The story of modern U.S. dollar coins is mostly one of failure in terms of circulating issues and one of mixed results as a numismatic collectible. American consumers have largely rejected the coins for commerce, preferring to use the dollar bill. As for collectors, some of these coins, such as the first, the Eisenhower dollar, remain quite popular with collectors, while others never really took off with them.
The most famous – some would say infamous – example of a flop in both regards is the Susan B. Anthony dollar, which debuted 40 years ago on July 2, 1979. The coin was conceived as a solution to the failure of the Eisenhower dollar, which was issued into circulation from 1971 to 1978, due to its large size and heavy weight. Ike dollars were widely used in casinos, especially in slot machines, just as Morgan and Peace dollars of the same size had been used for those purposes before that.
Susan B. Anthony Dollar Origins
In 1975 the Treasury department commissioned a coinage study from the Research Triangle Institute that was released the following year. That report made numerous suggestions, including the issuance of a dollar coin bigger than a quarter, but smaller than a half dollar. In addition, it should be of a different color than existing coins, have a distinct edge from other coins in circulation and that its release should be accompanied by a large marketing campaign. In addition, the report noted that a smaller dollar would make cash transactions for consumers easier, especially when using vending machines. Unfortunately, the Treasury only followed the size recommendation and to a limited degree the marketing campaign, but mostly ignored the other points.
Moreover, there was a lot of support at the time for a small dollar, including from Mint Director Stella Hackel and within the vending machine industry. They argued that millions of taxpayer dollars could be saved by using the new coin, because it costed only 3 cents to make and could last 15 years compared to a paper dollar that lasts 18 months and costs 2 cents to make.
In April 1977 Carter administration Treasury Secretary Werner Michael Blumenthal wrote in support of such a coin to the House Banking Committee and suggested it feature a design with an allegorical depiction of Liberty, which appeared on most circulating American coins issued from the beginning of the U.S. Mint through the 1940s. Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint Frank Gasparro soon got to work creating plasters of a dollar with an obverse (reminiscent of the design of half and one-cent coins from the 1790s) that showed Liberty with long, flowing hair as well as a Phrygian cap (symbolizing freedom) on a pole ,and a soaring or volant eagle on the reverse rising above the sun.
Meanwhile, the Mint had been experimenting with coins with different numbers of sides and settled on a round coin with reeded edge (like the others in use), but with an inner border that had 11 sides to make in different in appearance from other circulating issues. However, this did not take account of the fact that most non-collectors do not look very closely at their change.
In May 1978 Senator William Proxmire introduced a bill calling for a completely different design depicting suffragette Susan B. Anthony (who lived from 1820 to 1906). Anthony was an abolitionist as a young adult and later became a champion of equal rights for women, also playing a key role in passage of the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote.
The proposal for an Anthony dollar, which was strongly opposed by most within the numismatic community at the time who preferred the Liberty design, received lots of support from various women’s organizations and many members of congress. In particular, the League of Women Voters argued that it was essential to finally issue a coin that featured a real woman on it.
Gasparro got to work on a new obverse with Anthony and originally produced one based on a photo of her in her 20s, which he wrote years later was perceived as “too pretty” in the view of Anthony’s great niece, so he developed a new one of Anthony at about age 50 that also made her look more stern than she did in the previous rendition.
Gasparro thought this profile would be paired with his soaring eagle reverse, but Senator Jake Garn changed the language of the legislation to require using a smaller version of the Apollo 11 mission patch featured on the Ike dollar reverse – a coin that was first proposed in 1969, the same year as the moon landing. In addition, Eisenhower had proposed the creation of NASA in a joint address to Congress in 1958, which added to its suitability for that coin. Of course, there was no connection between Susan B. Anthony and the Apollo mission.
A New Dollar Is Born
Susan B. Anthony dollars were authorized by a law signed by President Jimmy Carter on October 2, 1978, which later led to various nicknames likes “Carter quarter” and “J.C. penny”. In anticipation of what officials thought would be a coin with high demand, 500 million coins were struck before the official roll-out on July 2, 1979. Some vending machines had modifications made to them to accept the coins, however this was not done on a widespread basis due to the cost.
Initially, the coin was well received to a degree as customers at banks requested them, but it was soon apparent they were not circulating to any significant degree, mostly because many people continued to confuse them for quarters. Too few vending machines accepted them; the Nevada casinos did not want them, although Atlantic City casinos had slot machines that accepted them.
The USPS and some transit agencies tried to distribute the coins, and there were also several Mint campaigns for the coins. However, those efforts were met with limited success, and by the fall of 1979 the coin was already widely perceived as a failure. In addition, some Americans saw the design and its subject as what some would today call politically correct and others were concerned it would lead other social groups to seek representation on coins. Plus, most collectors and many others found the coin to be unattractive.
The mintage was reduced from 757.8 million in 1979 to 89.7 million in 1980, and then in 1981 only 9.7 million were made and those were only sold to collectors. Production ended after that, but in 1985 Mint Director Donna Pope proposed selling Anthony dollars still sitting in vaults in collectors in sets and bags, which generated about $1 million in revenue.
Interest in dollar coins to replace paper dollars did not go away after that, and in the late 1990s proposals emerged for a small dollar of a brass color as were used successfully in Canada, which would be much easier to distinguish from quarters and would work in existing vending machines. This would lead eventually to passage in 1997 of legislation for a new small dollar, but those did not begin until 2000.
By this time Anthony dollars were more widely used in vending machines and transit machines than they had been in the previous decade, and by the late 1990s supplies of the coin were largely depleted with only 47 million in Treasury vaults by February 1999.
A final run of 41 million Anthony dollars was announced by the Mint in May 1999 as a stopgap measure until the Sacagawea dollars began to assure enough supply of dollar coins, although according to Q. David Bowers existing dollar coin supplies were adequate at the time. He believes the real reason Anthony dollars were issued one last time in 1999 was because of concerns about the Y2K problem coming on the last day of the year that increased demand for hard metal coins.
Lessons and legacy
In hindsight it is likely that if the Anthony dollar coin had been conceived differently – in particular with a different color and size and if the original Liberty design had been used, it is possible the coin would have been more successful in commerce and better received by collectors.
However, it is also the case that even those changes would probably have been insufficient to produce a transition from paper dollars to dollar coins because, as subsequent small dollars issued since then have shown, Americans simply prefer their paper dollars. They do not want to carry lots of dollar coins even if their weight is the same as that of a quarter (Anthony dollars weighed 43% more than quarters). No amount of GAO studies showing how much money can be saved from using the coins, which have been issued over the years, will change that. Yet the Congress and Treasury have continued to call for more dollar coins – most recently the Innovation dollar, but since 2011 such coins have only been made for collectors.
For the history of numismatics, the Anthony dollar is important as the first effort to introduce a small clad dollar for circulation; as a short series that is easy to complete apart from the several varieties that exist of that coin; as the first coin to feature a real woman and an important historic figure rather than another allegorical image of Liberty; and as the first coin to use a “P” mintmark for the Philadelphia Mint each year it was issued.
Although widely seen as a failure as a circulating issue, it is notable that the entire supply of Anthony dollars was depleted from Treasury vaults within 20 years of the coin’s 1979 debut compared to much longer periods for Morgan and Peace dollars. Even though the coin failed to circulate in the early 1980s, its later use in vending machines, including those that sell stamps at post offices, and mass transit ultimately made it something of a success.
Q. David Bowers, A Guide Book of Modern United States Dollar Coins (Whitman, 2016)
Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez, “The Susan B. Anthony Dollar Turns 40,” The CPG Coin and Currency Market Review, July-September 2019
Ed Reiter, “Decreases in the stockpiles of Susan B. Anthony Dollars” (https://www.pcgs.com/news/decreases-in-the-stockpile-of-susan-b-anthony-dollars)
Lianna Spurrier, “The Story Behind the Susan B. Anthony Dollar” (https://coinweek.com/modern-coins/the-story-behind-the-susan-b-anthony-dollar/)
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