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Coin Design Blunders at the United States Mint

Design Blunders

By Lianna Spurrier for CoinWeek …..
We all make mistakes – the United States Mint included. Over the years the Mint has released multiple coins with design flaws that caused outrage, confusion, and flat-out rejection.

We’ve all heard how public upset led to the removal of “VDB” from the back of the wheat penny and the covering of Lady Liberty’s breast on the Standing Liberty quarters. Did the masses really care that much about their coinage? Was there really enough pushback that popular opinion necessitated these changes?

Shield Nickel Rays Coin Design

The shield nickel was released in 1866 with a circle of 13 stars on the reverse that had rays between them. In early 1867, these rays were removed.

It’s widely known that the shield nickel series as a whole proved to be very difficult to strike. The Mint hadn’t worked with nickel very much and it is a harder material than copper or silver, making the dies liable to crack and have a short lifespan.

Shield Nickel coin design changesThe rays on the reverse were part of the problem. There was little space between each ray and its neighboring stars, making it a particularly problematic part of the coin. They were removed in part to help the dies last longer.

But there were other reasons. The design as a whole was widely criticized; Joseph Wharton famously likened it to a tombstone, and an 1866 Letter to the Editor published in the American Journal of Numismatics asserted that “[t]he motto ‘In God We Trust,’ is very opportune, for the inventor [sic] of this coin may rest assured that the devil will never forgive him for such an abortion.”

The most controversial offense, however, was on the reverse. The rays reminded some of the Confederate flags from the Civil War, indicating Southern sympathies. While seemingly not an extremely widespread complaint, this may have had something to do with the removal of the rays as well.

VDB Wheat Pennies

The release of the Lincoln cent in 1909, designed by Victor David Brenner, was highly anticipated. It was the first circulating US coin to feature a portrait of a historical figure, and there was such high demand that the Mint had to limit how many an individual could purchase. They were released on August 2, and the complaints started rolling in only a couple days later.

On August 4, the Middletown Daily Argus of Middletown, New York, published a brief article entitled “Lincoln Coins Faulty”:

The new Lincoln cent has been only one day in circulation and already it is declared that a serious blunder was made by the Mint authorities and that a new die may have to be made to eliminate the objectionable feature.

VDB Cent coin design and BVD UnderwearThe initials “VDB”, on the bottom reverse of the coin, were seen as too bold and made many think of Brenner as conceited. In addition, according to the Des Moines News, some people mistook the initials for the trademark of an underwear brand – BVD.

Franklin MacVeagh, Secretary of the Treasury, responded promptly. Over the next few days, multiple options were considered: removing the initials altogether, leaving them be, or replacing them with only a “B”. Ultimately, they were removed entirely, until finding a new home beneath Lincoln’s shoulder in 1918.

Numismatists of the day expected that the VDB varieties would become scarce and began saving them as soon as the change was announced, resulting in many high-grade specimens available today.

Brenner was none too happy about the removal of his initials. He originally included his full last name on the design, but it was reduced before minting began. In a letter to The Numismatist on August 23, Brenner said:

It is mighty hard for me to express my sentiments with reference to the initials on the cent. The name of the artist on a coin is essential for the student of history as it enables him to trace environments and conditions of the time said coin was produced.

There was already precedent to place his initials on the coin. In fact, the only other circulating coins at the time without a designer’s initials were the nickel and the $10 gold piece. Regardless, the controversy regarding his initials may very well have made him one of the more well-known designers of a US coin, especially considering that the wheat penny is the only circulating coin he created.

Type 1 & 2 Standing Liberty Quarters

Another widely known design change was the covering of Lady Liberty’s breast on the Type 2 Standing Liberty quarter in 1917. The common belief is that a public outcry of conservatives drove this change, but there were no such complaints.

The change was actually a result of people inside the Mint. Hermon A. MacNeil designed the Standing Liberty quarter in 1916. Between the approval of his designs and the beginning of production in December, multiple modifications were made without MacNeil’s approval; the eagle on the reverse was lowered, a pair of dolphins originally on the obverse was removed, and other small changes were made. His design was altered in part because the original design was in high relief, which the Mint was not capable of producing. Already having trouble with the new Mercury dimes and Walking Liberty half dollars, they hoped to avoid similar issues with the quarter and address them before production began.

At first, the new coins were available only to officials and prominent numismatists (out of a fear of hoarding), and MacNeil had to request a sample. Previously unaware of the design changes, he was outraged by the modifications and insisted that the new coins not be released to the public. They were held until January 17, 1917, when the already minted pieces were put into circulation.

Standing Liberty Quarter coin design

However, MacNeil got his wish. He was allowed to change the design so that he found it acceptable, and this was where the Type 2 design came in. The original intention was to leave Liberty’s breast bare and combine two previously produced obverses, but minting technology at the time was incapable of doing so. As a result, MacNeil had to entirely reengrave the obverse. He completed this in mid-February and chose to give Lady Liberty a chain mail shirt, thus covering the exposed breast.

So why the change? There are multiple theories, but no definitive records. It may have simply been a personal choice of MacNeil’s, like other works he produced during that time, such as the statue Intellectual Development, also feature more covered females. However, Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett assert in United States Coinage: A Study by Type that MacNeil didn’t have a say in this design change.

David Lange suggests the Treasury Department may have played a part in the addition of chain mail, and Ray Young, in an article for Coins, believes it may have been a symbolic change.

As tensions with Germany grew and the lead-up to World War I began, the chain mail may have been added to show Lady Liberty as more prepared to defend herself in war. Whatever the reason truly was, there’s no evidence of any public outrage at the exposed breast.

Susan B. Anthony Dollars

In one of the more recent design flops, the Mint avidly marketed the Susan B. Anthony dollar prior to its release. They even distributed folders of promotional materials to banks and businesses, including sample ads and comics, suggestions for events, and diagrams of how to rearrange cash register drawers to allow space for the new coins.

These materials touted the coin’s benefits, claiming it would be “easy to see it is a woman”; “easy to see the unique 11-sided inner border on both sides”; and “easy to distinguish by size”.

Sac / SBAThe verdict? Not so much. In 1988, the Colorado Springs Gazette quoted Michael Brown, Spokesman for the United States Mint, as saying, “I suppose there may have been other disasters like this in the history of our nation’s currency, but never anything this bad. Never rejection by the public that is this complete.”

The Susan B. Anthony dollar only circulated for two years before production was halted due to public rejection. The most common reason for such dislike was that it was so easily confused with a quarter. Contrary to what the Mint’s marketing materials suggested, there was not a large enough difference in size between it and the quarter to make it easily distinguishable.

There were also critiques of the coin design.

Most coins have some correlation between the obverse and reverse designs, but the Susan B. Anthony made no such attempt. Very few connections can be found between Anthony, a women’s rights activist, and the symbolic moon landing depicted on the reverse. Disconnection aside, there has also been speculation that some viewed it as feminist propaganda.

It certainly can’t have helped anything that the designer, Frank Gasparro, had no idea what Anthony looked like and could only locate two photographs on which to base his design. Still, according to an article from the Chicago Tribune in 1988, the widespread rejection of the coin hurt his feelings.

There were ideas to try to revive the coin. Stella Sims, Director of the Mint, allegedly considered making changes, such as putting a hole in the coin or changing the color to a brassy yellow to make it easier to distinguish. But nothing came of these ideas until the release of the gold-colored Sacagawea dollar in 2000.

While all of these designs are chronicled in any type book, the stories behind them are not. In modern society, it’s hard to imagine that there was truly an outcry about initials on a penny, but not an exposed breast.

It should also be noted that this is by no means an exhaustive list. For example, between the Type 1 and Type 2 buffalo nickels, the ground on the reverse had to be filed down so that the denomination wouldn’t wear off of the coin so quickly. Of course, coinage of the early 1800s features many mistakes, such as anywhere from 12 to 15 stars on assorted coins. The 1801 3 errors large cent is another gem of a mistake, but those early slip-ups are more commonly due to mistakes when making the dies, not explicitly poor decisions.

These four, however, seem to have been the worst mistakes. The coin designs were approved as they were, no issues noticed until the public responded. They were conscious choices made by the Mint, choices they probably wished they could have taken back.

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    • I’m surprised that the author didn’t mention the 20¢ piece, because it was the failed ancestor of the SBA dollar. Not only did its* size and composition lead to confusion with the quarter, it even carried the same design! Its edge, plain rather than reeded, was the only significant difference.

      That said, the 20¢ piece is another coin that SHOULD have succeeded but failed due to the Mint’s blunders. All numismatists know that the venerable quarter was a compromise created for compatibility with then-circulating Spanish milled dollars that were cut into fractions of two (one-half, one-quarter, one-eighth) rather than fractions of ten when smaller denominations were needed. As such, the quarter and its gold counterpart the quarter-eagle were effectively “oddball” denominations in an otherwise purely decimal coinage system.

      IF the Mint had been able and willing to bite the proverbial bullet by withdrawing the quarter and quarter-eagle once Spanish dollars ceased to co-circulate, it would have given the US a fully-decimal system where the primary denominations were all in decimal ratios of 1:2:5:10. That of course is the scheme later adopted by many other countries around the world when they “went decimal”. But as things were then and are now, the quarter was such a workhorse coin that there would have likely been considerable public opposition. The Mint’s decision to attempt to concurrent circulation of two different but nearly-identical coins despite the obvious drawbacks was doomed. That experience of course was repeated 125 years later when $1 coins were expected to somehow co-circulate with dollar bills, and no effort was made to resuscitate the $2 bill as an alternative to multiple $1 pieces.

  1. I have a wheat penny made in 1918. Not only do it not have a mint mark nor his initials but in the word Liberty its missing the L. No there are no initials under his shoulder either.

    • @Larry Gee If your sentence is asking “what is it worth”, the answer’s most likely “face value only”.

      Enormous numbers of business-strike bicentennial coins were made during both 1975 and 1976 (though all carried the 1776-1976 dual date) meaning only those in uncirculated condition or special proof issues will bring a premium.


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