USA Coin Album: Something of Value - Conclusion

Posted on 11/10/2015

A declining roster of coins brings greater standardization in the way they’re labeled.

The several new coins which debuted in the years 1864-66 were all emergency issues to some degree, pieces intended to compensate for the economic upheaval of the Civil War that had driven the normal coinage into hiding after 1861. The success of these base metal coins in supplanting their silver predecessors had, in some instances, made the latter obsolete. In 1873 Congress abolished the silver three-cent piece, the silver half dime and the silver dollar. Also eliminated was the two-cent piece, as enough of the bronze cents made since 1864 were in circulation that it was no longer needed.

The one new coin to result from the Mint Act of 1873 was a heavier silver dollar intended for international trade, primarily in the Far East. The words TRADE DOLLAR clearly distinguished this coin, yet it was given a legal tender status that was later revoked. Trade dollars became a nuisance in domestic commerce, and their production was terminated in 1878, only proofs being coined for the next several years. The standard silver dollar was revived at about the same time, and the new Morgan Dollar of 1878 carried the denomination ONE DOLLAR. The short-lived double dime of 1875-78 had been inscribed TWENTY CENTS, and perhaps this prompted replacing the double eagle’s TWENTY D. with TWENTY DOLLARS starting in 1877. With just two exceptions, spelling a coin’s value in full would become the new standard thereafter for each new circulating issue for more than a century.

After having been produced in very small numbers for years, the copper-nickel three-cent piece, the gold dollar and the three-dollar piece were abolished in 1889. This left the USA with just two minor coins—the cent and copper-nickel five-cent piece; four silver issues—dime, quarter dollar, half dollar and silver dollar; and four gold denominations—quarter eagle, half eagle, eagle and double eagle.

Charles Barber’s Liberty Head Nickel debuted in 1883 with a simple Roman numeral V to mark its value. Originally conceived as part of a three-coin set of matching designs with the cent and three-cent piece, in this context its value would have been abundantly clear to all. As it is, only the nickel was revised, and sharps quickly gold-plated the new coin to take advantage of its unfamiliar design and the nickel’s similarity in size to the gold half eagle. The Mint almost as quickly added the words CENTS beneath the V to preclude further chicanery.

By the end of the 19th century literacy was nearly universal in America, at least among those born in the USA, and it was no longer deemed necessary for our coins to carry numeric values. The new fractional silver coins created by Charles Barber debuted in 1892 with matching portraits and their values spelled in full as ONE DIME, QUARTER DOLLAR and HALF DOLLAR, respectively. As new gold designs appeared during 1907-08, these too had their values spelled in full as FIVE DOLLARS, TEN DOLLARS and TWENTY DOLLARS. Only the diminutive quarter eagle, a coin already obsolete in commerce, soldiered on with the value statement 2½ DOLLARS until its demise in 1929. James Fraser’s Indian Head/Buffalo nickel was launched in 1913 with its value spelled in full as FIVE CENTS. This format was retained for the succeeding Jefferson nickel, despite several design changes in this coin since 2004.

After 1935 the USA’s roster of coins fell to just five denominations—cent, nickel, dime, quarter and half. Various attempts have been made since 1971 to revive dollar coinage, and all such coins were labeled ONE DOLLAR until 2007. In that year the Presidential dollar program was launched, and these carry the value $1, as do the Sacagawea/Native American dollars issued since 2009. An argument may be made that none of these are circulating coins, though that was certainly not the intent when they debuted.

Further exceptions to the standardized representation of a coin’s value may be found within the commemorative series. While Charles Barber’s new circulating quarter dollar of 1892 was spelled in full, his Isabella commemorative of the very next year was abbreviated as QUAR. DOL. The 1916-17 gold dollars were denominated as McKINLEY DOLLAR, this tiny coin always being ill suited as a commemorative platform. Some modern commemoratives have displayed similar lapses, such as the Constitution Bicentennial dollar of 1987, most awkwardly labeled as DOLLAR 1.

Perhaps because they are somewhat international in nature, America’s various gold bullion coins have also forsaken purely word denominations. For example, both the one-ounce gold Eagle and the similar Buffalo coin are denominated as $50 rather than FIFTY DOLLARS. Of course, the need to include statements of weight and fineness severely reduces the space available for a complete spelling in any case.

What’s in a name? Well, in the case of United States coinage the answer is that our coins have carried many different names. These have varied according to the prevailing fashions of the time and to how the coins were to be used. The law does not specify any particular format for our coinage overall, though some of the more recent legislation has included such specifications for particular issues.

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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