The new mini-dollar, featuring a portrait of women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, went into mass production in the spring of 1979.
In anticipation of great demand, even the San Francisco Assay Office (as it was then known) contributed to this coinage, and several hundred million pieces had been coined by the time of the Anthony dollar’s official issue. As always seems to happen, the coin made its unofficial debut a few weeks prematurely, when a prominent coin dealer was able to secure a supply through banks which had innocently misunderstood the written instructions. To his credit, this dealer simply gave away the coins as novelties rather than attempt to sell them. For most people, however, the Anthony dollar did not appear until the formal release date of July 2, 1979. I bought two rolls myself that day from my local bank, and the coins were all splendid, prooflike 1979-S pieces. For a time I held onto the entire lot, but eventually boredom set in, and I preserved only the two finest for my collection and spent the rest.
Spending Anthony dollars proved to be quite challenging. Despite a vigorous media campaign to inform the public about the new dollar coin, most Americans took an instant dislike to it and found it hard to distinguish from the quarter dollar. Arriving at a time of near double-digit inflation, this change was seen as symptomatic of the nation’s decline. It wasn’t long before pundits were calling it the “Carter quarter,” a derisive reference to the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
Though the US Mint continued to coin millions of Anthony dollars through 1980, it took only a few months following their formal release to establish that the coin was a flop. After some half-hearted attempts at circulating the mini-dollars, banks soon stopped ordering additional pieces from the federal reserve, and the coins simply piled up in storage. The 1981 production was limited to just enough coins for that year’s Uncirculated Sets, whereupon all production ceased for the next 17 years.
The failure of Congress to include language that discontinued the paper dollar concurrent with the issuance of a dollar coin once again proved to be the main stumbling block in establishing the latter’s circulation. It has been demonstrated in one nation after another that the public, while initially reluctant to accept larger denomination coins in place of notes, will eventually overcome its resistance when the supply of paper money dwindles. This mental conversion typically takes about a year. Due to lobbying from suppliers of banknote paper and from a desire to preserve jobs, Congress has consistently failed to order the discontinuance of one-dollar notes. The result is that no dollar coin will ever succeed as long as this foolish policy remains in place.
With a general rejection of dollar coins by the public being such an embarrassment to the Anthony dollar’s supporters, some bizarre and desperate measures were taken to present the illusion of public acceptance. US military personnel stationed in Europe were paid in the unpopular coins and discovered that they were accepted locally only at a discount to paper money. This essentially left our troops underpaid when shopping in town, though their own base exchanges provided full purchase value. The US Postal Service was directed to dispense the coins as change in place of dollar notes, a move that drew numerous complaints from the recipients. Eventually, this practice was discontinued for face-to-face transactions, but the USPS vending machines continued to dispense dollar coins for years afterward. This, too, was stopped for a time, and I clearly recall receiving several dollars worth of quarters in change from stamp purchases made from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. As the new millennium approached, the dispensing of dollar coins resumed, and there were soon claims that the Anthony dollar stockpile would become exhausted in the near future.
By this time Congress was ready to again attempt a circulating dollar coin. There was some collective memory this time, and the new legislation emphasized a coin having distinctive visual qualities. While that bill was nearing passage, however, the order came to resume production of Anthony dollars in 1999 due, it was said, to the near depletion of existing supplies. The fact that no banks were ordering more of these coins was disregarded completely, and the Philadelphia and Denver Mints went ahead with the production of more than 40 million additional pieces from slightly revised hubs. Nearly all of these coins, however, were either hoarded by speculators or remain in storage today, as precious few were ever received by the public. My purchases from postal vending machines in 1999-2000 returned only dollar coins dated 1979-80, all of which were unworn but slightly dull from long storage.
While the new “golden” dollar, which debuted in 2000, has all the attributes needed to succeed where its predecessors failed, it is ultimately the ongoing failure of Congress to discontinue production of paper dollars that has already doomed both the Sacagawea and Presidential series to invisibility. Collectors follow the new issues with varying levels of enthusiasm, but the public remains blissfully unaware that the United States is actually producing dollar coins.
David W. Lange's column, "USA Coin Album," appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.