USA Coin Album: Transitional Pairs — Conclusion

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 8/28/2013

David's study of different coin types struck in the same year concludes this month with several popular 20th-century issues.

In theory there are three collectors who could hope to acquire both types of 1913 nickels, as that is the number of Liberty Head nickels dated 1913 which are in private ownership. For the rest of us, however, we will have to content ourselves with just the two major varieties of 1913 Indian Head/Buffalo nickels, but then these are not different design types in the strictest sense.

More promising are the transitional issues of 1916. Through his misinterpretation of the 1890 law requiring that coin designs be revised not more often than once in 25 years, Mint Director Robert M. Woolley (1915-16) was under the impression that new types were mandatory after 25 years coinage. Therefore, he initiated a design competition that resulted in three new coins to replace Charles Barber’s Liberty Head pieces of 1892. These became the Winged Head Liberty (Mercury) dime, the Standing Liberty quarter dollar and the Walking Liberty half dollar. These were all coined with the date 1916, though only the dime reached circulation before the end of that year.

The mint delayed production of dimes as long as it could during 1916, in the hope that the new dies soon would be ready, but the demand for additional coins required that these be struck with the old design. The mints at Philadelphia and San Francisco each coined substantial quantities of Barber dimes dated 1916, and they followed this with even greater numbers of “Mercury” dimes in the fall. All four issues are readily available in grades up through MS-64. The 1916(P) Mercury dime was widely hoarded for its novelty and therefore is affordable in MS-65. The Denver Mint contributed a mere 264,000 pieces of the Mercury type, as it had been ordered to focus on quarter dollar production during the final quarter of 1916. Scarce across all grades, the 1916-D dime may be omitted from a transitional collection.

Enough 1916-dated quarters were coined of the old type at the Philadelphia and Denver Mints that these are readily collectable in all grades through MS-64. Dies for the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter were not ready until the eleventh hour, and its mintage of just 52,000 pieces will make for an expensive transitional pair, though circulated examples are not truly rare. A possible alternative is found in the two major varieties of the SLQ coined during 1917. Both sides of the coin were radically altered in mid-year, and a total of six varieties resulted from coinage of both styles at all three mints. These are readily obtainable in grades through MS-64, and they make for a very attractive collection.

The Treasury held a sufficient supply of half dollars in 1916 that the mints were able to forestall producing new ones until the Walking Liberty dies were ready in the fall. Thus, it was the only one of the new coins to not result in a transitional pair.

Among the most appealing of design pairs involves the nickels of 1938. It was known early in the year that a new design by Felix Schlag portraying Thomas Jefferson would be coined shortly, but the Denver Mint was directed to strike just over seven million nickels with Fraser’s old Indian Head/Buffalo design. Ironically, these coins were very slow to enter circulation, and collectors beseeched both the Treasury and banks for examples of the 1938-D Buffalo nickel throughout the year. Equally difficult to find during that year of economic depression was the new Jefferson nickel. Though produced in the millions by all three mints and officially released during the fall of 1938, a year later collectors were still reporting in numismatic publications that examples were rarely seen. Instead, most of the newly released nickels were dated 1936 and 1937! This short supply was sorted out in time, and today both types are readily available in all grades through MS-66, with only the 1938-S nickel being scarce in higher grades.

Since 1938 the various United States Mints have been able to produce sufficient numbers of coins in any year that all new designs have been introduced without overlapping older types. The sole exceptions in recent years have been the various circulating commemorative issues that began in 1999. These include the 50 States quarter program (1999-2008, five types per year), the supplemental quarter program for non-states (six coins in 2009), the America the Beautiful quarter program (2010-21, five coins per year) and the Presidential dollars program (2007-16, four coins per year). Coined concurrently with the Presidential dollars has been Sacagawea dollar (2007-08) and its follow-up program, the Native American dollars (2009-?, new reverse each year).

These commemorative programs don’t represent true transitional types, as the new designs are not being introduced solely for the purpose of replacing the older designs, though they may have that net result. Unfortunately, it appears that the dollar coins have been mandated without respect to any demand for them in circulation, and this only recently led to their production being limited to collector sales alone. Thus, the dollar coins being minted today have joined the half dollar as useless vanities having little or no impact on daily commerce.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.