USA Coin Album: Golden Anniversary of the Eisenhower Dollar — Part 1

Posted on 7/12/2022

The creation and sale of the short-lived coin series caused some interesting controversy.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Eisenhower Dollar. Unlike the 2021 hoopla surrounding the centennial of the last Morgan Dollars and the first Peace Dollars, this other milestone has gone entirely uncelebrated. It seems that few collectors are fond of the Ike Dollars, and they are valued only when found in very high grades or with certain varieties. I’ve never been a fan myself. I believe the design is among the two or three worst ever to emerge from the US Mint, though I do have a complete set of Ikes for reference. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on this short-lived coin series and reveal some of the controversy that attended its creation and sale by the Mint.

The story begins in 1965, when Congress passed a bill that prohibited the coining of dollar coins for a period of five years. This came in response to the abortive production of 316,076 Peace Dollars dated 1964-D, which were the first of 45 million pieces authorized. Struck in May of 1965, a time when silver dollars had already disappeared from circulation and were worth more than their face value, this foolish action was quickly recognized as a boondoggle for the silver mining interests and gambling casinos. The same law that removed silver from our dimes and quarters, and also greatly reduced it in the halves, further included a five-year prohibition on dollar coin production.

Aside from collectors, the gaming industry was the only segment of society that mourned the passing of silver dollars. Forced to have commercial mints produce nickel tokens of dollar size for its casinos, the owners of these establishments lobbied Congress for a replacement coin that would restore their own luster. The five-year ban finally expired in 1970, at the same time as Congress was debating the removal of silver entirely from the half dollar. That denomination would henceforth be struck with the copper-nickel-clad composition used for the dime and quarter. This proposal was included within the Bank Holding Company Act, which was not signed into law until the very last day of 1970. One attachment to that bill provided for circulating dollar coins made from the same copper-nickel-clad composition, as well as a collector edition made from the silver-clad composition just being terminated for the half dollar!

The obverse of the new dollar coin had already been determined. It would bear a portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II and President of the United States from 1953-61. Ike had died early in 1969, and there was partisan pressure to feature him on a circulating coin (Republicans were still smarting from the replacement of Ben Franklin’s bust on the half dollar with the head of Democratic President John F. Kennedy in 1964). Ironically, it was Democratic Congressman Robert R. Casey (1915-86) who, on October 29, 1969, introduced legislation calling for a coin honoring Eisenhower and the recent Apollo XI space mission, which saw men stepping onto the Moon for the first time.

The reverse initially proposed by the Mint for this coin had featured a rather conventional eagle figure in heraldic pose, but there was concern that this didn’t have enough pizzazz to sell America and the world on an Eisenhower Dollar. The Moon landing was deemed a worthy subject that would have broad appeal, so the Apollo XI mission logo was adapted to serve as the coin’s reverse. Justification for pairing this with a portrait of Ike was found in his 1958 signing of the act that created NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

Frank Gasparro’s sculpted models for the new coin type were ready in anticipation that minting would start in 1970, but political wrangling held up passage of the authorizing legislation until the very last day of that year!
Click images to enlarge

Mary Brooks, Director of the US Mint, observes the obverse galvano being mechanically reduced to create the master hub for the Eisenhower Dollar. Note that the date has been revised to read 1971, the first year of issue.
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In anticipation that the Eisenhower Dollar would be approved, over the Thanksgiving weekend of 1970 Mint Director Mary Brooks notified US Mint Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro that he should begin preparing models for the new coin. It was expected that production would begin early in the new year, so he had very little time to come up with the needed galvanos, hubs and dies.

The silver-clad editions of the Eisenhower Dollar were coined at the San Francisco Assay Office. This example is the Uncirculated striking, which was priced at $3.
Click images to enlarge

Trial strikes were produced at the Philadelphia Mint beginning January 25, 1971, but these subsequently were destroyed. The first mass production began with a First Strike ceremony at the San Francisco Assay Office on March 31. These coins were of the silver-clad composition intended for sale to collectors and most likely were non-Proofs. On July 27, 1971 Mamie Eisenhower, the late president’s widow, was given the first coin struck (this presumably was a Proof, accounting for the delay of several months). The presentation was made by President Richard Nixon, and the coin was mounted in a blue leather case. Treasury Secretary John Connally then made a second such presentation to Nixon.

What doesn’t seem to have been recorded is the exact date when the first copper-nickel-clad coins were mass produced for circulation. All that’s known is that production commenced in early July for release sometime in the fall.

Next month I’ll take a look at the ordering process for the first Eisenhower Dollars, as well as the characteristics of coins in this series.

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

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