The Coinage of 1921, Part Two

Posted on 11/1/2004

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David Lange

In last month's column I studied the cents and nickels of 1921, one of my favorite years for technical trivia. This time out, I'll look at the fractional silver pieces coined during 1921 and describe how they stand out from others of that period.

The Mercury dimes of 1921 were produced at both the Philadelphia and Denver Mints, and all were coined during the first few months of that year. No changes appear to have been made to the master hubs, as these suffered relatively little loss of detail. For 1921, however, the Mint did give the dime the same rakish serifs and jazzy curvature to numerals 1 that are seen on the nickel.

Unfortunately, the 1921 dimes, particularly those of the Philadelphia Mint, are characterized by strong central strikes (including full bands) but very weak peripheries, including borders, lettering and date. This resulted not from any changes to the master hubs or dies, but rather is the consequence of improper basining of the working dies. Basining is the process by which the faces of the dies are given their radius, or concavity. Depending on how it is done, the planchet metal will flow toward either the center of the dies or their peripheries. Basining was performed by the individual minting facilities after the dies were delivered from the Philadelphia Mint's Engraving Department. This fact accounts for the distinctive look that coins of the same design will have when coined by one mint versus another. Basining was a real art, and each mint had its own, unintended style.

The quarter dollars of 1921 present a real puzzle. Coined only at Philadelphia early in the year, no branch mint quarters were struck from the end of 1920 until the latter part of 1923. As was true of the other denominations from cent through half dollar, this drought resulted from a redundancy of silver and minor coins, which had been produced in record numbers during the years 1916-20.

When struck from unworn working dies, 1921 quarters display an impressive amount of detail not seen on most entries in this short series. The modified design, introduced midway through 1917 and used through the end of coining in 1930, seldom struck up well and prompted rapid deterioration of the working dies. For some reason, however, 1921 quarters frequently were the exception. Though subject to weakness at the lower half of their date, this issue typically is quite bold. Incidently, this coin type employed a symmetrical, Roman numeral I in its date from inception through 1924. When the date was set below the level of the rim in 1925 to protect it from wear, a conventional Arabic style 1 was adopted and used for the balance of the series.

I'm not certain that any changes were made to the master hubs in 1921, but it does appear that the master dies were sunk a bit more deeply than in other years. This same scenario was noted for the 1921 nickels in last month's column. I believe the weaker pieces simply represent later states of the working dies that produced very sharp impressions when new. Weakness at the lower half of the date is the opposite of what typically is encountered with the quarters of 1917 Type 2 through 1924, which are subject to weakness at the upper half of their dates. This inversion may be the result of improper basining, as 1921 Philadelphia Mint coins of most denominations tend to be bold at their centers and weak at their peripheries.

Excluding the silver dollar, coinage of which was unrelated in any way to actual demand, the half dollar was the only denomination coined at all three mints during 1921. While the numbers produced were fairly small that year, the half dollar was clearly given extra attention in 1921. Evident since the beginning of production in 1916 was the fact that the lines in Liberty's gown did not translate well from the artist's model to the finished coin. Liberty is actually dressed in an American flag, but this is difficult to distinguish from the very faint lines intended to represent red stripes in the flag.

This flaw was addressed permanently beginning with the half dollar coinage of 1923, when the lines were strengthened on the obverse master hub used for the remainder of the series. In 1921, however, a stop-gap measure was employed which produced a feature unique to that year. The lines of the skirt were sharpened by hand on the master die for that year alone, resulting in stripes that were more evident than in previous years but still not as sharp as 1923 and later.

Also reinforced by hand in 1921 alone were the rays of the sun. Though these appear in relief on all dates of the series, the halves of 1921 have unique, incuse outlines to them that are most evident as the coins wear. In fact, so strange looking are these outlines that I initially thought that they had been cut into individual coins by persons trying to improve their grades. It was only after I compared numerous worn and unworn examples from all three mints and from various sources that I became convinced this cutting was done by the Mint. For such outlines to appear incuse on the coins, they would have had to be raised on the working dies and were thus engraved into the working hubs, a most unusual practice.

David W. Lange's column "USA Coin Album" appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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