USA Coin Album: December’s Children

Posted on 12/17/2015

No, this column is not going to be a review of a Rolling Stones album from 50 years ago, though it was pretty good. Instead, I’m going to look at some United States coins that were minted exclusively in December or, at least, starting in that month.

The list is likely not complete, but these are a few of the memorable examples.

The first entry is a really surprising one, as the resulting coins bear the date of the year following their production. No cents were coined with the date 1815, since the war with Britain that broke out in the summer of 1812 suspended the shipment of copper planchets to the Philadelphia Mint. These ran out during 1814, and neither the Mint nor any domestic manufacturer could provide a suitable substitute. News of a peace treaty signed in Belgium reached America early in 1815, and the Mint placed an order for planchets with the Soho Mint in Birmingham, England. These didn’t arrive until late in the year, but so desperate was the need for cents that the Mint began striking them immediately from dies that researcher R. W. Julian postulated were dated 1816.

During the hiatus in cent production, a new design had been prepared to replace what we’ve come to know as the Classic Head type of 1808-14, and numismatists have labeled the cents of 1816-39 as the Coronet type. The subset of pieces dated 1816 to early 1835 are further known as the Matron Heads, and at least some of the 1816-dated pieces were coined in December, 1815.

Another one of December’s Children is the 1912 San Francisco Mint nickel. Coins of this denomination had been shipped west to San Francisco from the Philadelphia Mint since at least the 1880s, and this begs the question of why the ‘S’ Mint didn’t simply make its own pieces. The answer is found in the 1852 authorizing act establishing that mint, which had limited its coin production to silver and gold. It was not until the half dime was abolished in 1873 that the need arose there for a replacement five-cent piece, and this required passage of a new law in 1906 that permitted all of the branch mints to strike minor coins (cents and nickels) when needed.

It was not until December 24, 1912 that the San Francisco commenced coining nickels. The Philadelphia Mint had already concluded its production of Liberty Head nickels more than a week earlier, as the new Indian Head/Buffalo type was on deck for 1913. As it is, San Francisco produced a mere 238,000 1912-S nickels. On December 28th, the very first example coined was used by San Francisco Mayor James J. Rolph, Jr. to pay the initial fare on San Francisco’s Municipal Railway, which was itself a novelty in being the first publicly owned streetcar line.

Another well known coin that just barely made it to production before year’s end is the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter dollar. All three of the new silver types introduced during 1916 had difficult gestation periods, but none more so than the quarter. In fact, the Mint would still be tinkering with its design during 1917.

Determined to produce examples dated 1916, the Philadelphia Mint alone stuck pieces that year from dies that still needed some touching up to sharpen the design. A mere 52,000 quarters of the new type were struck December 16-31 bearing the 1916 date, but these were withheld from release until the first batch of 1917 quarters from sharpened hubs was ready to issue. In fact, Mint Director F. J. H. von Engelken wrote to the superintendents of the three mints on January 10 asking them to hold back all new quarters from release until he informed them otherwise. His concern was not only to prevent hoarding of the low-mintage 1916 coins, but also to address grievances from sculptor Hermon MacNeil about the Mint’s alteration of his original design. The artist’s complaints ultimately resulted in major revisions that became the Type 2 quarter minted starting in mid-1917, but von Engelken had no choice but to permit release of the existing pieces on January 17.

The final coin on my list is the 1921 Peace Dollar, the only date of this type to be released for general circulation in its original high relief. Authorized late in the year, the first reverse prepared by sculptor Anthony de Francisci was met with criticism due to its inclusion of a broken sword (some viewed this as a sign of defeat rather than the end of war that the artist intended). In an amazing demonstration of his skill, U. S. Mint Chief Engraver George Morgan carefully reshaped the sword into part of the olive branch! This delayed coining until December 28, and frantic work over the next few days resulted in just over a million Peace dollars dated 1921. The initial release of these coins occurred on January 4, 1922.

Problems in striking the coin’s high relief would doom the original hubs, and Morgan made new hub reductions for 1922’s coinage which drastically reduced the legends in particular. While this resulted in a satisfactory number of strikes per die, the Peace dollar lost its boldness, and the legends were rendered incomplete with just moderate wear.

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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