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Susan B. Anthony Dollars (1979-1999)





Seldom has a coin met with such scorn as that which greeted the Susan B. Anthony dollar upon its debut in 1979. Coined for circulation during just two years, with a brief reprieve two decades later, it was widely condemned as a failure both artistically and as a tool of commerce.

High hopes were held for this coin type when Congress passed Public Law 95-447 on October 10, 1978. This legislation provided for a new issue of one-dollar coins that would be radically different from all previous emissions. While traditional dollars had been coined in an alloy of silver and copper, the Eisenhower dollars minted since 1971 were of a copper-nickel-clad composition. In this respect the new dollar was similar, but the traditional diameter of 38.1 mm employed for the Ike dollar and its predecessors had resulted in coins that were too large and heavy to gain wide acceptance. Therefore, the new issue of dollars would be coined with a diameter of just 26.5 mm, and the Eisenhower dollar breathed its last in 1978.

Coining of the smaller dollar had been prompted by a report the Treasury Department had commissioned from the Research Triangle Institute. This report, submitted in 1976, detailed the projected coinage needs of the United States through the year 1990. In addition to calling for the elimination of the cent and the half dollar denominations, it also recommended a smaller size for the one-dollar denomination as an aid to its acceptance by the public. It was no secret that the bulky Eisenhower coin was little used outside of gambling casinos, and it was suggested by the RTI that a smaller coin would be more likely to find utility in general commerce. Its report also advocated a dollar coin in favor of the paper dollar, since the coin’s far greater lifespan made it more economical in the long run.

While Congress adopted the suggested size reduction for the new dollar, other important points raised by the RTI report were regrettably overlooked. To avoid confusion with existing coin denominations, namely the quarter dollar, it had been suggested that the new coin have a distinctive color and/or shape. The concept of a unique color fell by the wayside quickly, when it was made clear that both Congress and the Mint wanted to maintain the copper-nickel-clad composition already in use for several denominations. There was, however, serious consideration of adopting a multi-sided coin, and thousands of blank pieces were produced having eleven flats around their circumference. These were distributed to vending machine manufacturers for their use in testing the concept. In the end, however, Congress authorized a coin that was conventional in all respects, though it did retain a useless, eleven-sided inner border on both sides.

While the size and shape of the new dollar coin were still being debated in Congress, U. S. Mint Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro set to work preparing designs. For the obverse he reworked a youthful bust of the goddess Liberty that he had used previously for a medal commemorating the 1969 convention of the American Numismatic Association in Philadelphia. Very reminiscent of the portrait used for the USA cents of 1793, this bust was widely praised by the numismatic community, and Gasparro considered it his best work to date.

At this point, however, politics superseded sentiment, and the decision was made at the White House level that the new dollar coin should portray a real woman rather than an idealized one. Selected was women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Gasparro was ordered to make the change. Working from photographs of Ms. Anthony, the artist in Gasparro desired to soften her harsh features, but this proposal was nixed by Anthony’s admirers, who wanted her depicted in a more realistic manner. While the resulting portrait was thus historically accurate, it led to some cruel criticism by those who already resented the selection of Susan B. Anthony as the subject of the coin.

For whatever reason, no serious consideration was given to the creation of a new reverse design for the coin. Instead, the reverse of the Eisenhower dollar was simply reduced in size to fit the new issue. It was a bit more sharply rendered that on the older coin, but numismatists were naturally disappointed with the result.

In its adopted form the Anthony dollar features on its obverse a right-facing bust of the famed advocate of women’s rights. She is depicted c.1870, with the motto LIBERTY above and the date of coining below. Flanking her portrait are arcs of thirteen stars, with the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to the right of her chin. The designer’s initials, FG, appear above the star that is just to the right of the date. The mintmarks P(hiladelphia), D(enver) and S(an Francisco) are found above Ms. Anthony’s right shoulder. The reverse depicts the logo of Apollo XI, mankind’s first walk on Earth’s moon. It is dominated by the American Eagle descending to the lunar surface, grasping the olive branch of peace in its talons. A view of Earth’s sphere is above the eagle, as is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. Surrounding these is an arc of thirteen stars. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is above, the value ONE DOLLAR below. Gasparro’s initials FG are found below the eagle’s tail feathers.

Production of the new coins actually commenced in December of 1978, though the resulting pieces were all dated 1979. Such advance coinage is commonplace at the U. S. Mint, but the new issues are not released until the appropriate calendar year. In anticipation of the Anthony dollar’s July 2, 1979 release date, more than 500 million coins were struck and stockpiled (Obviously, the coin’s fatal flaws were not evident to the Mint at this point). While collectors rushed to banks to buy a roll or two of the new coins, reaction from the general public varied from indifference to outright hostility. The coins were almost immediately mistaken for quarters, a fact that should have been predicted, given their identical composition and fairly close diameters. The Anthony Dollar was derisively referred to as the “Susan B. Agony” or the “Carter quarter,” a satirical reference to then-President Jimmy Carter’s struggle with high inflation.

Despite extensive media coverage and a government advertising campaign to familiarize Americans with the new coin’s advantages over the paper dollar, the public clearly preferred the latter. The failure to discontinue printing one-dollar notes in connection with the introduction of the new dollar coins only facilitated the coin’s rejection. This was a lesson that other nations were to profit from when introducing their own dollar coins, but it was one that Congress failed to comprehend when yet another issue of dollar coins debuted in 2000.

Despite the apparent failure of the Anthony dollar to gain public acceptance, millions more were coined at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints in 1980. Most of these coins, like many of the 1979 issue, remained idle in vaults awaiting a demand that never materialized. In 1981 only enough SBA dollars were struck to provide for the Mint’s annual sale of Uncirculated sets to collectors, after which time production was suspended.

Largely forgotten by the public after the brief excitement of 1979, the only reminders of the Anthony dollar came when using U. S. Postal Service vending machines, which dispensed these coins for many years. Certain transit systems, most notably that of New York City, also provided for their use, but the number of automated devices that accepted dollar and half dollar coins were otherwise few and far between. For a brief time Anthony dollars were also paid out to military personnel stationed in Europe, but this practice was discontinued when the service men and women complained that local merchants would accept them only at a discount to paper dollars.

The adoption in 2000 of a new dollar coin having a highly distinctive color and a plain edge should have spelled the end for the remaining Anthony dollars, but instead it provided a new beginning. Claiming that the supply of dollar coins would run out before the new issue was ready, the U. S. Mint actually coined millions of additional Anthony Dollars in 1999. These became an instant novelty. While a few of them did pop out of postal vending machines, the majority seem to have been hoarded by collectors and speculators or may yet remain in some vault awaiting distribution.

Susan B. Anthony dollars, while largely failing as a medium of exchange, have since become quite popular as a short, easily completed series of United States coins. Only proof and uncirculated examples are sought, and these are desired in the highest grades available. Popular varieties within this series include the so-called “Near Date” issue dated 1979-P. These were struck from a modified obverse that has a more fully formed border. Also scarce and popular are the “Type 2” mintmark varieties on the proof dollars dated 1979-S and 1981-S. When the original ‘S’ mintmark puncheons wore out, a sharper replacement puncheon was used for a limited number of proofs coined during those years.


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