History Through Coins: Circulating US Coins in 2020, 1920 and 1820

Posted on 12/10/2019

Once devoted to images of a female Liberty figure, America's coins feature presidential portraits today.

America's circulating coinage in 2020 features the familiar lineup of presidents. These include Abraham Lincoln (on the cent since 1909), Thomas Jefferson (on the nickel since 1938, with his latest portrait dating to 2006), Franklin D. Roosevelt (on the dime since 1946), George Washington (on the quarter since 1932) and John F. Kennedy (on the half dollar since 1964).

The coins in the Happy Birthday Coin Set 2020 from the US Mint.

This year, the Washington Quarter will feature five different reverse designs from the America the Beautiful Quarters program, which concludes in 2021.

The 2020 America the Beautiful Quarters feature:

  • National Park of American Samoa (American Samoa), featuring the Samoan flying fox, a large bat
  • Weir Farm National Historic Site (Connecticut), where painter J. Alden Weir and others have lived and found inspiration
  • Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve (US Virgin Islands), showing a mangrove tree representing conservation efforts there
  • Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park (Vermont), showing a Norway spruce being planted
  • Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (Kansas), showing a regal fritillary, a butterfly species that is considered vulnerable due to habitat loss

The reverse of the 2020 America the Beautiful quarters.
Click to enlarge

In a well-received US Mint initiative in 2019, a relatively small number of each of the year’s five America the Beautiful quarters were struck with the ‘W’ mintmark of the West Point Mint and released directly into circulation. Collectors await word on whether the US Mint will issue another circulating rarity in 2020.

Dollar coins are no longer minted for circulation, but collectors can buy them directly from the US Mint. In 2020, the US Mint is striking a Native American Dollar featuring Elizabeth Peratrovich, a Native American civil rights activist who fought discrimination in Alaska. In addition, the American Innovation Dollar series continues with coins for Georgia, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts and South Carolina.

Regardless of what the future holds, the coins used in the US have come a long way. In this edition of History Through Coins, we look back at what coinage looked like 100 years ago and 200 years ago.

100 years ago: 1920

In 1920, constitutional amendments giving women the right to vote and outlawing alcohol went into effect. A map of the continental United States looked much as it does today, with 48 states. US coins had the same diameters they do today. However, with the exception of one familiar face, they looked much different.

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Lincoln Cent: Victor David Brenner’s enduring design was still young in 1920, with its original Wheat Ears reverse (used from 1909 to 1958). In 1920, more than 400 million were struck at US Mint facilities in Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. (Today, annual Lincoln Cent mintages are about 20 times this number.) Examples can be found for under $50 in About Uncirculated. At the higher end, Heritage Auctions sold this 1920-S Cent, graded NGC MS 65 RD, for $11,500 in July 2009. (RD indicates a great deal of the original mint luster remains, and 65 is the highest NGC has graded a 1920-S coin with the RD strike character.)

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Buffalo Nickel: For the popular Buffalo Nickel series (1913-1938), James Earle Fraser combined a Native American portrait on the obverse with a bison on the reverse. Like the other 1920 coins shown here, it was part of an exciting revitalization of America’s coinage just over a century ago. The Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints struck Buffalo Nickels in 1920, with the 1920-S among the rarer coins in the series. A 1920-S Nickel graded NGC MS 65 sold for $44,562 in November 2007. The example pictured here, graded NGC AU 58 and pedigreed to the Eric P. Newman Collection, sold for $470 in November 2013.

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Mercury Dime: The image of Liberty in a winged cap invoked comparisons to the Roman god of speed. The series was introduced in 1916, during World War I, and lasted until the end of World War II in 1945. In April 2019, Heritage Auctions sold a 1920-D example for $19,200. It was graded NGC MS 67+ FB (combining the desirable Full Bands strike character with the highest grade in the NGC Census for a 1920-D.) Shown here is a 1920 example struck in Philadelphia, graded NGC MS 66 FB and pedigreed to the Newman Collection. It realized $822 in a November 2013 sale by Heritage Auctions, which offered Newman’s collection in a series of auctions over several years.

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Standing Liberty Quarter: Like the Mercury Dime and Buffalo Nickel, this coin was the immediate predecessor of its modern-day presidential equivalent. Introduced in 1916, it lasted only until 1930. The 1920 Standing Liberty Quarter shown here is graded NGC MS 67 and pedigreed to the Newman Collection. It was sold in November 2013 for $3,525.

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Walking Liberty Half Dollar: The Walking Liberty Half Dollar, which was issued from 1916 to 1947, was the last of the circulating coins to show a Liberty figure on the obverse. This example, pedigreed to the Newman Collection, is graded NGC AU 58. It sold for $352 in November 2013.

Silver Dollar: No silver dollars were struck in 1920, though the Morgan Dollar returned for a farewell issue in 1921 after a long hiatus. In that year, the Peace Dollar would also be introduced.

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Gold coins: Gold coins were struck for circulation in 1920 only in the Eagle ($10) and Double Eagle ($20) denominations. In 1920, the unsuccessful Democratic ticket included Roosevelt as vice president. When he became president in 1933, he ended the era of circulating gold coins.

200 years ago: 1820

The US looked much different in 1820. Nearly all of the 23 states that comprised the country at the time lay east of the Mississippi River. Northern Virginia was the mean center of the US population. The White House had just been rebuilt, after being burned by British forces in 1814. The US had recently gained control of Florida from Spain peacefully, adding to what it had acquired from France via the Louisiana Purchase. Still, these Old World superpowers maintained considerable influence, which was reflected in trade. In fact, until the practice was banned in 1857, foreign coins were allowed to circulate in US commerce. Unlike today, different denominations of circulating currency for the young country often shared designs.

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Classic Head Half Cent: The lowest US denomination wasn’t struck between 1811 and 1825. Only 63,140 were struck in 1811, a key date in the series. They were made of copper and had a diameter of 23.5 mm, slightly bigger than the modern-day nickel.

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Coronet Head Cent: With a diameter of 28-29 mm, these Large Cents were larger than today’s US quarter. All US coins were struck in Philadelphia, the sole US mint facility until the late 1830s. Still, collectors can find some variety in the cents of 1820, including Large Date, Small Date and 20 Over 19.

Half Dime: In 1820, like the Half Cent, the Half Dime remained on a long sabbatical from being minted. The silver coin, last struck in 1805, had a circumference slightly smaller than a modern-day dime. A Mexican coin, the Half Real (worth about six cents), was preferred in US commerce at the time, denting the popularity of the US half dime, which didn’t resume production until 1829.

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Capped Bust Dime: The US Mint used 13 die marriages to strike nearly a million dimes in 1820, the first coins of that denomination produced since 1814. One of the reverses has the words STATES OF and AMERICA engraved closely together, without a space between the words. These were slightly wider than today’s dimes. This example, graded NGC AU 58 from the Newman Collection, sold for $1,116 in November 2013.

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Capped Bust Quarter: At 27 mm, these silver coins were between the size of modern-day quarters and half dollars. They were struck nearly every year during the series’ run of 1815-1838. This example, graded NGC MS 66★ from the Newman Collection, sold for $38,187 in November 2013.

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Capped Bust Half Dollar: A half dollar in 1820 held roughly $20 worth of purchasing power in today’s dollars. This example, graded NGC MS 64 and pedigreed to the Newman Collection, realized $15,285 in November 2013.

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Capped Bust Half Eagle: Silver Dollar production was on a long hiatus, as were two of the three denominations of gold coins: Quarter Eagles and Eagles. The Half Eagle ($5) is the only US circulating gold coin dated 1820.

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