USA Coin Album: The Coins of 1916 - Part 1

Posted on 7/15/2014

Certain years in United States coinage stick out for their historic significance — or just the sheer variety of coins produced.

Within the latter category 1916 is quite memorable, as it included two transitional coin types, a popular 20th Century rarity and the final issues of circulating gold coins for the duration of an epic war.

America was emerging from a brief recession that had afflicted it during 1913-15, years in which mintages slumped and several denominations were not coined at all of the three mints. In contrast, the year 1916 saw mintages rise dramatically, as the demand for American exports from the warring nations of Europe fueled a boost in both agriculture and manufacturing. The USA was not yet embroiled in that conflict, President Wilson having campaigned for re-election in 1916 on the slogan “he kept us out of the war.” Instead, America was reaping the benefits of supplying both sides, though the British blockade of German waters steered most of our deliveries toward Liverpool rather than Hamburg. Only the recurring danger of German U boats posed a threat to Americans, and this would finally draw us into the war the following year.

To illustrate the rapid increase in coin production, one need look no further than the humble Lincoln cent. In 1915 the Philadelphia Mint struck only 29 million pieces, but this figure more than quadrupled to nearly 132 million for 1916. Denver and San Francisco saw increases in cent coinage, too, the total of 1916-S cents being nearly five times the number issued in 1915. Coincidentally, the Philadelphia Mint’s Engraving Department had created a new obverse hub for the cent in 1916, and this featured a richly detailed portrait of Lincoln that outshone Brenner’s original of 1909. In fact, a well struck 1916 cent from fresh dies displays the Lincoln type at its pinnacle of quality, a fact best appreciated by examining one of the scarce proofs. Indeed, so sharp are these cents that even Philadelphia Mint currency strikes are often mistaken for proofs and require professional certification to separate hope from reality. The Denver and San Francisco cents coined from fresh dies can be equally as impressive, though the greater part of the surviving mint state population reveal worn dies that betray various degrees of erosion and lost details. Collectors should be patient when selecting their specimens of all three mints, as a coin’s certified grade does not always reflect its sharpness of details. Fortunately, none of the 1916 cents are rare, though the S-Mint edition is seldom found fully red.

The nickel, too, underwent a facelift in 1916, though the differences between this and earlier dates are less obvious. The most evident improvement was sharpening of the word LIBERTY, which appears shallow and a bit fuzzy on the 1913-15 nickels. On those of 1916 and later years it is fashioned from sharply raised letters. Minor changes were made to the Indian’s profile, as well, but these are so subtle that they’re hard to detect even in side-by-side comparisons with earlier coins. The ultimate realization of this improved quality is seen on proofs of the 1916 nickel, an issue that a mintage of just 600 pieces and is very scarce.

All three mints registered big advances in production over 1915, and these coins are available in all grades up through the lower range of mint state. Gems of the two mintmarked pieces are a bit scarce, but the Philadelphia issue is plentiful. The quality of strike and die state vary widely for all three mints, and collectors should seek only pieces that were sharply struck from fresh dies. Many 1916 nickels, however, are no longer identifiable, as the dates wore off very quickly on this coin type, but nice examples are common enough that this is not a deterrent to completing one’s collection.

Philadelphia gave us one of the most dramatic of doubled-die varieties that year, with the nickel’s date and adjacent design features being doubled clearly enough to be seen even on well-worn pieces. This variety was not publicized until the 1960s, so collectors missed the opportunity to preserve them from wear. As a consequence, high grade survivors are extremely rare.

In 1915 the Treasury Department launched an invitational competition to provide new designs for the dime, quarter dollar and half dollar, and this ultimately led to transitional pairs for the first two of these coins during 1916. An act had been passed in 1890 requiring that designs for our circulating coins be in production for at least 25 years inclusive before they could be changed. In 1915 Mint Director Robert W. Woolley misinterpreted this law to mean that a change in design was mandatory after 25 years, and so it was that three sculptors of proven talent were selected to submit designs to replace Charles Barber’s Liberty Head coins first issued in 1892. Each of the winning entries was a radical departure from previous issues in terms of both artistry and mechanical requirements, and this led to a protracted development period that forced an additional emission of the old dime and quarter when the new dies were not ready in time. I’ll take a look at the consequences of this delay and the coins that finally emerged from it in next month’s column.

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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