A Look Back at Ike Dollars
Posted on 5/1/2006
At a recent coin show where I was representing NGC, I saw that one of the dealers had half a display case full of circulated Eisenhower dollars for sale in a big pile. While I'd seen such coins for sale before, it still seemed amusing to me that any of our copper-nickel-clad coinage would be worth a premium over face value in less than Mint State condition. But an obsolete coin type always has some curiosity value, and someone is likely to pay over face to get a few pieces, particularly if that person is new to the hobby.
It's been 25 years or so since "Ike" dollars were to be found in circulation, though even when this coin type was current, few people ever saw one. Living in California during the 1970s, I encountered them on a recurring basis, since people returning from gambling casinos in Nevada often brought a few Ikes back with them. Soon tiring of their novelty, these gamblers would then spend the big dollars to be rid of them. While attending college, I worked in a pizza parlor, and the cash register always had a few dollar coins in the far left slot that also held keys, paper clips and other items of miscellany. These big coins were not welcomed in change, so they typically just stayed in the register until the day's receipts were brought to the bank.
I certainly didn't have any use for worn Ike dollars, as these coins were looked upon with contempt by any collector of that time who considered himself to be a real numismatist. Some years later, I did finally assemble a nice Mint State collection of these coins which I still keep primarily for reference purposes. At the time, however, I was satisfied to simply buy the proofs annually.
This was a practice I'd begun when this coin type debuted in 1971. That summer, my mother picked up a brochure at her bank announcing the new coins and offering them for sale by the U.S. Mint. I had just begun buying proof sets from the Mint, so this seemed a natural extension. The prices listed for the new dollar coin were extraordinarily high for that time: The Uncirculated silver-clad issue cost $3, while the proof edition was priced at a whopping $10! This was twice the cost of a complete proof set, though in those days, the Mint's products were shipped via registered mail, accounting for part of the cost. What I didn't know then was that this price also included a surcharge that went to Eisenhower College, a private institution in Seneca, New York, that later folded despite this infusion of cash. It stirred a lot of debate within the hobby at the time, though I was unaware of this until reading back issues of various coin publications many years later.
The Eisenhower dollar was a very high-profile coin when it debuted in the fall of 1971. Silver dollars had ceased circulating in 1964, and gambling casinos had been compelled to order dollar-sized tokens to take their place. While the Eisenhower dollar was heralded by Congress and the Mint as a coin that would be widely accepted in general circulation, the true reason for its coining was lobbying pressure from the gaming industry, which believed its customers wanted real dollar coins rather than tokens. Produced in large numbers during 1971 – 72, the demand for additional dollars had dwindled to the point where they were struck solely for collectors by 1973. Mass production resumed in 1974 and lasted through 1978, but the coin was already known to be a flop.
The fact is that these coins never circulated outside of casinos and nearby areas, and I don't recall ever seeing a vending machine that accepted them. Had the paper dollar been discontinued at that time, there may have been some grudging acceptance of them, but their replacement with a smaller size coin was seemingly inevitable. After the coining of Ikes was discontinued in 1978, the existing stock began to dwindle, though casinos seemed to have them in regular use for another two or three years before once again ordering tokens. Most of the circulating coinage survives in hoards of varying sizes, since gamblers put away the coins they received as keepsakes in the mistaken notion that they would become valuable. While there is a small premium paid for them today by some dealers, it is not enough to compensate for a quarter century of inflation and lost interest.
As a piece of art, the Eisenhower dollar is one of the poorest products to emanate from the U.S. Mint. While Frank Gasparro was a dedicated civil servant who fully understood the mechanical requirements of mass coining, he was not an inspired artist. After having contributed only single sides for the Lincoln Memorial cent and the Kennedy half dollar, the Eisenhower dollar was his design alone and should have served as a showcase for his talent. Sadly, it is a mediocre design that reveals his typically unnatural treatment of Ike's hair and the eagle's feathers. John Mercanti's commemorative dollar of 1990 is a far better tribute to the late general and president.
David W. Lange's column, USA Coin Album, appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.