USA Coin Album: Numismatic Lame Ducks

Posted on 9/13/2016

In politics, a lame duck is an official whose term of office is concluding and whose successor has already been elected. In effect, this person is seen as no longer useful. This term has a numismatic application as well.

Among USA coins there have been many lame ducks, denominations or types that have no role in circulation and which have been or should be discontinued.

Within our current issues, the Presidential and Sacagawea dollars are clearly lame ducks, as they’re all but invisible in general circulation. The former series has come to its inevitable conclusion, as all deceased presidents have already been so honored. Even so, I wouldn’t put it past Congress to find some excuse for extending the series to include vice presidents, too. After that may come the Secretaries of Agriculture dollars. As for the Sacagawea dollar, it too is now coined solely for sale to collectors. Both were initially issued under the pretense of being circulating coins, but everyone outside of Congress knows that there will never be a circulating dollar coin in this country until production of the paper dollar is discontinued.

It may be argued that the cent is a lame duck issue, too, though it continues to make one-way journeys in retail transactions until ending up in a jar, ash tray or street gutter. A more obvious candidate for this unenviable title is the poor old half dollar. This is a coin that hasn’t been commonly seen in circulation since the 1960s, though it soldiered on into the 1980s within states that offered legalized gambling. When the casinos likewise abandoned these coins by 1990, there was nary a half dollar to be seen. It took the US Mint a dozen years to acknowledge this fact. Since 2002 half dollar coinage has been limited to the numbers required for the Mint’s annual Uncirculated Set, as well as direct sales of rolls and bags to collectors.

While it seems that the present time may be the golden age of lame duck coins, the USA has a long tradition of minting unnecessary issues. For instance, the half cent was never a popular denomination. Its production was frequently interrupted after 1811, only to see brief bursts of minting that took years to distribute. In fact, many of the 1828-29 half cents were melted just a few years later, as they’d turned unsightly while in storage at the Philadelphia Mint. The new issues of 1832-35 were sufficient to supply any demand through 1848. When circulating coinage resumed in 1849, the numbers minted were so low that the coins were little seen. It was only during 1851 and 1853, when silver coins had disappeared due to their high bullion value, that half cents enjoyed a brief rise in production. As it is, most of the later dates through the end of coinage in 1857 are common in Mint State, as they simply sat idle in their own time.

The silver three-cent piece and the silver half dime were both widely used until 1862, but the introduction of non-redeemable paper money during the Civil War quickly drove all gold and silver coins from circulation. The fractional silver denominations were replaced with small value notes, but these were immensely unpopular. The notes were themselves replaced with copper-nickel coins valued at three cents and five cents, respectively, and these were readily accepted in commerce. Since Congress anticipated that silver coins would soon return to circulation, a small production of the silver three-cent and five-cent pieces continued concurrently with their base metal replacements for several more years. (This also permitted bullion depositors to receive the exact amounts owed them in silver coin.) By 1873 it was obvious to all that the copper-nickel coins were firmly entrenched in commerce, and their redundant silver equivalents were terminated.

As federal paper money finally gained value parity with fractional silver coins in the mid 1870s, the latter returned in numbers so large that their minting for circulation was all but ended from 1879 through 1890. This development prompted Congress to re-evaluate the nation’s entire coinage system. By the 1880s it was apparent that several denominations were no longer being coined in numbers that made them useful in general circulation. The copper-nickel three-cent piece, which had been a lifeline in the 1860s, was not coined in significant numbers after 1881. The gold dollar had never returned to general circulation after being hoarded for its bullion value in 1861, though it remained the darling of coin collectors and jewelry manufacturers. The three-dollar piece had never been minted in large numbers since the first year of issue, 1854, and it too was sought primarily by jewelers. All three were discontinued after 1889, leaving the US Mint with just two base-metal denominations and four each of silver and gold.

Gold coins never returned to general circulation in most of the nation after the Civil War. They continued to circulate in the West until 1917, when World War I led to a lapse in the gold standard. Westerners learned to use paper money, and after that time gold coins were no longer seen in daily commerce. Quarter eagles remained popular with persons wanting to give the coins as gifts on special occasions, the old Coronet Liberty type being available only at a slight premium. Both the quarter and half eagle were discontinued after 1929, but by then all United States gold coins had become lame ducks.

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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