The Twenty Cent Piece: One of the Shortest Chapters in American Numismatics

By Bullion Shark LLC ……
 

Proposals for a twenty-cent coin date to 1791 and then 1806 but were rejected at the time. Although no twenty-cent coins were issued until much later from 1875 to 1878 (the second briefest period of any U.S. coin denomination after the $4 Stella gold coin), Americans had long been familiar with what was known as the two reales struck in Spain, which was known as the pistareen in the U.S. during the 18th century.

So what changed in the 1870s that resulted in the coining of a new denomination whose utility was not readily apparent since two dimes could be used for the same purpose? The answer is a combination of issues affecting U.S. coinage at the time and the efforts of the silver industry and one Senator – John P. Jones of Nevada, who was part owner of a silver mine – to advocate for a new silver coin.

First, in the far Western states, there was a shortage of small change.

During the Civil War, government payments of silver and gold coinage were suspended and precious metal coins were hoarded. And when base metal coins such as nickels were introduced after the war, they were not well accepted in this part of the country, where hard money was desired. Silver half dimes helped fill this gap and were issued in increasingly larger numbers at the San Francisco Mint but did not circulate out East. In 1873, Congress abolished them, resulting in a shortage of smaller denominations, especially since half dimes were often used in jewelry. Fractional paper currency typically took the place of lower denomination coins in the Western states.

Second, the Coinage Act of 1873 ended what was known as “free silver”, which was the practice of allowing silver producers to have their silver bullion coined into silver dollars. A couple of years later, silver prices plummeted as the railroad network made mines much more accessible and the metal plentiful, which resulted in difficult economic times in Virginia City, Nevada – the epicenter of silver production. Silver producers needed a new coin to sell their silver to the government.

Third, some American officials at the time were interested in creating a denomination that would help align our currency with the Latin Monetary Union (LMU) and to bring the weights of our coinage into the metric system. The twenty-cent coin would be the equivalent of one French franc in the LMU.

Then there is Senator John P. Jones, who had been elected in 1873. The next year he introduced a bill to authorize a twenty-cent piece to address the shortage of small coinage in the West. It was endorsed by Mint Director Henry Linderman and his fellow legislators.

Linderman had pattern coins prepared but rejected the first batch, saying there were too similar to the Seated Liberty coinage of the time. The second batch, which was prepared like the first by Chief Engraver William Barber, combined an obverse that was almost identical to the Seated Liberty figure by Christian Gobrecht, which by 1840 was used on all denominations of silver coins, with a reverse with a right-facing eagle with its wings spread that was almost the same as the one for his Trade dollar. The new coin would also have a plain edge (unlike the Seated Liberty coinage that was reeded), and “Twenty Coins” was inscribed under the eagle on the reverse with “United States of America” above.

The obverse had no inscriptions, just the Liberty figure surrounded by 13 stars for the original colonies and the date below. Both mottos “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust” did not appear because the coin was seen as too small to include them.

The design was approved on April 12, 1875, but required some modifications to better define the olive leaves on the branch the eagle clutches on the reverse along with arrows. Since the coins were mainly needed in Western states, far more coins were struck in the first year (1875) in San Francisco and Carson City (1,155,000 and 133,290, respectively) than in Philadelphia (only about 40,000).

Production and Mintages

That first year there was demand and need for the new coins, but they quickly fell out of favor with the public because they were so easy to mistake for a quarter. Their design was identical on the obverse and different but similar on the reverse, and their size was just 2.3 millimeters smaller than a quarter (22 mm versus 24.3 mm).

In 1876, Congress voted to finally allow the redemption of all that paper currency with silver coins, and the twenty-cent pieces were among those that could be exchanged. That year only 14,600 were struck at Philadelphia and 10,000 at Carson City, but only a mere 20 1876-CC are known today because in March 1877, Linderman ordered the melting of 12,359 twenty-cent coins from the Carson City Mint, including all the 1876-CC pieces except those few survivors that have become one of the greater rarities of 19th-century coinage. That coin runs from $270,000 in MS60 to $700,000 in MS66

In 1877 and 1878, only 510 and 600 respectively were struck in Proof for collectors, and on May 2, 1878, Congress abolished the coin. The coins were no longer needed for the coining of bullion because of the passage of the Bland-Allison Act, which paved the way for the new Morgan silver dollar. At least a third of the entire mintage of twenty-cent coins was melted to be recoined into other denominations.

Not surprisingly, the 1875-S with the highest mintage is the least expensive coin of this type and the most popular choice for a type coin despite the fact that the 1875 tends to be better struck. Because the twenty-cent coins only circulated for a couple of years, most examples tend to be lightly worn or in mint state.

The 1875-S runs $265 in XF40, $480 in AU-55, and $775 in MS60. In higher Mint State grades, it runs into the thousands. All the other dates are much more expensive due to low mintages and extensive melting. If you want a nice circulated example, it can be had for under $200.

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Sources

Bowers, Q. David. A Guide Book of United States Coinage. Whitman. (2019)
 

1 COMMENT

  1. A 20¢ denomination made perfect sense from the standpoint of a truly decimal coinage system. As every collector and numismatist knows, the quarter was needed for compatibility with Spanish 8-reales pieces that then co-circulated, but doesn’t fit into a 1-2-5 denomination pattern.

    Theoretically the quarter could have been replaced at any point after the coinage reform of 1857. However officials instead made the same blindered mistakes that were repeated a century later with the hapless SBA dollar and its improved but still unused “golden” successors:

    First, they created a coin whose design was too similar to a quarter, and second there was no effort to withdraw the existing target currency – the quarter in the case of the double dime, and the paper dollar in the case of the SBA and “golden” coins. With no incentives for the public to change long-established behaviors, familiarity with existing practices won out over practicality.

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