USA Coin Album: Five for a Dollar - The Ill-fated 20-cent Piece, Conclusion
Posted on 8/4/2017
Senator John P. Jones of Nevada was a silver mine owner himself, as were many of his constituents. His bill for the creation of this new denomination did pass the Senate in 1874, but it died in the House until the following year. On March 3, 1875 Congressman George Willard of Michigan called for unanimous approval of the Jones bill, and President Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law that same day.
There was almost no challenge or debate on the subject, which is odd given the specious reason offered for the coin's creation. Senator Jones had proclaimed that the lack of a circulating five-cent piece in the West caused many persons to be short-changed during transactions in which a ten-cent purchase was paid for with a quarter dollar. The customer allegedly received only a dime in change, and this coin was thus called a "short bit," a reference to the old Spanish real which had passed in this country at the value of 12-1/2 cents. Though half dimes had been coined at the San Francisco Mint from 1863-73, this denomination found little favor in the inflated economy of the West. Nickels were not used there at all before the 1890s, but the Jones argument still smacked of political pork.
Last month's column featured a nice example of a pattern coin created for the 20-cent piece. Several different designs were issued, the earliest dated 1874 in anticipation that the coin would become a reality. All were created by US Mint Chief Engraver William Barber, though Assistant Engraver Joseph A. Bailly received partial credit for at least one of them. Correspondence between Mint Director Henry R. Linderman in Washington and Philadelphia Mint Superintendent James Pollack reveals that the need to distinguish this coin from the only slightly larger quarter dollar was an early priority. Indeed, most of the patterns were of highly distinctive designs that in no way resembled the current Seated Liberty quarter.
Despite these initial precautions, the enabling legislation for the 20-cent piece mandated that it conform to the terms of the sweeping Mint Act of 1873 in all respects. Thus, Linderman directed Pollock to use the standard Seated Liberty obverse of the fractional silver coins paired with an eagle reverse. In an effort to make some small distinction, the word LIBERTY was written in raised letters, rather than the incuse lettering of the other coins. Christian Gobrecht's eagle device was rejected in favor of the one created by Barber for the trade dollar in 1873. Finally, the edge of the 20-cent piece was plain, rather than the reeded edge typical of silver issues. (This defeated the purpose of reeding, which was considered essential with precious metal coins to prevent the theft of metal through clipping or sweating.) Coined in proportion to the other denominations, the weight of the 20-cent piece was five grams. Though slightly smaller and lighter than a quarter, it could easily be mistaken for one during a hasty transaction, especially when the coins became well worn.
As it turned out, however, most 20-cent pieces didn't circulate long enough to become heavily worn. Almost immediately they were rejected in favor of the quarter dollar, as no provision had been made to terminate the more familiar coin. There were some calls to retire the quarter and continue the 20-cent piece in unison with a new issue of half dimes, but no such action was taken. How many persons actually lost money by mistaking the double dime for a quarter is uncertain, but this claim was made repeatedly in the press.
The 20-cent piece was coined for circulation in only two years. Since it was perceived as a western necessity, the largest mintages came at the San Francisco and Carson City Mints, yet even those facilities hedged by striking far fewer coins than would normally be expected of a new denomination. The total output of circulating coins for 1875-76 was just 1,351,540 pieces, nearly all of these dated 1875. An unknown quantity of the 1876-dated issue was melted at the mints by the end of that year, and this included all but about 20 examples of the 1876-CC edition. This coin remains a classic American rarity that precludes completion of this brief series for all but a handful of collectors. Proofs were coined 1875-78 before these, too, were formally discontinued and the pieces remaining on hand melted. The proof-only coins dated 1877-78 are thus rather scarce, especially in higher grades.
Though the 20-cent piece was clearly a failure, there survive a fair number of well worn pieces, though I haven't seen one worn slick, as is common for so many other silver coins of that period. It's doubtful than any remained in circulation longer than 15-20 years, by which time they would have been notable curiosities. Collectors are fortunate that enough Mint State and lightly worn 1875-S examples survive from a mintage of 1,155,000 pieces that a nice type coin is easily secured. Such coins have long been popular as part of an "odd denomination" set, along with the half cent, two-cent piece and the two issues of three-cent pieces.
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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