USA Coin Album: Two Hundred Years in the Making

Posted on 7/9/2019

America's bicentennial coinage is nearly gone from circulation.

Over the years, whenever writer's block has overtaken me, I've begun skimming through my collection of scrap books containing articles from both numismatic and non-hobby sources. These are clippings I thought worthy of saving for future reference, and they've resulted in several columns titled "Scrapbook Gold." This time I've elected to omit that title, but the content is still inspired by one of these print nuggets. It was taken from the government publication Domestic and Foreign Coins Manufactured by Mints of the United States 1793-1980, which I have in my numismatic library.

The approach of the nation's bicentennial in 1976 was guaranteed to produce a flurry of commemorative stamps and medals, but such was its importance that coins marking the event were also sought. Since the 1950s, the US Mint had been vehemently opposed to new commemorative coins, regardless of subject matter, but Congress declared otherwise. Public Law 93-127, passed October 18, 1973, authorized the dual dates 1776-1976 and provided for commemorative reverses on the quarter dollar, half dollar and dollar.

In an open design competition, the winning entries were submitted by, respectively, Jack L. Ahr, Seth G. Huntington and Dennis R. Williams. These coins were to be struck for general circulation at the Philadelphia and Denver Mints in the standard copper-nickel-clad alloy. In addition, the San Francisco Mint was slated to produce collector editions in the silver-clad composition used previously for the half dollars dated 1965-70 and the Eisenhower dollars sold at a premium since 1971.

Since it was projected that large numbers of both versions would be hoarded by coin collectors and the general public alike, it was decided to begin production well ahead of the actual bicentennial year. To effect this plan, 1974-dated coins of all denominations would continue in production simultaneously during 1975 alongside the new bicentennial issues, and no coins of the three commemorative denominations would actually bear the date 1975. The 1974-dated coins were struck as late as September of 1975, and these included 128,957,523 cents minted at the West Point Bullion Depository without mintmarks. Bicentennial coins began to come off the presses in February 1975, and they remained in production through the end of 1976. A little-known fact is that 376,000 of the 1776-1976 copper-nickel-clad quarters were likewise coined at West Point, again with no distinguishing mark.

1976-S 50C
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1976-S 25C
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Both the 1975-S and 1976-S copper-nickel-clad proof sets included Bicentennial coins in place of the regular quarter, half and dollar, so collectors buying both year's sets ended up with three duplicate coins. While such occurrences are now commonplace, thanks to the Mint's many packaging options of recent years, there was some negative comment about this double-dipping at the time. A bit of consolation was provided by the fact that the dollar's reverse had undergone a noticeable change for the 1976-S proof set. Overlooked when the Bicentennial dollar went into production was the disparity in lettering style between Frank Gasparro's Eisenhower obverse and Dennis R. Williams' Bicentennial reverse. This was corrected by changing the reverse legends from block lettering to match Gasparro's Roman font.

1976-S $1 Silver Proof
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1976-S 50C Silver Proof
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1976-S 25C Copper-Nickel Proof
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This same change in reverse lettering occurred on the circulating pieces struck at the Philadelphia and Denver Mints. The earlier, Type 1 Reverse, was produced in lesser numbers, though neither variety is rare. This change was not made to the silver editions coined at the San Francisco Mint, as sufficient numbers of both the regular and proof strikes had been prepared that no additional pieces were needed. Even so, a unique specimen of the silver-proof Bicentennial dollar with the Type 2 reverse and no mintmark has been known for many years. When exactly it was made and how it came to escape the mint remains a mystery to this day. The cover story provided at the time of its announcement was never very convincing. It was supposed to have been found within a cash register, but the condition of the coin suggested that it had never come into contact with other pieces.

1976-D $1
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1976-D $1
left to right: Type 1 Reverse; Type 2 Reverse
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1976-D 25C
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The silver-clad bicentennial coins could be purchased apart from the other denominations, the uncirculated set priced at $9 and the proof at $12. I ordered one of each at the time and later received a rebate, since the Mint had decided to lower those figures a bit. The Mint offered these sets for years afterward, but when the prices of silver and gold exploded in 1979, sales were suspended. This lasted until August of 1980, when the coins' bullion value fell below list price, and the bicentennial sets could again be purchased. The program was ultimately terminated in 1982.

The copper-nickel-clad bicentennial coins were released into circulation in stages during 1975. The half dollar appeared first on July 7, the quarter on August 18 and, finally, the dollar on October 13. As expected, the halves and dollars were little seen by the public, as they circulated only in areas that had legalized gambling, but the quarters were quite a hit. Many millions have been squirreled away over the years, along with lesser numbers of the two larger coins. All three have since become nearly unknown in circulation, leading to one of the funnier encounters I've had at an NGC coin show booth. A customer showed me a Bicentennial quarter she'd found in change and wanted to know which of the 50 states it represented!

To read additional USA Coin Album columns, click here.

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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