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Ten Big U.S. Coin “Failures”

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
 

Not every coin produced by the United States Mint is embraced by the public or does its job for a consequential period of time. Some start out promising and then drop off, while others are spectacular failures from the outset. Here is CoinWeek’s list of Ten U.S. Coin “Failures”.

1. The $3 Gold Coin

1858 Three Dollar Gold Coin. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1858 Three Dollar Gold Coin. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

Some coins just make you scratch your head and wonder what Congress was thinking.

Authorized by the Coinage Act of February 21, 1853, the three-dollar gold piece was struck from 1854 until its discontinuance in 1889. One supposed reason for the development of the three-dollar coin was the fact that a first-class stamp cost three cents. If true, this would have quickly became irrelevant when the U.S. Postal Service lowered rates to two cents per stamp in 1883.

The coin was also comparable in size to the $2.50 quarter eagle – 20.5 mm versus the quarter eagle’s 18 mm. These two coins served a very similar economic role, and since the quarter eagle had been around since 1796, the necessity of this new denomination was dubious to the public. Despite a large inaugural mintage of 163,738 pieces, annual production of the three-dollar gold coin dropped rapidly until the Mint produced less than 6,000 yearly. Demand was limited mainly to gift-giving and numismatic speculation.

2. The Eisenhower Dollar

Decades after the last silver Peace dollar was struck in 1935, legislation was introduced to commemorate both the late former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Apollo 11 mission. What ended up being created was the first (and last) large-format base-metal dollar coin struck by the U.S. Mint. Initial public interest necessitated a combined mintage of 284.82 million coins in 1971 and 1972, to be struck by the Denver and Philadelphia facilities. For the remainder of the series’ eight-year run, the Ike dollar (“Ike” being Eisenhower’s nickname) was generally unwanted and unused by the public. The coins were just too bulky for everyday transactions and few vending machines could accept such large coins. Collectors also bristled at the high Mint surcharges that were added to the 40% silver numismatic versions. A portion of these funds were earmarked for the short-lived Eisenhower College in Seneca, New York.

By 1976, the United States Treasury Department found that nearly every Eisenhower dollar failed to circulate. Two years later, Ike was replaced by the smaller Susan B. Anthony dollar (of course its on the list; see below).

3. The 20-Cent Piece

1875-S Twenty-Cent Piece. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1875-S Twenty-Cent Piece. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

Authorized by an Act of Congress in 1874, the 20-cent “double dime” was produced for a total of four years – though the Mint struck Proof coins exclusively in ’77 and ’78. A very small total of 1,351,190 pieces were struck by the Philadelphia, Carson City, and San Francisco mints. The brainchild of Nevada senator John P. Jones, this coin owes its creation to the Comstock Lode and the absolute massive quantities of silver it injected into the U.S. economy. Despite yielding nearly seven million tons, or roughly 14,000,000,000 pounds, of silver ore, there was little need for a new denomination. The Mint was already striking Trade dollars for export with this metal.

Notably, the 20-cent piece was often confused with the quarter since both coins had nearly identical obverse and quite similar reverse designs. Another reason for the coin’s failure was the lack of economic need in the eastern part of the country. While the western mints did not strike base metal coins at the time, the Philadelphia Mint did. To those serviced by the mother mint, the proliferation of nickels and one-cent coins made the twenty-cent denomination unnecessary. It seems, in hindsight, that Jones was simply promoting the mining interests located in his district.

4. The Flying Eagle Cent

The Flying Eagle Cent - Ten Big U.S. Coin Failures

Unlike some other coins in this list, the Flying Eagle cent failed not because of poor public reception but because of production issues.

When the cost of producing large cents ballooned to more than face value, the Mint began looking for a solution. After several design proposals–including a large cent planchet with a central hole–the Mint hit upon the small cent struck from an alloy of copper and nickel.

First produced as a pattern, the Mint struck roughly 2,000 Flying Eagle cents dated 1856. 634 of these were produced for Congressional review, the remainder were struck to satisfy collector demand after the coin’s adoption.

Regular coinage of the Flying Eagle cent began in 1857. This year, the Philadelphia Mint struck 17,450,000 pieces. In 1858, the Philadelphia Mint produced 24,600,000 additional pieces. These mintages dwarf all prior cent mintages by millions of coins.

Unfortunately, the Mint encountered issues striking the high-relief design: the cupro-nickel alloy was simply too hard. Additionally, the coin’s high points on both faces were directly across from each other. When combined, these factors necessitated the use of extra force when striking the coins, resulting in weak points on the design and an increase in die breakages. After only two years of production, the design was replaced by the Indian Head cent. A few years after that, the Mint abandoned the alloy altogether.

5. The $4 Stella

With the establishment of the Latin Monetary Union in 1865 and the adoption of a single unified weight standard of gold coins by many European nations, the U.S. experimented with creating a denomination equivalent to the French 20 franc for use in international trade. The brainchild of U.S. Representative John A. Kasson, in partnership with one Dr. William Wheeler Hubbell, the Stella was struck with two head styles over two years: one with Lady Liberty’s hair put up in a bun (“Coiled Hair”) and the other with her hair flowing free (“Flowing Hair”).

Unfortunately, the Stella contained slightly more gold than its European counterparts, and a 20-Franc gold coin (being worth $3.86 USD) could not be exchanged for one Stella. Therefore, the 1:1 conversion was doomed from the start. Hubbell’s goloid composition was a disaster as well, with the Mint firmly opposed to its adoption and Hubbell frequently crying “foul” to his Congressional patron.

Between 1879 and 1880, 465 Proof coins were struck at cost as presentation pieces for various senators. Public perception quickly soured on the coin and Congress decided not to approve the Stella for circulation. A rumor has long circulated amongst numismatists that the novelty coin was sometimes worn as jewelry by DC madams. We don’t take this rumor all that seriously, and neither should you.

6. The Presidential Dollar Series

Presidential Dollars

Created by Congress to once again introduce the $1 coin, this series failed spectacularly.

Authorized by the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2004, which was introduced by Representative Michael Castle of Delaware, these coins were also to serve as pocket history lessons and to drive collector interest. Officially launching in 2007 at a rate of four presidential busts per year, the series was concluded in 2016. Ronald Reagan was the last president featured in the original run since subjects were to have been deceased for at least two years before their coin was struck (though George H.W. Bush was added in 2019).

Initially, mintages were massive. During the first year alone, the Mint struck nearly $1 billion in coins and followed that up with a further $465 million in 2009. By the time the series was pulled from general circulation in 2011, there was a stockpile of over $1.4 billion held in Treasury vaults. After 2012, the mintages would be tied directly to the number of coins ordered by collectors. In an unsuccessful attempt to build interest, the Mint released a series of numismatic products, such as Historical Signature Sets, cloth bags, and First Day Coin Covers. Over the last several years of the series, the mintages fell to between eight and 10 million pieces.

The issue was also mired in controversy after the Mint unintentionally (and later, perhaps intentionally) produced a number of coins without edge lettering. This lettering was important because it included the national mottos (“E PLURIBUS UNUM” and “IN GOD WE TRUST”) and the date and mintmark. Without these inscriptions, the coins were divided, dateless, mintless, and Godless. Which of those four issues do you think would prove to be a sticking point to conspiracy minded?

7. The Susan B. Anthony Dollar

A 40% off-center Susan B. Anthony dollar error. Image: Stack's Bowers.
A 40% off-center Susan B. Anthony dollar error. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

Heralded as the cure for the previous Eisenhower $1 series, the Susan B. Anthony dollar was quite innovative. First struck in 1979, not only was this the first small-size base metal dollar but it was also the first circulation coin honoring a real woman. By reducing the size of the coin from the previous diameter of 38.1 mm to 26.50 mm, the Mint hoped to make the coin easier to use.

However, the new size turned out to be the coin’s main downfall. The new Susan B. Anthony dollar was only 2.2 millimeters larger than the quarter. Additionally, vending machine companies paid handsomely to retrofit all of their machines while the Treasury paid $600,000 to market the new coins. Initially issued in massive quantities, nearly 750 million pieces were struck in anticipation of widespread popular demand.

It took only six days for the public to start voicing concerns. Within months, the vending industry quickly abandoned the denomination.

The Mint would only produce the coin for circulation for two years before mothballing the series in 1981. Surprisingly, after an 18-year hiatus, the Mint struck a second run of 41 million coins in 1999 of which millions were given out as change. Was there a genuine need for the coin? Or was the Mint just priming the pump for the imminent release of the Sacagawea “golden” dollar in 2000?

8. The Two-Cent Piece

The Two-Cent Piece - Ten Big U.S. Coin Failures

Struck in response to the massive coin shortage caused by hoarding during the United States Civil War, the two-cent piece was initially an enormous success. Notable for being the first circulation coin to carry the motto “In God We Trust”, the two-cent coin was introduced by the Coinage Act of 1864. Despite an issuance of 33.5 million pieces between ’64 and ’65, demand dried up quickly when the war ended.

The 1865 issuance was more extensive than all of the coins struck from ’66 until ’73 combined. This was partially due to the return of previously hoarded coins to the market, but also to the release of the new five-cent nickel in ’66. After the war, demand for the denomination softened considerably. When it became clear that the two-cent piece was neither wanted nor needed by the public, the coin was withdrawn by the Coinage Act of 1873.

9. The Three-Cent Silver Trime

Silver Three Cent Coins: The Lightest American MoneyStruck from 1851 until 1873, the silver trime is a testament to an interesting period of U.S. coinage.

This new denomination was intended to both replace any old Spanish colonial coinage still circulating in the United States and help mitigate any fluctuations in the value of copper coinage. The U.S. Mint authorized the redemption of old Spanish silver at Philadelphia in exchange for newly struck trimes. When Congress reduced the postal rate for a single letter sent up to 3,000 miles to three cents in 1851, the trime finally became a reality.

These silver coins were a silver-copper alloy and were the first American coin to be valued significantly less than its denomination. This resulted in an unintended benefit: the coins escaped being hoarded during the 1850s. They were, however, hoarded in massive quantities during the Civil War. When the war ended and silver became dramatically more expensive, the United States Treasury introduced the three-cent nickel. While these two denominations ran consecutively for nine years, production of the trime slowly dropped to less than 5,000 pieces per year starting in 1867, eventually falling from circulation entirely.

10. 1995-1996 Olympic Commemorative Coins

1995 and 1996 Olympic Games 32-coin set. Image: Heritage Auctions.
1995 and 1996 Olympic Games 32-coin set. Image: Heritage Auctions.

It was a close call for #10 on our list, with the 1995-1996 Olympic Commemorative Coins just barely edging out a “win” over the gold bullion First Spouse coins. Both series were deeply flawed, but the Olympic coins almost killed the modern commemorative coin program.

Struck to raise funds for the U.S. Olympic teams, the bloated series featured 16 designs that were issued in Proof and Uncirculated formats. The coins were “cookie cutter”, with clipart-like obverses and shared reverses. The Proof issues sold much better than the coins with the Uncirculated finish, but the resulting sales fell far below expectations.

As a result, cleaning up the bloated commemorative coin program became a priority of Mint Director Philip Diehl. As a result of his leadership, the Mint was able to shift from unpopular programs like the Olympic coins to popular circulating commemorative series like the 50 State Quarters.

Do you agree or disagree with our list? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., he worked for Save the Children, creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the U.S. from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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3 COMMENTS

  1. A few semi-random thoughts:

    The failure of the small dollar coin had multiple causes.

    >> The Mint inexplicably failed to listen to experts like Frank Gasparro who warned officials that the SBA dollar was too similar in design and color to the quarter.

    >> Reportedly they also rejected using multisided planchets as too difficult, even though other countries had been doing so for many years.

    >> They additionally ignored (or forgot) the sad story of the double-dime a century earlier and blundered ahead.

    >> Congress weakly acceded to lobbyists from the paper industry. Legislators both refused to end production of the dollar note and wouldn’t even consider increased printing of $2 bills – steps that in one form or another every other major country had taken when replacing their base-denomination note with a coin.

    The failure of the SBA coin effectively poisoned the well for ANY future dollar coins, even with new designs and colors. By contrast Canada learned from our stumbles when it introduced its brass-colored dollar: while it’s the same size as its US counterparts, it’s struck on 12-sided planchets, AND more importantly it was followed by a relatively quick withdrawal of the $1 note. In addition Canadians don’t generally share our country’s allergy to a $2 denomination, a cultural difference that blunted the very real objection to “getting a pocketful of dollar coins” when making change.

    Finally, the “last gasp” of SBA production in 1999 came about because the coin HAD found a use in transit systems and some vending machines in the days before card-based payments were common. Stockpiles had fallen low enough to complicate life for a number of larger transit providers, including the city where I worked at the time. In effect, the Mint spent that year striking bus and subway tokens.

  2. Good article, just one correction to make. The author states that production of the Susan B. dollars began in 1978 but that’s incorrect. 1978 was the final year of the Ike dollars. The Susan B. Anthony dollars weren’t coined until the following year in 1979.

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