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Brother, Would You Take a Dollar Coin … Please?
By Tom Zeller Jr.
Tags: collecting, culture, News, numismatics, u.s. mint

New dollar coins are coming. Are you excited? (Photo: A.P.)

Maybe three is a charm. On Thursday, the dollar coin will see its third iteration in a generation go into circulation. These will feature United States presidents — four issued per year, from now through 2016, from Washington to Nixon (yes, Nixon).

(Readers can find out all about the new coins at the Web site of the United States Mint.)

Now, as The Associated Press reports this morning, despite the fact that eliminating the paper dollar in favor of a much more durable dollar coin would save hundreds of millions of dollars each year in printing costs, there is no plan to scrap the bill.
That comes from years of accumulated wisdom on the part of legislators and treasury officials.

Readers of a certain age will remember when Susan B. Anthony first hit town — the coin, that is, not the 19th-century feminist. That was 1979 — and the hope was that the smaller dollar coin would gain popularity where its immediate predecessor, the Eisenhower dollar, which was minted between 1971 and 1978, had failed to gain traction.

It wasn’t to be. Despite the fact that the Susan B. Anthony was minted for three consecutive years (and again in 1999), the coin was, for the most part, regarded as a sad aberration among consumers.
Just a month after the coin’s introduction, the magazine Forbes was already hinting at trouble. From the Aug. 6, 1979, issue:

  • The public’s vote won’t be in for a while but banks and retailers are showing reservations, presumably because the coin’s size — slightly larger than a quarter — could lead to expensive confusion in handling. One department store cashier in Washington, D.C., where the Susan B. was first circulated, says flatly: “I reject it on the grounds that it is not paper and it’s got an old woman on it.”

Despite the writing on the wall, in September of that year, a Treasury Department task force floated the idea of letting the Susan B. Anthony coin and the ill-fated $2 bill replace the $1 bill. Wrote The Washington Post on Sept. 26, 1979:

  • If the Fed appears to be bucking the buck issue, Congress isn’t. Reps. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.) and Thomas B. Evans Jr. (R-Del.) said they will introduce legislation to prohibit regulators from dumping the paper dollar without congressional approval. And Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) has introduced a bill to stop minting and distribution of the Anthony dollar, which he termed “just short of a national disgrace.”
  • It has also been called the “Carter quarter” by detractors objecting to its similarity to the 25-cent piece and the feeling that a dollar today won’t buy much more than a quarter did a few years ago.
  • The irony of replacing the $1 bill with a pair of losers, the Anthony coin and the $2 bill, was not lost on Lewis, who said, “The administration has done some things that have left many other citizens and me amazed, perplexed and befuddled. But surely, even they must have heard the old adage: ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’”

The Shoshone Indian guide Sacagawea debuted on a new dollar coin in 2000. The coins are rarely seen beyond vending machines and casinos, although they enjoy wide circulation in Ecuador, which adopted the dollar as its currency six years ago. Indeed, according to PBS’s Frontline, roughly half of the 1 billion Sacagawea dollar coins in circulation have been shipped to the South American country. (They’ve also been a target of South American counterfeiters, it seems.)

In any case, purveyors of the new presidential coins — the result of the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005, which is aimed at improving the circulation of the dollar coin — are hoping to emulate the success of another recent coin program. Keeping a bit more under-the-radar, they reason, is key.

From The Associated Press:

  • Rather than a high-profile ad campaign like the one used to introduce the Sacagawea dollar, the Mint is trying a more grass-roots approach. The agency is talking to the Federal Reserve, banks and vending machine operators to stir up interest in the new dollar coin.
  • Supporters of the new presidential dollar coin point to the success of the 50-state quarter program. Begun in 1999, this program has introduced millions of people to coin collecting for the first time.

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that about 75 percent of those surveyed opposed any elimination of the dollar bill, while consumers seem to be split 50-50 on the idea of having both dollar coins and dollar bills co-circulating.

The New York Time - February 12, 2007

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