Class of '22

Posted on 7/9/2008

David W. Lange takes us back to the year 1922, when an interruption in minting met a number of unconventional purposes — and resulted in a variety of fascinating coinage.

In 2008, when our coins are produced as much for sale to collectors as for legitimate commercial needs, it seems that each and every denomination is produced annually at multiple mints, regardless of circulating requirements. This has not always been the case. In the early decades of United States coinage, interruptions in minting were commonplace. It was not unusual for certain denominations to go several years without production. For example, before 1818, the quarter dollar was struck only in 1796, 1804-07, and 1815. By the 20th century, however, such lapses were quite rare and typically were confined to just one of several mints in any given year.

It thus came as quite a surprise to collectors in 1922 when the U.S. Mint coined only cents, silver dollars, double eagles, and commemorative pieces. So many coins had been produced during the booming wartime economy of 1916-20 that the post-war recession resulted in a glut of these issues for the next two or three years. For example, at the end of fiscal year 1922 (June 30), the San Francisco Mint still held in its vaults some 15,493,230 undistributed cents. The Denver Mint had on hand a total of 20,250,700 unwanted pennies! The situation wasn’t as severe in Philadelphia, but that mint still had no need to coin additional cents from November of 1921 to March of 1923. A similar redundancy existed for the other denominations, from five cents through half dollar.

As is well known, all cents dated 1922 were coined at Denver. The entire mintage of 7,160,000 pieces was produced during January and February, and the reason for striking additional cents during an obvious surplus is unknown. It’s not impossible that the director’s office in Washington simply wanted to maintain date continuity by producing just enough pieces to discourage speculation. If this was the plan, however, it backfired, as these coins were sought by collectors almost from their inception. In the June 1927 issue of The Numismatist, frequent contributor Robert H. Lloyd observed that 1922-D cents “are much sought after and are difficult to find in circulation.”

Compounding their desirability was the fact that a certain percentage of this issue lacked a visible mintmark. It took some years for the hobby to accept that all were indeed coined at the Denver Mint, and the 1922 “plain” cents became a popular speculation within an already scarce issue. One collector and small-time dealer named Maurice D. Scharlack made 1922-dated cents his specialty and boasted in 1937 that he possessed some 25,000 examples of this coin and its assorted varieties. Collectors were urged by him to acquire examples of the regular strike having a clear mintmark, the “partial D” variety and the “no D” variety.

Indeed, the 1922-D cents were made quite hastily and without regard to quality control. The dies became severely eroded, resulting in distorted and missing features, among these being the mintmark. For any other year, such coins would have gone without much notice, but knowledge that all 1922 cents were coined at the Denver Mint made such defective pieces desirable to collectors.

Most of the United States coins produced during 1922 were not expected to circulate in the conventional sense. The nearly 85,000,000 silver dollars struck at the three mints that year were simply replacements for other pieces melted during 1918-19. Since the coins melted had mostly sat idle in vaults for decades, this was largely the fate of the new silver dollars, too. Worn examples from all three mints are common today, but so too are nearly equal numbers of uncirculated ones.

The mints at Philadelphia and San Francisco also coined gold double eagles in 1922, but these coins were intended primarily for international exchanges. Gold coins had not enjoyed much circulation in the eastern United States after 1861, when banks and the Treasury suspended specie payments. Even after the new paper money achieved value parity with gold in 1878, most Americans preferred the former for its convenience. Gold coins were a common medium in the West until 1917 or thereabouts, World War I finally disrupting this practice and forcing the use of paper on skeptical westerners, too. While gold coins remained available in 1922 upon request, it seems that the quarter eagle was the denomination most sought by Americans, and these solely for gift-giving purposes. Bank tellers usually charged a slight premium over face for the popular coins, and this premium was even higher for the old Coronet Liberty type.

The final players in 1922’s coinage were silver half dollars and gold dollars minted to honor the centennial of Ulysses S. Grant’s birth. These, of course, were sold to collectors at more than face value, though some of the halves later found their way into circulation during the hard times of the 1930s. The common design for both denominations was sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser. Each coin was struck first with an incuse star in its obverse field, and this was then polished out of the die to produce a second, starless variety. There was no real significance to this extra element; it was simply a means by which to sell collectors two of the same coin. While the gold dollars are of about equal rarity for both varieties, the half dollar with star is noticeably scarcer than its plain companion.

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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