Today’s post was written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives in Denver.
A “Carter Quarter.” The “Edsel of coins.” From newspaper articles found in Record Group 104 Records of the U.S. Mint one gets a glimpse of the widespread dissatisfaction and derision heaped upon the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, minted for only a few short years between 1979 and 1981. Still occasionally found in change today alongside the newer Sacagawea and presidential dollars coins, the story of the ill-fated Susan B. Anthony dollar can be found in the Denver Mint records held by the National Archives at Denver.
The Denver Mint is one of the oldest federal institutions in Colorado, first opening in the Colorado Territory as the Denver Mint Assay Office in 1863 to take advantage of the mining boom in the Rocky Mountains. For the next 46 years the office only assayed, melted, and cast gold and silver; but in 1904 plans were made to convert the office into a production mint. Two years later, in 1906, the new facility opened and is still in use today, making all denominations of coins which has included the now infamous Susan B. Anthony dollar.
Our story actually starts back ten years prior to the arrival of the Anthony dollar, when the President Dwight D. Eisenhower dollar coin was first put into production. The then latest in a long history of dollar coins stretching back to 1792, the Eisenhower dollar was the first to not be comprised of gold or silver but rather a copper and nickel combination which the Anthony dollar would follow. The Eisenhower dollar failed to gain traction with the public upon its introduction into circulation, an issue the mint in part blamed on the size and weight of the coin, and so with those two factors in mind officials went back to the drawing board to devise a smaller dollar coin, one that would ultimately become the Anthony dollar.
The earliest mention in our records of the new dollar coin comes in a January 1978 memo, alerting the mint superintendents in Philadelphia and Denver that in anticipation of pending legislation authorizing a new dollar coin additional tooling equipment will need to be acquired. This included blanking dies used to punch out the coin blanks from the metal stock, riddle screens used to weed out blanks that are the incorrect size or shape, upset mills used to create the raised edge of the coin, and the coin press used to stamp the image onto the blanks. This tooling was requested to be in place so that production could commence within four months of authorization, at a planned rate of 1.894 million coins a day per facility to meet the 250 million piece initial production run. Another memo, from July 1978, furthers this discussion by reminding the superintendents that coils of strip, from which the coin blanks are punched out from, should be on order. All that was needed then was final approval, which came on October 10th, 1978, when Congress passed Public Law 95-447 and sent it on for President Carter’s signature. A new dollar coin was authorized, slated to replace the Eisenhower dollar which was to be retired in December of that year.
The law called for noted suffragette Susan B. Anthony to be featured on the new coin, the first time in American history an actual portrait of a woman, rather than a symbolic woman, appeared on a circulating coin. The 11 sided inset had no special significance but rather was incorporated as a way to enable visually impaired citizens to tell the coin denomination. Much smaller than the Eisenhower dollar it was replacing, it’s size relative to the quarter was the same as the quarter to the nickel so mint officials felt there would no confusion. Each new dollar coin would cost $0.03 to mint, compared to the $0.08 each Eisenhower dollar cost, which furthered the coin’s appeal within official circles. The government was sold on the change but now came the monumental task of convincing banks, businesses, and the public.
While the public relations campaign steamed ahead, production soared. In 1979 the initial run ballooned to 758 million Anthony dollars, with the San Francisco Mint now joining Denver and Philadelphia in minting them. The following year another 89 million were produced before minting was halted. Since demand for the coin from the public was failing to materialize the request for more from the Federal Reserve Banks plummeted and so the stockpile at the mints grew enormous. The Anthony dollar was faltering and while not directly mentioned, the fears were palpable from the outset as the public relations handouts hinted at worries the coin would not gain acceptance as long as the dollar bill existed. In two separate documents the fact the Bureau of Printing and Engraving was not planning on scaling back the number of $1 bills was noted, with the caveat that it would be very cost effective were they to do so, and the various newspaper post-mortems saved by the mint generally noted this as crippling to the chances of the Anthony dollar. By 1985 the mint was resorting to offering package deals of uncirculated Anthony dollars, in increments of either six, 100, or even 2,000 coins.
Even with the glut of uncirculated coins stockpiled in the mint, some folks began to build the case of the coin’s rarity and a minor collector market began.
As we see today the idea of a dollar coin still has not faded, giving credence to the Denver Post’s 1989 now seemingly clarivoiant article sarcastically remarking, “It’s back. Like the monster in a B-movie, the $1 coin could once again rear its head” in regards to talk of trying the dollar coin again. Only time will tell if today’s dollar coins will suffer the same fate as the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin but even then, the coins might live on in Record Group 104.
All facts, statistics, and documents come from the Record Group 104; Records of the U.S. Mint series Correspondence, Memorandums and Other Records, 1897-1994 (NAID 2329202) and Photographs of the U.S. Mint building additions and remodeling, 1934-1948 (NAID 293491)
As noted, the Denver Mint is still in operation today and if you are ever visiting the mile high city tours can be reserved online