Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Annals of numismatics: The Sac dollar is on the ropes 

By and large, the Sacagawea dollar is a failure, and not because we don't like Sacagawea and her papoose. The Mint has tried several times in the last thirty years to resurrect the dollar coin as circulating coin of the realm, and has failed every time. Before the issuance of the Eisenhower dollar in the early seventies, the last widely circulating dollar coins were the "Peace" dollars struck between 1921 and 1935. Even then, the dollar coin was on its way out, not having been produced between 1904 and 1921.

The Ike dollar was, in fact, a beautiful coin, at least on the reverse, with its majestic eagle landing on the moon (the obverse was nothing special -- whatever one thought of Dwight D. as a general or as a President, there's no denying that it's hard to make a bald Kansan look good in a little nickel disk), so its failure probably reflected changing American habits (get it?), rather than revulsion at the design.

Since Ike, we've had the hideous Susan B. Anthony dollars of the Carter years, which, like many American coins, reflected the tenor of the times, and the "Sac" dollars of the last four years.

In the Suzie Bs and the Sacs, the Mint made fundamental design changes to increase the appeal of the coin with the idea that it might circulate as a matter of convenience, notwithstanding the continued availability of the dollar Federal Reserve Note. The Suzie Bs were only a little larger than a quarter, and had an eleven-sided raised interior edge. Well, they didn't circulate, which the Mint apparently attributed to confusion with the quarter. Maybe. I never confused Suzie Bs with quarters (but then I can distinguish most American coins by touch, which I concede is a bizarre and uncommon skill).

So the Mint struck back (get it?) with the Sacagawea dollar, which is larger in size and different in color. Still they don't circulate, with hundreds of millions of them piled up in jars around the house and more than 250 million in inventory. That many dollar coins -- even small dollar coins -- takes up a lot of room, not to mention the nasty dent in the seigniorage (we're mixing a lot of metaphors tonight).

What to do? The Congress is considering legislation that would authorize rotating obverses with the busts of every President in the order in which they served at the rate four a year for, presumably, at least eleven years. The Statue of Liberty would be on the reverse.

I think this is a great idea for a number of reasons. First, it emulates the successful state quarter program, which has taught some good history to a lot of people. Who can argue with that? A Presidential dollar program -- even if the coins do not circulate much -- will be very educational for Americans at a time when the country would do well to remember its great heroes, and its great failures. Second, the proposed design marks the return of Lady Liberty to America's production coinage. True, they are sneaking her in under cover of darkness as a statue on the reverse instead of a windblown beauty on the obverse, but it's a start. It is too much to hope for the return of coins that look like this or this or this.

Don't worry, we'll get back to usual TigerHawk fare soon enough!


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