One of my favorite dates for United States coinage is 1921. The obvious appeal of this date is, of course, that it includes several scarce and rare issues, but there's even more to the story.
One of my favorite dates for United States coinage is 1921. The obvious appeal of
this date is, of course, that it includes several scarce and rare issues, but there's
even more to the story. It seems that all, or nearly all, of the various denominations
coined that year underwent some modifications by the US Mint's Engraving Department.
These revisions are mostly quite subtle. Furthermore, some of the changes continued
through the end of the series, while others are unique to 1921. In this three-part
study, I'll take a look at some of the distinctive features which make the United
States coinage of that year so intriguing.
One of the consequences of World War I was a tremendous increase in the mintage
figures for USA coins. Creating so many working hubs and dies visibly wore down
the master hubs for several denominations. This loss of detail was most evident
on the obverse of each design, which, because it typically featured greater contrast
in the height of relief between various elements, was subject to more rapid erosion.
Having been coined in the greatest numbers, it was the two minor coin denominations
of one cent and five cents that suffered the most, and these coins were never again
as sharp as they had been before the war years. By the end of 1920, however, mintage
figures were declining, and the Mint had an opportunity to address some of these
The master dies for 1921 would have been prepared during the final quarter of 1920,
so that working hubs and dies could be on hand for the new year. It was at this
time that several minor changes were effected to improve sharpness. The cent, which
had clearly lost the most detail since 1916, was curiously given only a cursory
treatment. The initials "V.D.B." added discretely in 1918, were sharpened
by hand on the master hub in 1921. Since all subsequent obverse master dies were
sunk from this hub for the next 40+ years, the sharpened letters survived until
suffering the same overall erosion evident on Lincoln cents of the 1930s through
1968. The loss of detail in Lincoln's hair and beard were seemingly ignored in 1921,
perhaps being not so obvious at that time, but nearly all such detail was obscured
by the 1950s.
Through having nothing to do with the master hubs and dies involved, there are other
peculiarities about the 1921-S cents, in particular. Typical of branch mint coins
produced during the 1920s, both the obverse and reverse dies employed to strike
this issue were used way beyond their reasonable limit, and examples showing extreme
die erosion are found quite often. In addition, quite a number of 1921-S cents were
coined from an obverse die in which the 'S' mintmark was punched very close to the
date and also quite shallowly. The mintmark is so weak on these cents that it is
nearly invisible on worn coins. In perusing old coin albums, I've encountered well
worn 1921-S cents that had been placed in the 1921 "plain" slot by owners
who failed to notice the faint mintmark.
All of the 1921-S cents, and most of those struck at Philadelphia, were produced
during the first quarter of the year. A worldwide recession reduced the demand for
new coins until well into 1923. In fact, as late as June 30, 1922, the San Francisco
Mint still had more than 15 million undistributed cents in its vaults. During this
long period of idleness, these mostly 1920-S and 1921-S cents would have begun to
tone, perhaps accounting for the rarity of these dates in fully red condition.
The Buffalo nickels of 1921 differed from the cents of that year in that the changes
made were effected in the master dies for that year alone, not in the master hubs
used for the entire series. The date itself was engraved to a greater depth, and
the numeral 1 was given serifs and slight concavity at its center. The master dies
for both sides of this coin were sunk to a slightly greater depth than normal, and
1921 nickels of either mint may be found with extremely bold detail and visibly
higher relief. Of course, this was lost as the working dies eroded through use,
but early strikes have a very distinctive look.
Worn dies are all too typical of 1921-dated nickels from either mint. While the
Philadelphia nickels sometimes show the effects of extended die usage, the dies
wearing from the peripheries inward, those struck on the west coast betray a form
of die erosion that occurred prematurely. In fact, the dies for both Denver and
San Francisco Mint coins of the 1920s seem to have eroded uniformly across their
entire faces, suggesting that these mints failed to harden them fully. Since the
reverse dies did not bear dates, these were often used to ridiculous lengths, producing
coins on which the mintmark is not distinguishable between 'D' and 'S.'
1921-S nickels were all coined during the second half of that year, and production
of this denomination there did not resume until the final months of 1923. This issue
is plagued with streaks and laminations, as all three United States Mints were experimenting
with outside vendors for the procuring of ready-to-coin planchets.
David W. Lange's column "USA Coin Album" appears monthly in Numismatist,
the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.