USA Coin Album: Coins of the 1950s - Part One

Collectors attempting to assemble high-grade sets of US coins from the 1950s are keenly aware of the difficulty in finding sharply struck examples.

While the quality of a coin’s strike is only a minor consideration in third-parting grading, the more astute numismatist will pore over the many gem examples certified of most 1950s coins to find the best struck specimens. This is quite a challenging task, as that decade is notable for the generally poor quality of its coins in all respects.

Why these issues were of such poor manufacture may be explained as the perfect storm of stepped up coin production concurrent with severe cost-cutting measures. The story begins with the crisis presented by World War II. The few years leading up America’s involvement in 1941 saw the three mints coining pieces of almost routinely high quality. Though there were notable exceptions, such as the weakly struck San Francisco Mint half dollars of 1940-41, most of the coins dated 1938-41 are available with bold strikes from fresh, unworn dies. The vastly increased coinage demanded by the wartime economy changed all this, as production records were set amid a shortage of labor. The mints recruited both women and teenage boys to fill gaps in their ranks, as so many men went off to war. Poorly trained and overworked, these new employees were partly responsible for the increase in mint error coins during the years 1942-45.

The biggest culprit in the overall poor quality of wartime coins, however, particularly those of the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints, remained the overuse of dies. There doesn’t seem to have been a shortage of dies, but the time required to remove the old ones and install these replacements could not be justified when the American economy was booming. Expanded payrolls and the imposition of wartime emergency taxes required a vastly greater pool of coins, and the presses were kept running 24 hours a day.

The huge debt incurred during the war prompted a conservative, post-war Congress to demand budget cuts across all departments, the Treasury included. For example, the number of employees on the Mint’s payroll fell from 3,736 in 1945 to only 1,272 in 1950. This occurred at a time when the average salary of Mint employees had risen 73% since Fiscal Year 1946 due to post-war inflation. The Mint was ordered to do more with less, and a recession during 1947-50 enabled it to achieve this without much stress. Though quality improved slightly at the Philadelphia Mint, and Denver maintained the same higher standard it had enjoyed during the war years, San Francisco turned out perhaps the worst coins produced since the earliest years of the US Mint in the 1790s. Sadly, this would become its hallmark right through the end of coining there in 1955. Weak strikes from severely eroded dies are typical of these years, though such coins often provide the most pleasing luster and highest grades.

Thus the stage was set for the nadir of quality which took hold throughout the 1950s, when all three mints were driven to make more coins than at any time since the war but with steadily falling budgets. Cent production was representative of all denominations at the time, but with the added burden of greater numbers. The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint for those years provides a few glimpses into what was happening with cent coinage, and these comments may be extended to Mint operations in general.

Employing a practice that was taking hold in industry at the time, the US Mint hired film-makers to perform motion studies of its employees in action to see where improvements in efficiency could be made. It’s not known whether any of these films survive, but their impact is measurable. Both the Philadelphia and Denver Mints were reconfigured internally to eliminate the moving of materials between floors during the various stages of coining. Instead, the production line was laid out so that the ingots, strips, blanks and resulting coins were all processed in a single line of movement. The smaller size of the San Francisco Mint precluded such continuous movement, and a study determined that it was actually cheaper to make coins at Denver and ship them west than to make coins for the western states at San Francisco. Thus, the San Francisco Mint ceased coining operations in the spring of 1955.

The Mint Director’s reports indicate that the cost of producing cents fell steadily during the opening years of the 1950s. Producing 1,000 pieces had cost $1.59 in FY1946, while by FY1951 this figure was down to $1.21. It fell further to $1.10 in 1952 and $1.03 in 1953. Director Nellie Tayloe Ross observed with pride that, had the unit cost of cent production kept pace with inflation, the manufacture of 1,000 cents would have risen to $2.75. While such efficiencies achieved the Treasury Department’s goal of cutting overall costs, it’s obvious to numismatists that a price was paid in the aesthetic value of the resulting coins. These savings were effected through the overuse of tired dies that were scarred with deep erosion furrows and had very blurry details. In next month’s column, I’ll take a look at the some of the specific coins from this interesting decade.

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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