollar. But here’s the thing: almost no one took them up on the offer, because it was almost always a better deal to redeem stamps for goods instead of cash.

Most states considered trading stamps and coupons (as in, “Save 50¢ on your next purchase of Tide Detergent”) to be the same thing legally. Three states – Indiana, Utah and Washington – required coupons to declare a cash value. Since it would be a big hassle to make coupons just for those states, companies that offered coupons started printing cash values on them nationally. And they universally used fractions of a cent instead of mills. If you look at any coupon in the US today you’ll see something like “CASH VALUE: 1/60¢” on it. And this is why American consumers think of tiny amounts as fractions of a cent rather than mills.


Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: the unit of currency representing a hundredth of a dollar has always officially been called a “cent” in the United States. The name comes from the Latin centum, which means “one hundred”.

Many Americans call cents “pennies”, which is a holdover from colonial days when British pennies were in common use. But the terms aren’t interchangeable: it’s just as wrong as calling a dollar a “rupee” or “rand”. But, while we’re here, allow me to point out that the word “penny” comes from the German pfennig (meaning “a coin of low value”). In Old English, the word was rendered as penig, pening, and penning.

The very first American cent was designed by Benjamin Franklin in 1787. It’s called the Fugio Cent, after a Latin inscription on it:


The funny thing about cents is that their design has changed so little over the years. The first cents had an allegorical depiction of Liberty on the obverse (head side) and a wreath on the reverse (tails side). This page has pictures of various American cents. While the design might have changed a little bit over the years – the portrait of Liberty became larger or smaller, fine details of her person were altered, and she went from facing right to facing left – the overall design was the same until 1856. For two years the Mint toyed with rare “Flying Eagle” design before settling on the “Indian Head” design, which lasted from 1859 to 1909, when President Theodore Roosevelt demanded (and got) a coin to honor the 100th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. And thus, the Lincoln cent was born. Incidentally, this made Lincoln the first real, historical person to appear on a US coin.

The first cents were huge – about the size of a Kennedy half dollar! – and were made from 100% copper from 1793 to 1857. But by then inflation had devalued the cent. In 1864, the so-called “large cents” were shrunk to approximately their current size. From 1864 to 1982, cents were made with 95% copper and 5% zinc… except in 1943, when copper became scarce thanks to World War II, and cents were made out of steel:


From 1983 to the present, cents have been made out of 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper. This is actually somewhat deceiving: the “core” of the cent is 99.2% zinc, and it’s only the coin’s outer shell which is copper. If you have a pair of strong scissors, cut a post-1983 cent in half: you’ll see that it’s mostly white inside, with a tiny layer of copper on the outside. By the way, you should keep post-1983 cents away from small children and pets: if they were to swallow one, there’s a remote chance their stomach acid could dissolve the thin copper layer and expose the zinc inside. This can cause zinc toxicosis which can lead to death (the linked article is about pets, but the jist of it applies equally to children, too).

The problem with cent coins is that they’re just not useful any more. There is literally nothing one can buy with a cent these days, and not a single vending machine, parking meter or toll booth accepts cent coins. Countries all over the world – even next door neighbor, Canada – have eliminated their cent coins, with no harmful affects to their economies. Here’s something else: in 1980, the Department of Defense decided to stop using cents on military bases, because it just wasn’t cost-effective to ship thousands of pounds of near-worthless coins to bases in Europe and Asia. And the American military didn’t collapse.

Also, this: in 1857 the US Mint ceased production of the half-cent coin. Why? Because most everyone agreed that it was simply worth too little, and thus not worth making any more. At the time, the half-cent had the buying power of around 10¢ today. Many Americans will LOSE THEIR MINDS if you even mention getting rid of the cent today, but 156 years ago people were happy to get rid of a coin that was worth 10 TIMES as much!

And if that doesn’t convince you, think about this: in 2012, it cost the US Mint 1.99 cents to make each cent… which is actually down from 2011, when it cost 2.41 cents to make each new cent. In 2012, the Mint lost $58,000,000 making coins that no one uses.

Can we please get rid of them now?


Forgive me for jumping ahead here; we’ll get to the nickel in a moment.

The coin worth a tenth of a dollar – or 10¢ – is the dime, which British people never understand, and that’s amusing because “dime” comes from disme, a Middle English word which came from French, which in turn came from the Latin decima, meaning “tenth part”.

Dimes were traditionally made of silver, which brings up an interesting factoid about American coins: for almost 2 centuries, silver US coins were sized and weighted relative to their value in silver. So a $1 silver coin weighed exactly as much as two half dollars, four quarters, ten dimes or twenty half dimes. Or, if you want to look at it the other way, a dime contained exactly 1/10th the silver of a $1 coin, which is why dimes are so small. Although coins are no longer made from silver, the Mint has kept their traditional sizes and weights, which means that 1 pound (453 g) of dimes, quarters, half dollars and silver dollars will always have a face value of $20, regardless of the distribution of the coins. Check it out:

$20 in dimes = 200 x 2.268g = 453.6 g
$20 in quarters = 80 x 5.670g = 453.6 g
$20 in half-dollars = 40 x 11.340g = 453.6 g

The very first dimes were actually stamped with the “disme” name. Minted in 1792, these were never circulated. In fact, some were made from copper, which indicates that they were “test coins” not intended for circulation (coin collectors call these “pattern coins”).

The first dime to actually circulate was the “Draped Bust” dime, which was minted from 1796 to 1807. The 1796 dimes featured 15 stars around the edge of the coin, to represent all the states. But Tennessee joined the Union in 1797, and so an additional star was added. Mint director Elias Boudinot realized that adding a star for every state would soon clutter the coin, so he reduced the number from 16 to 13, for the 13 original colonies.

Other designs include the Capped Bust dime (1809–1837), Seated Liberty dime (1837–1891), the Barber dime (1892–1916), the Winged Liberty Head dime (1916-1945) which was usually called the “Mercury Head” dime because the depiction of the goddess Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap on the obverse resembles the Roman god. Currently in circulation is the Roosevelt dime, unchanged since its introduction in 1946.

The Roosevelt dime came about as a tribute to the president who had ended Prohibition, led the nation out of the Great Depression and through World War II. But why put Roosevelt on the dime, and not the quarter or half dollar? Because Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio, and he founded a polio charity called the “National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis”. One of their first fundraisers asked children to collect dimes for the cause. Vaudevillian actor Eddie Cantor suggested the name “March of Dimes” to Roosevelt as a play on the then-popular newsreel series The March of Time. The fundraiser was so popular and became so synonymous with the charity that it changed its name. And although polio has been eradicated from the United States, it’s still called the March of Dimes Foundation today.

There were two controversies with the Roosevelt dime.

John R. Sinnock, the Mint’s chief engraver, designed the coin, and put his initials under the bust of Roosevelt on the obverse, as is the custom in coin design. However, a rumor began circulating that “J.S.” actually stood for “Joseph Stalin”, which led to all manner of Communist-related conspiracy theories.

There was also the allegation that Sinnock stole his portrait of Roosevelt from a sculpture by African American artist Selma Burke. This rumor may (or may not) persist in some circles, but it’s been well established that Sinnock took the depiction of Roosevelt from a presidential medal he’d designed for the Mint just after Roosevelt’s death. And that medal appeared in public before Burke made her own sculpture. So… mystery solved.


The Coinage Act of 1792 specified that the Mint was to make mills, cents, dimes, quarters… and half dimes, which were worth 5¢. And since dimes were made out of silver, and since US coins were all weighted to their value in silver, half dimes used exactly half the silver as a dime.

Some coin collectors consider the “half disme” to be the very first coin made by the United States. So the story goes, while the Mint building was under construction, the first half dimes were minted in the basement of Philadelphia saw maker John Harper’s home. The first designs were done by Adam Eckfeldt, who recalled 50 years later that the silver for the coins was supplied by George Washington himself, allegedly using his own silverware from Mount Vernon. Eckfeldt also said that Washington ordered him to give 1,500 half dimes to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was to distribute them to foreign and domestic VIPs.

Other coin collectors – a bunch of killjoys! – say that the first half dismes were just pattern coins not intended for circulation and the whole story of Washington donating his silver is bogus. The argument endures, but we know for sure that half dismes were important in early America. In Washington’s 1792 “annual message to Congress” (required by the Constitution and now called the “State of the Union address”), he mentioned that “[t]here has also been a small beginning in the coinage of half dismes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them”.

What we know for sure is that half dimes circulated from 1794 until 1873. There were a few designs, mostly variations on the same “Liberty with flowing hair” theme seen on cents. The longest lasting design – “Seated Liberty” (1837-1873) – was actually quite beautiful:


By the Civil War, inflation had weakened the value of the half dime, and the war caused people to hoard gold and silver, which caused small coins of all sorts to disappear from circulation. The government found that it could no longer afford to mint small coins and so began issuing paper notes of 3, 5, 10, 15, 25 and 50 cent denominations. This so-called “fractional currency” lasted through the war, and not without at least one amusing anecdote:

Congress authorized the Currency Bureau, the forerunner of today’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing, to print a 5¢ note. The legislation specified that the note was to bear the likeness of “Clark”, which Congress intended to be explorer William Clark of “Lewis and Clark” fame. But the head of the Currency Bureau just happened to be a man named Spencer M. Clark. It’s unclear whether Clark was just lazy and didn’t bother to ask Congress for clarification, or whether he genuinely thought Congress liked him and wanted his picture on the note. One way or the other, he had thousands of the 5¢ notes printed up… with his own picture on them:

NOT William Clark

Congress was outraged. So much so that they abolished the 5¢ note altogether and passed a law forbidding living people from being on U.S. currency… a law still in effect today, and one that was brought up in the last years of Ronald Reagan’s life when Republican lawmakers pushed to put Reagan on US currency. As it happened, Clark came perilously close to getting fired for the stunt, and it was only the personal intervention of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase that allowed Clark to keep his job.

After the war, the government wanted to go back to making coins. Nickel mining had become a big business in the United States, and although Congress was reluctant to make coins out of base metals like steel or nickel, industrialist Joseph Wharton – namesake of Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania – leaned hard on friends in Congress and got them to approve a trial run of 3¢ nickel coins. And you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Wharton had a near-monopoly on nickel production in the United States at the time! After the 3¢ coin was successful, Congress went ahead an authorized a 5¢ nickel coin as well.

The original legislation called for a 5¢ coin that weighed 60 grains or 3.9 grams. But while the bill was in committee, Wharton’s friends quietly raised it to 77.19 grains or 5 grams. The “cover story” for this was to make the coin metric-friendly, although just about everyone familiar with the situation thinks it was a scam allowing Wharton to sell more nickel to the government, Whatever the case, nickels remain at 5g today, a fact which is sometimes mentioned in “helpful tips” articles online, along with the fact that US paper notes are just over 6″ long, and make decent rulers in a pinch.

The nickel has had several designs over the years. The first, the Shield nickel (1866–1883), looked a lot like an arcade  token from the 1980s. The American Journal of Numismatics called it “the ugliest of all known coins”. There were several production issues with the coin, especially with a series of rays and stars on the reverse. The Mint eliminated the rays in 1867, hoping that would help with production issues; instead it made people question the authenticity of the coins. People didn’t know if the coins with or without the rays were genuine, and since the half dime was still being minted (out of real silver, no less) people shunned the coin:


Next up was the Liberty Head nickel, which is sometimes called the “V NIckel” for the Spartan reverse of the coin, which has only a large “V” (which represents 5 in Roman numerals). The Liberty Head was much more successful, especially because it was accepted by residents of the western United States, who had long preferred gold and silver coins over base coins. In time, people stopped calling them “half dimes” and started calling them “nickels” instead.

The Liberty Head nickel was also a favorite of counterfeiters. The first such nickels looked almost exactly like existing $5 gold coins, and even had similar weight as the gold coin. Enterprising counterfeiters plated the nickel coin in gold, passing it as the $5 coin. Especially crafty crooks even added fake mills to the coins (mills are the reeded edges of coins made out of precious metals; the design prevents people from “clipping” bits of gold or silver off the edges). So the word “CENTS” was quickly added under the large V, and a few other minor changes were made to prevent these shenanigans.

Around this time, vending machines came into existence, and their presence fueled a huge demand for nickels. Automats, restaurants operated entirely via vending machine, only took nickels. Various amusement devices – like games and fortune telling machines – used nickels, too. And movies became an American pastime thanks to theatres called “nickelodeons”. The name was no accident: two entrepreneurs, Harry Davis and John P. Harris, opened the first theatre dedicated exclusively to motion pictures in Pittsburgh in 1905. The name Davis and Harris chose for their cinema was a portmanteau of nickel (the cost of the show) and odeon (a type of theatre in ancient Greece, made famous by the Odeon Theatre in Paris).

In 1913, the “Buffalo” (also called “Indian Head”, 1913–1938) nickel was released. Its iconic design made it one of the most recognizable coins in US history. The US Mint resurrected the design as a commemorative coin in 2001 and again as a gold coin in 2006. The Mint is planning a special “reverse proof” coin to celebrate the design’s centennial this year:

buffao coins
A 1936 Buffalo nickel (top) and a 2001 silver dollar (bottom)

In 1938, the Mint introduced the Jefferson nickel. The design did not change from its introduction until 2004, a remarkable run of 66 years, the longest of any modern American coin (the obverse of the Lincoln cent has remained unchanged, aside from minor tinkering with typefaces, since 1909, but the reverse has changed several times over the years, from the “Wheat Penny” (1909-1958) to the “Lincoln Memorial” design (1959-2008) to four different designs for the bicentennial of his birth (2009) to the “Shield Penny” of today).

In 2002, the Mint redesigned the reverse of the nickel in honor of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which came about thanks to Jefferson’s personal request to the two men to explore and map the territory. This “Western Journey” series ran from 2004 to 2005, and since then the nickel has been sporting a new obverse. This features Jefferson looking almost straight ahead, rather than in profile, as has been the tradition with American coins.

Although many Americans wish to see the cent eliminated, nickels should absolutely be next on the list. In 2003 it cost the US Mint 3.46 cents to make a single nickel, while in 2012 that cost had soared to 10.09 cents… each! Prices have since stabilized somewhat, and the “melt value” (the value of a coin as a metal rather than as currency) has fallen below face value several times. In 2011, the Mint asked Concurrent Technologies Corporation to look in to how the Mint could make less expensive coins. The company has yet to report back. While I wouldn’t expect the nickel to go away any time soon – and not just for sentimental reasons: the Mint estimates that demand for nickels is actually rising – you might still want to put the coin on your “endangered species” list.


The coin worth a quarter of a dollar – 25¢ – is not surprisingly called a quarter. And let me go ahead and anticipate your first question: why 25¢ instead of 20¢, as is common in most other countries? Because: the Spanish.

The Spanish dollar – properly called the real de a ocho which translates as “piece of eight”, which you might know from pirate movies – was extremely popular in colonial America. They were heavier and contained purer silver than other coins of the time. British policies also helped: it was illegal to take pounds out of the UK, and also illegal for American colonies to make their own currency, leaving colonists with little choice but to use Spanish currency.

INTERESTING ASIDE: In the early 1500s, a gigantic vein of silver was discovered just outside what was then a German-speaking town in Bohemia called Joachimsthal. A mint was built there, and soon coins called Joachimsthalers began circulating throughout Europe. But the name was quite a mouthful, so people started called them Thalers, which is the origin of the word “dollars”. Spain introduced their own dollars to compete with thalers, which circulated in Europe for 400 years.

Although it didn’t happen very often, Spanish dollars could be cut into eight pieces called “bits”. Each bit was worth 12.5¢. Thus, “two bits” was worth 25¢… which is why the United States made 25¢ coins instead of 20¢ ones. It’s also why Americans occasionally refer to quarters as “two bits” and fifty cents as “four bits”. You may remember the cheerleading chant “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar! All for [team], stand up and holler!” Or perhaps you remember the line from Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” in which he mentions his “eight by twelve four-bit” hotel room.. which, for Europeans, translates to the decidedly less poetic “2.43 by 3.65 meter 50¢ room”. Lastly, American stocks were traded in fractions of a dollar – often in eighths – until 2001.

Designs for the quarter include the Draped Bust (1796–1807), Capped Bust (1815–1838), Seated Liberty (1838–1891), Barber (1892–1916), Standing Liberty (1916–1930) and finally the current Washington Quarter, which has been in circulation since 1932, the bicentennial of his birth. And here’s where things get really complicated.

The “United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission” was created by Congress on December 2, 1924 and was tasked with planning events to celebrate the milestone. But the group didn’t really do anything other than issue a bunch of press releases about what a great job they were doing. So Congress abolished it and created the “George Washington Bicentennial Committee” in 1930. This committee wanted a lush and beautiful half dollar with Washington’s likeness on it, and spent a lot of time and effort lobbying members of Congress to make that happen. They’d even picked a design by Laura Gardin Fraser, a coin designer of note and the wife of James Earle Fraser, who’d designed the Buffalo nickel. So the Washington half dollar might have looked like this:


But then a representative from New Jersey named Randolph Perkins threw a monkey wrench into the works by proposing a Washington quarter instead, because of the Depression.

At the time, the Mint made coins like this: towards the end of a calendar year, Mint officials would gather and make estimates of how many of each type of coin would be needed in the upcoming year. Some years, there would be plenty of, say, dimes in circulation, so the Mint wouldn’t make many the following year. Or if there seemed to be a shortage of dimes, they would make a lot the following year to meet demand. This is why the number of coins minted per year varies, and why certain coins are more valuable than others. A certain 1 cent coin from 1909 isn’t valuable if it was minted in Philadelphia, because the Philadelphia mint made almost 28 million such pennies that year. But if the coin was made at the San Francisco mint, it’s much more valuable to coin collectors, because a mere 484,000 were made. In any case, once the estimates were made, the Mint would begin striking new coins in January, beginning with the most valuable coins and working their way down to the least valuable, And, in 1932, there just wasn’t a demand for half-dollar coins (keep in mind that 50¢ would be worth $8.30 today). More people would be able to use quarters, which is why Perkins suggested it over the half dollar.

The Bicentennial Committee was shocked, because, ya know, they thought Washington’s Bicentennial was, like, their job. And it all spun out of control from there. The House of Representative’s  “Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures” decided to not only switch the design to the quarter, but to make the design change permanent, too. Charles W. Moore, chairman of the House’s “Fine Arts Commission”, wrote to the Coinage Committee and pointed out that not only had they decided on a half dollar, they already had the design ready. The Coinage Committee totally ignored this and went ahead with the quarter plan.

On July 14, 1931, Assistant Mint Director Mary M. O’Reilly wrote to Moore and asked for his advice on a design for the new quarter. Moore, exasperated reminded O’Reilly that Fraser had already won the competition for the (now abandoned) half-dollar, and suggested that the Mint use that. At this point, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon jumped in, saying that the Mint had not been party to the Bicentennial Committee’s decision, and it was the US Mint, and not some damn committee who designed US coinage, thankyouverymuch.

So a new design competition was opened, and the Fine Arts Committee selected Fraser’s design (again). Mellon thanked the committee for their hard work, and promptly chose a competing design by John Flanagan. Moore and fellow commission member Adolph Weinman (designer of the Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half-dollar) asked Mellon to reconsider, and Mellon agreed to give all entrants more time to refine their designs. On January 20, 1932, the Fine Arts Commission chose Fraser’s design (yet again), and Mellon chose Flanagan’s design (again).

Mellon left office on February 12, 1932. Moore pressed successor Ogden L. Mills to go back to Fraser’s design, but Mills was wise enough to let the matter rest, saying he would not change it at this point. On April 16, 1932 Flanagan’s design – the one used from 1932 to the present day, mostly – was shown to the public for the first time.

Aside from its metallic composition, the Washington Quarter did not change until 1975, when the Mint released a series of Bicentennial coins (in this case, celebrating the 200th birthday of the country, not Washington). The date on the obverse read “1776-1976” and the reverse was changed to a design of a Revolutionary War-era drummer created by Jack L. Ahr:


This, incidentally, is one of my favorite US coins of all time, and I hoard every Bicentennial quarter I get, even though they’re worthless as collector’s items because the US Mint made 1,669,902,855 of them!

Quarters went back to their regular design until 1999, when the first of the “50 State Quarters” started rolling out. Inspired by a similar (very successful) program from Canada, quarters released in this series featured an obverse similar to a regular quarter, and 56 different reverses, each one chosen by a committee from each state and, later, each territory governed by the United States, which is why there are six “extra” quarters: the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the United States Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands got in on the fun too. Ironically, the US Mint initially opposed the program, on the grounds that it would “Disney-fy” American coinage. They have since changed their mind: the amount of seigniorage from the 50 State quarters program is estimated to be around $3 billion (seigniorage is the difference between what the Mint charges banks and other institutions for the coin – face value – and what it actually costs to make the coin; if the mint charges banks 25¢ for every quarter it makes and it only costs the mint 15¢ to make the coin, the government makes 10¢ off every coin).

The 50 State Quarters program was so successful that when it ended in 2009, the Mint already had a new program lined up: “America the Beautiful Quarters”. This series, which will run from 2010 until at least 2021, features the familiar Washington obverse with reverse designs featuring a national park or other historical site. Unlike the 50 State Quarters, which were issued in the order states joined the union, quarters in the “America the Beautiful” series will be released in the order the national park was created. So be sure to stick around until 2020, when Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas ends up on a coin!


The United States Mint in Philadelphia is the most famous of all American mints. But it’s not the only one. There have been several mints in the history of the United States, and each of them have literally stamped their history onto American coinage.

In this context, “mint marks” are letters added to coins to show where the coin was made. This is done for quality control purposes: if the Mint later discovers some kind of error or wear issue, it will know which mint struck the coins.

For the first decades of the country, Philadelphia was the only mint in the nation, so marks were unnecessary. As other mints came online, they added a letter to their coins as their mint mark. Coins made in Philadelphia did not have mint marks until 1942, when a new alloy was tested on nickels and the Mint wanted to track the quality of the coins. After the war Philadelphia’s mint mark was discarded, and it did not reappear until 1979, where it has appeared on all coins since – except cents.

Mints and their marks:


P – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
D – Denver, Colorado (from 1906)
S – San Francisco, California (1854-1980, now makes collector coins only)
W – West Point, New York (gold coins only)


C – Charlotte, North Carolina (1838-1861, gold coins only)
D – Dahlonega, Georgia (1838-1861, gold coins only)
O – New Orleans, Louisiana (1838-1909)
CC – Carson City, Nevada (1870-1893)
M – Manila, Philippines (1920-1922, 1925-1941)

Philadelphia has been the primary mint of the United States since the Coinage Act of 1792.

The US government opened mints in Charlotte and Dahlonega (sites of the first and second gold rushes in the United States, respectively); these mints produced gold coins only, and both were seized by Confederates during the Civil War. Because of the low numbers of coins made there, coins bearing the Dahlonega mint mark are considered extremely rare.

The New Orleans Mint was also seized by Confederates, but was useful enough for general coin making that the US government opened it up again after the war and ran it until 1909. It is the oldest surviving mint building in the United States and, along with the Charlotte Mint, is one of two former mints to now house art museums.

San Francisco served as the primary mint for the western United States from its founding in 1858 until the mid 20th century. It was a busy place: whereas the Dahlonega Mint struck around $6 million worth of gold coins in its 23 years of existence, the San Francisco Mint struck $4 million worth of gold coins in its first year of operation. In 1968, the mint assumed most proof coinage production in the United States, and since 1975 has made proof coins almost exclusively.

The Denver Mint actually dates back to 1860 and a private company called Clark, Gruber and Company. The US Treasury bought the firm in 1863, and the site served as an assay office (a place which tests the purity of precious metals). In 1896, Congress authorized the Treasury to build a full-on mint in the area, and construction began the next year. Several problems kept the mint from opening until 1906. It is now, however, the largest single mint in the entire world.

The West Point Mint is indeed located on the grounds of the US Army’s military academy, also known as West Point. It was built in 1937 as a storage facility for silver bullion, earning itself the nickname “the Fort Knox of Silver”. Even though it did not become an official US Mint until March 31, 1988, the facility made Lincoln cents from 1974-1986 and Washington quarters from 1977-1979. The facility currently makes all US gold coins.

The Carson City Mint existed for around 20 years, and was built to take advantage of the huge silver finds in the area. Ironically, given that it was built to make silver coins, the Carson City Mint actually made more gold coins than silver ones. “Morgan Dollar” coins bearing the CC mint mark are considered especially desirable.

The Manila Mint was the only branch of the United States Mint to operate outside the borders of the continental United States. The mint was originally run by the Spanish, but came into the possession of the United States following the Spanish American War (along with the Philippines itself, obviously). Unlike smaller US possessions – where the US simply brought its own currency – the Philippines were large enough that the US felt compelled to open a mint there. Philippine sculptor Melecio Figueroa was hired to design the coins. For financial continuity, centavo coins of one half, one, five, ten, twenty, and fifty were minted, along with peso coins. The exchange rate pegged at 2 Pesos to the US dollar. In 1925, the mint started using its “M” mint mark, and the mint remained in operation until the Japanese invasion in 1941.


Here’s something interesting: the half dollar has been minted more than any other coin in American history except the cent. Yet, good luck trying to find one! Although still made by the Mint, the popularity of half dollars has tanked, and only a tiny number of them are actually in circulation. Payphones have never accepted half dollars, and very few vending machines do. It seems that the only people who actually use them are magicians (who use them for hand tricks) and illegal casinos (which use them for chips).

Half dollar designs followed that of quarters: Flowing Hair (1794–1795), Draped Bust (1796–1807), Capped Bust (1807–1839), Seated Liberty (1839–1891), Barber (1892–1915), Walking Liberty (1916–1947). Half dollars didn’t get their own unique design until 1948, when the Franklin half dollar was introduced. It was designed by John R. Sinnock, and once again his initials set off rumors that Joseph Stalin was somehow behind the coin.

Within hours of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the decision was made to put the late president on a coin. On November 27, 1963 Mint Director Eva Adams called the Mint’s chief engraver Gilroy Roberts, and said that she’d been in touch with Jackie Kennedy and the decision had been made to put the late president on the half dollar, as Jackie felt her husband would not want to “bump” Washington off the quarter. With truly amazing speed, the US Congress approved the plan, the dies were made, and production began on January 2, 1964, a mere 41 days after Kennedy’s assassination. Initially only proof coins were made, but coins intended for circulation began production at the Denver Mint on January 30.

The public had a huge sentimental attachment to the coin, and Kennedy half dollars disappeared into people’s collections as fast as the Mint could make them. The Treasury had estimated that it would make 91 million Kennedy half dollars in 1964; that number was later revised to 141 million, and in the end the Mint made 160 million half dollars that year. While that might seem like a good thing, it was actually bad. People were hording the coins, with some even getting as many as they could, anticipating that they could become collector’s items. Silver prices had been increasing before the Kennedy half dollar, and the millions of half dollars had seriously depleted the Treasury’s stock of silver. Seeking relief, the Treasury asked Congress for permission to continue minting half dollars with the 1964 date into 1965, in hopes that their sheer number might drive out speculators. Congress agreed, and the Mint ended up making 430 million 1964 half dollars (which was more than the entire run of Franklin half dollars, which were produced for sixteen years!).

Huge demand for Kennedy half dollars (which were not circulating), the Mint’s low stocks of silver, and rising prices for silver led Congress to pass the Coinage Act of 1965. The law eliminated silver from dimes and quarters completely, and cut the silver content of half dollars from 90% to 40%. It also forbid the manufacture of silver dollars of any kind for five years, made all coins legal tender, and allowed the Secretary of the Treasury to obtain metals needed for coins without having to go through normal procurement processes.

For reasons that no one really knows, half dollar coins have all but disappeared. Obviously the Kennedy half dollars were horded (especially the silver 1964 series). But after the coins were issued in clad and base metal versions… no one seemed interested. They became so rare that cash register companies eliminated the slot for them in their tills. Very few banks have them as a regular item, although they can order them for you. Teenage cashiers at fast food places often look at them funny, having never seen one before.

It might be a bit like the $10 bill quandary. $20 bills are by far the most popular “small” bill in the United States, and change can easily be made using $5 and $1 bills. Few people would demand a $10 bill in place of two $5 bills, so $10 bills are somewhat rare when compared to $20 and $5 bills. Maybe American consumers are fine with getting two quarters instead of one half dollar.


As previously mentioned, the word dollar comes from a coin called a Joachimsthaler, which was shortened to just Thaler. And it’s a big irony that American dollar coins are some of the most beautiful coins ever made… but Americans hate dollar coins. Perhaps there’s a good reason for this, though. We’ll get in to that soon.


The United States has made gold coins in large denominations (such as $10 or $20) since 1795. Of course, $10 in 1800 was equivalent to $132 in 2012 dollars, so such coins weren’t the “pocket change” we think of today.

The most famous circulating gold coin was the “Eagle” ($10), so named because of the eagle on the reverse side. Keeping with the naming convention of US coins, the $20 coin was called the “Double Eagle”, the $5 coin was the “Half Eagle” and the $2.50 gold coin was the “Quarter Eagle”.

But we’re not here to talk about high-end coins carried only by the rich. We’re talking about common, everyday coins that anyone would carry. And, in this case, there is only a single coin to discuss: the gold dollar.

The United States never had any plans to make dollar coins out of gold, but thanks to gold rushes in North Carolina, Georgia and California, the nation soon found itself swimming in gold. Congress passed the Act of March 3, 1849, which authorized the minting of $1 gold coins. They didn’t think this idea up all on their own, though. A jeweler from Germany named Christopher Bechtler had come to North Carolina in the 1830s and started making dollar coins for prospectors:


This wasn’t illegal, as Bechtler wasn’t trying to pass off the coins as coming from the US Mint. In fact, all Bechler did was figure out how much a dollar’s worth of gold was, then turn that much gold into a coin. The coins were extremely popular for a time in the Carolinas, so this is where Congress got the idea.

And so the Mint began striking “Liberty Head” dollar coin. The coins were primarily made in Philadelphia and Dahlonega, but were also minted in Charlotte, New Orleans, and San Francisco.


The coins were beautiful, but they had one big problem: they were tiny. With a diameter of only 13 mm, the coins were noticeably smaller than a modern-day dime. Which was a problem, since the coin was worth around $28, and represented a day’s wages for most people. Imagine plowing the fields for a day and being presented with a teeny, tiny coin such as this. You’d hate to lose it, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, the diminutive size of the coin meant that many poor souls lost them.

A slightly larger version of the coin – the “Indian Head” – was introduced in 1854. This coin was exactly the same diameter as a modern dime. This coin was slightly more successful, being minted until 1889.


Given that silver has always been less expensive than gold, it’s a much more popular metal to make dollar coins from. After all, as we have seen, gold dollar had to contain a dollar’s worth of gold, which made them tiny. If you’re trying to make a dollar coin out of silver, you have much more metal to work with.

The Coinage Act of 1792 authorized the minting of dollar coins, and the US Mint made several versions from 1794 to 1803. They weren’t as popular as Spanish dollars, however, because Spanish dollars contained a purer alloy of silver, and more of it, than American coins of the day.

There’s an interesting story about the 1804 silver dollar. You see, coins are made by cutting sheets of metal into blank coins called planchets. Each planchet is then placed in a die (mold) that strikes the design into the coin using lots and lots of pressure… which deteriorates the die with each strike. The type of steel used to make coin dies was extremely expensive and very rare in the new United States. So the US Mint would strike coins until the dies literally fell apart. Many early American coins have all sorts of cracks and errors on them thanks to the Mint using the dies long after they should have been discarded.

One other consequence of using the dies as long as they did was that the Mint often didn’t bother making a new die just because it was a new year. The dies used to make 1803 silver dollars were in decent shape, and the steel and labor needed to change the date to 1804 were so expensive that all silver dollars minted in 1804 actually have the 1803 date on them.

1804 dies were eventually made, but were never used, because by that point the Mint decided that there were plenty of silver dollars in circulation. In fact, there were so many that the Mint ceased production of silver dollars until 1834. In that year, Congress decided to make coin sets as diplomatic gifts. So they instructed the Mint to make up several for dignitaries like King of Siam and the Sultan of Muscat. So Mint employees went to the vaults and dusted off the old 1804 dies. But no one remembered that no silver dollars with the 1804 date had ever actually been made. Thus, fifteen 1804 silver dollars, minted in 1834, were made. These coins are some of the rarest in history – only two are known to be in the hands of private citizens. And so the 1804 silver dollar is known as the “King of American coins”.

Back to more mundane coins: the Mint issued several silver dollars, including the Seated Liberty dollar (1836–1873) and the Trade dollar (1873–1885, mostly used in trade with Asia). The Mint then issued the Morgan dollar (1878–1904), one of the most collected coins in American history. It’s a gorgeous coin, but interest in Morgan Dollars was piqued thanks to a surprisingly recent development: in 1962, a cache of old Morgan dollars was found in vault of the Philadelphia Mint. Some of those newly discovered coins were of types previously thought to be rare, like the 1903 New Orleans version. The Mint announced that they would sell the coins, and people lined up around the block, some even with wheelbarrows, in hopes of swapping silver certificates for the coins. Of course, the value of many “scarce” items is high only because they’re scarce – one wonders what a wheelbarrow full of “scarce” coins would be worth. Some 84% of the found coins were 1903-O versions, which explains their previous scarcity: they were lost in the Mint’s vaults!. So the collectible value of the 1903-O dropped like a rock.

Next up is my all-time favorite American coin, the Peace Dollar, which was minted from 1921 to 1935. Take a look at this lady… she’s beautiful:

Peace Dollar

After World War I, the supply of silver dollars had dwindled, and the US Mint decided that minting new dollar coins was a top priority. The Mint had planned to continue production of the Morgan Dollar, but a movement began to make a coin that celebrated the peace after the Great War (it’s interesting to me that the origins of the movement have been lost to history). The initial design of the coin featured a broken sword on the reverse, which was meant to indicate peace. But many interpreted it as a sign of surrender, so an eagle was substituted instead. The Peace Dollar was minted until 1935, and no dollar coins were minted again until 1971.

By the early 1960s, the supply of dollar coins had dwindled, so Congress passed a law on August 3, 1964 authorizing the Mint to make more dollar coins, presumably Peace Dollars. But, of course, the value of silver had risen such that many coins – especially dollar coins – were worth more as metal than their face value as coinage. So people were hoarding them.

Opposition to the plan began almost immediately, especially after coin collectors started running ads in newspapers offering $7.50 for any of the “new” silver dollars people wished to trade. But while the US government moved at top speed to make the Kennedy half dollar happen, the government moved at a snail’s pace in stopping the 1960s Peace Dollar from happening. By May 1965, the Mint had made over 316,000 new Peace Dollars bearing the 1964-D mark. Plans for the new coin were finally shelved, so all but two of the coins were melted down. The two that survived were kept as specimens until 1970, when they too were melted. However, there have long been rumors that a handful of 1964 Peace Dollars had been smuggled out of the Mint, much like the 1933 Double Eagle. But that’s another story for another day.

Congress still wanted a new dollar coin, and by this point the Mint had experience in making “clad coins” out of nickel and copper. It just so happened that former president Dwight Eisenhower passed away on March 28, 1969 as Congress was debating a new dollar coin. Support for a new “Eisenhower Dollar” emerged… from Democrats. Oddly, Republicans opposed the measure, because they didn’t want “their” president gracing a coin made of base metal. Republican plans to make the coin from 40% silver were eventually shot down, and President Nixon (Eisenhower’s vice president) signed the law authorizing the coin on December 31, 1970.

The only problem was… no one really wanted a new silver dollar. Silver dollars were popular in the 1880s, when a dollar was worth 25 times was it is today. But outside the western states – with their casinos and longstanding preference for “hard money” – no one really wanted the coin. And the Eisenhower Dollar was roughly the same size as other silver dollars… which was large. The massive coin had a diameter of 38.1mm and a mass of 22.68g. So, basically, the coin was so large and heavy that if you put two Eisenhower dollars in a little kid’s pocket he’d fall over. Eisenhower dollars survived, barely, until 1978.

The Mint didn’t just give up on the dollar coin, though. They had plans for a new dollar coin that would be awesome. It would be a hendecagon – the nation’s first 11-sided coin. And it would feature women’s suffrage campaigner Susan B. Anthony, the first historical woman to appear on a US coin (except for Queen Isabella of Spain, who appeared on a commemorative 1893 quarter intended for collectors, not general circulation).

Was the nation ready for all this awesomeness??

Well, no. Vending machine companies loudly protested the 11-sided coin, saying that every vending machine in America would need expensive retrofitting to accept the new coin. The Mint bowed to their pressure, creating a traditional round coin that retained the 11-sided design around the edges:


Sigh. The coin was the same color as the quarter, and almost exactly the same size (26.5mm diameter vs. 24.26mm for the quarter). It was almost impossible to detect a Susan B. Anthony coin by feel (in your pocket, for instance), and many had to carefully examine the coins to figure out which were quarters and which were dollars. It didn’t help that many male chauvinists were opposed Anthony being on the coin generally, but even a lot of people in favor of putting Anthony on the coin were… disappointed by her stern demeanor. Some even said the portrait looked like former president Calvin Coolidge in drag. And the fact that the reverse side of the coin was an almost exact copy of the Eisenhower dollar made many question if the Mint was even trying.

SBA dollars were released in 1979 with a huge initial hullabaloo: TV and print commercials and lots of publicity campaigns. But then the jokes started. Lots of people, including yours truly, took to derisively calling them “Carter Quarters”, since the coin seemed to embody everything wrong with the Carter administration. After the big first push, SBA dollars disappeared. And the Mint, stuck with millions of coins no one wanted, dumped many of them on the US Post Office, which gave them out as change at stamp vending machines. There was an amusing period in the early 1980s when Americans would fly into a rage after putting a $10 bill into a vending machine to buy a book of stamps and would get a handful of Susan B. Anthony dollars instead of dollar bills as change!

So US Mint, totally embarrassed, hid in a closet for several years before going back to the drawing board. It took almost 18 years for the stock of Anthony dollars to dwindle away, and in 1997, Congress authorized the Mint to try a new dollar coin. This new dollar coin would be beautiful, majestic, and… of course the vending machine lobby struck again.

In the early days, vending machines detected counterfeit coins by checking their size and weight. It didn’t take long for people – especially broke college students – to figure out that washers or slugs of appropriate size could be substituted for genuine coins. So one could go to a hardware store and buy a pack of 30 washers for 50¢, and use them to get $7.50 worth of merchandise out of a vending machine.

Not surprisingly, vending machine owners got sick of finding their machines stuffed with slugs, so by the time Susan B. Anthony dollars came around, they’d added sensors that checked the the metallic composition of the coins, too. So the people who’d whined that changing the coin acceptors was “too expensive”… ended up upgrading them anyway. And even though only a teeny, tiny fraction of vending machines accepted SBA dollar coins, the technology was there to make it happen.

So when the Mint announced the new dollar coin, the vending industry complained again. This time they demanded that the coin have same metallic signature as SBA dollars, so they wouldn’t have to re-program the 16 vending machines in the United States that accepted SBA dollars. The Mint was like “LOL, wut?”, but the vending industry was like, “yeah, for reals”.  So the Mint started all over again, delaying the new coin by a year. In the meantime, the stock of SBA dollars neared complete exhaustion. So in 1999 the Mint was forced to mint more SBA dollars (note the 1999 date on the SBA pic above).

In the end, the Mint announced the new dollar coin… the Sacagawea dollar.

In 1997, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin created the “Dollar Coin Design Advisory Committee”, and he gave the committee two rules: the coin had to have a woman on it, and the woman (or women) could not be living. And the 9-person committee picked Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian who assisted the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Except… no known likeness of Sacagawea exists. The committee could have picked Martha Washington, Sojourner Truth, Dolley Madison, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Tubman, Mary Cassatt, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Helen Keller or even Margaret Mead. But no, for the new dollar coin they chose a woman of whom no painting or photograph exists.

Michael Castle, a Representative from Delaware, advocated a design which used the Statue of Liberty instead, as he felt it would be “more popular” and would “better encourage the use of the coin”. The General Accounting Office conducted a poll on Castle’s behalf which found that 65% of those polled preferred the Statue of Liberty design, while only 27% preferred the Sacagawea design (2% said that either was good, 3% didn’t like either, and another 3% had no opinion). The Treasury thanked Castle for his research… and went ahead with the Sacagawea design:

Sacagawea dollar

Once again, America yawned. Although the coin came in a nifty gold color, it was once again similar in size to the Washington quarter. And for the first couple of years, Sacagawea dollars would tarnish or discolor, sometimes after a few months, sometimes as soon as they were opened at the bank! Sometimes the discoloration gave the coins irregular “leopard spots”. But other times it would turn the coin various shades of olive green or black – which also made the coins look like Washington quarters (read more about the issue here).

The Mint seems to have fixed the discoloration problem, but the damage was done. The coin flopped, despite 1,600 TV, radio and print ads, and despite high-profile promotions with Walmart (which gave away 100 million coins as change) and General Mills (in which boxes of Cheerios cereal had a Lincoln cent, a Sacagawea dollar, or a coupon for 100 Sacagawea dollars as a prize). The Mint once again dropped a ton of the coins on the Post Office, which again gave them as change from vending machines… until 2010, when the agency retired 23,000 machines. The official reason for retiring the machines? “Dissatisfaction with dollar coins in change, machine malfunctions and failure to accept credit and debit cards” (emphasis mine). It seems the only places the dollar coins are popular are El Salvador and Ecuador, two countries which use the US dollar is their official currency.

Albert Einstein said that insanity was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Was he thinking about the US government when he said that? Because in spite of the complete failure of the Sacagawea coin, Congress in 2005 created the “Presidential $1 Coin Program”. These coins, the same color as the Sacagawea dollar, would replace the portrait of the Native American With No Known Likeness with that of a US President. And, hoping to recapture some of the “50 State Quarters” magic, the Mint would start with Washington and issue a total of four presidential coins a year, continuing through the list until it reached the last living president or former president.

Jefferson Dollar

By this point, American consumers couldn’t care less. If anything, the Presidential Dollars were even less popular than Sacagawea dollars. And speaking of, the legislation that enabled the Presidential Dollars also required that the Mint continue to make 1 Sacagawea coin for every 3 Presidential coins. The Mint was soon running over with both Sacagawea and Presidential coins that no one wanted, and on December 11, 2011 it was announced that general production of Presidential coins would cease (the Mint would continue making them for collectors, however).

So… the final – and in some ways, biggest – question: why don’t Americans like dollar coins?

Well, part of it is obvious: as long as the Treasury keeps printing $1 bills, people will prefer paper money to coins. Carrying $20 in paper dollars is far easier than carrying $20 in dollar coins. But I think the real reason is that the US has never made a decent dollar coin in my lifetime. Who would want to carry around a pocket full of hubcaps (Eisenhower dollars), or a pocket full of coins that look exactly like quarters (Susan B. Anthony dollars), or a pocket full of coins that feel (and sometimes look) exactly like quarters (Sacagawea or Presidential dollars)? No one in their right mind, that’s who.

Look, I get it: paper dollars last around 18 months in circulation, while coins last upwards of 30 years in circulation. If the US converted over to a dollar coin, the government would save something along the lines of $5 billion over the next 30 years. But they’re not going to do it with any dollar coin that’s been issued in my lifetime.

So allow me to suggest something:

£1 coin

This is Britain’s £1 coin. It’s 22.5 mm in diameter, which is very similar to the US nickel’s 21.21 mm diameter. However, the pound coin is 3.15 mm thick compared to 1.95 mm for the nickel, and it’s almost twice as heavy as the nickel (9.5 g vs. 5 g).

Here’s the thing about the £1 coin: even if you’re only in the UK for a couple of days, you quickly become used to how the pound coin feels, and it becomes really easy to pull one out of your pocket by feel alone. Of course, we wouldn’t have to copy the design of the coin… but I love the size and heft of the coin. And guess what? Thousands of British vending machine companies learned to deal with it there. I’m sure we can do so here, too.

3 Replies to “The (Bizarre) History of American Coinage”

  1. Unless you’re implying a Mongol invasion (which would be “hordeing”), the correct spelling is “hoarding.” Have I mentioned you have way too much time on your hands?

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