Among the coin types least likely to be found on anyone’s list of favorites is the Susan B. Anthony dollar.
Produced just two years for general circulation, it was followed by a single year of collector-only pieces and another, entirely pointless production some 18 years later. The only reason this coin series is worth studying is that it reveals quite clearly what’s so troubling about Congress's approach to our circulating coinage. The Anthony dollar provides a perfect template for how to get just about everything wrong.
When this new coin type debuted in 1979, it was viewed as an antidote to the failed Eisenhower dollar of 1971-78. It was widely believed that the only reason Ike dollars weren’t accepted by the public was their great size and weight. Make the coin smaller, it was reasoned, and people would embrace it. This notion was reinforced by a study commissioned by the Treasury a few years earlier. When published in 1976, the report of the Research Triangle Institute had three basic recommendations: eliminate the cent, eliminate the half dollar and replace the current dollar with a smaller coin. All three of these points remain valid today, though the only one acted upon at the time was a reduction in the size of the dollar.
To avoid unnecessary experimentation, it was decided early on that the mini-dollar would be of the same copper-nickel-clad composition as current dimes, quarters and halves. As the dollar coin would be only a few millimeters larger in diameter than the quarter and just slightly thicker, it was proposed to make the coin 11-sided to provide greater visual distinction. This idea was ultimately rejected for the sake of simplicity, a serious flaw in thinking that would have dire consequences. As a compromise, an 11-sided inner border was applied within a conventional tondo.
Early test strikings were made at the Philadelphia Mint in 1977, using plain or very simplified dies that featured no portraits. A commercial metals company, Gould, Inc., participated in the testing of alternative alloys that, as mentioned above, were ultimately rejected. Its test coins utilized an obverse die featuring George Washington and the Washington Monument paired with a reverse die displaying the Great Seal of the United States. Once the conventional clad composition was approved, Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro prepared coin models based on his medal for the 1969 ANA convention at Philadelphia. This displayed on its obverse a bust of Liberty similar to that on the cents and half cents of 1793 paired with a soaring eagle vaguely reminiscent of the Standing Liberty quarter. If dies and pattern coins were made of these models, they were evidently destroyed, as none are known today.
Though Gasparro’s design was quite popular with collectors who viewed his galvanos, there were overriding political considerations that doomed such a coin. At the time that legislation for the mini-dollar was pending, Congress was also debating the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would have guaranteed equal pay and working conditions for women doing the same work as men. This bill failed to pass repeatedly in session after session. When the Treasury announced that the new coin would feature a portrait of women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), it was widely viewed as a consolation prize for frustrated supporters of the ERA. Whether or not this was a fact, Ms. Anthony proved to be the politically acceptable choice approved by Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal.
For the reverse of the new coin, it was decided to simply continue the Apollo XI logo of the Eisenhower dollar by means of mechanical reduction on the Janvier lathe. This was seen as both saving time and providing continuity with the old coins to further public acceptance of the smaller pieces as dollars.
Frank Gasparro, though quite able as a technician, was never more than mediocre as a sculptor, and both the Ike and Anthony dollars ably demonstrate his limitations. In his defense, it may be said that he was not given a free hand in creating the portrait of Susan B. Anthony. Working from a photo of Anthony taken when she was 28, he created a fairly accurate likeness that was marred only by the “noodle hair” typical of all his portraits. It’s human nature to want to soften the portrait of any woman to make her more attractive, but Gasparro was instructed to keep to the facts of the photo. This resulted in a very stern-looking bust that was fairly true to the subject but that provided additional fodder for critics of the coin upon its issue.
With the signing by President Jimmy Carter of the bill authorizing the mini-dollar on October 10, 1978, the wheels were set in motion, and it was anticipated that the new issue would be ready for release by mid-1979. In the midst of so much compromise, however, Congress had lost sight of the recommendations set forth in the RTI study of 1976. The Institute had advised that a new, reduced-size dollar also be visually distinctive from all other current coins, but the Anthony dollar as issued would prove to be little more than a bloated quarter to the average American. The stage was set for an embarrassing failure.
David W. Lange's column, "USA Coin Album," appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.