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U.S. $1 Coins

Posted by bitguru on February 22, 2007

I got my hands on a few of the new presidential $1 coins today. I hope they are more successful than its predecessors have been, but I don’t see it happening.

I think it is dumb that one must whip out bills to pay for inexpensive things such as a magazine or the daily Starbucks fix. That makes me one of only a handful of U.S. citizens who think the dollar coin is a good idea, but more on that later. First let’s take a look at the coin.

I like it. I’m not sure we needed George Washington’s head on another coin, but that will change in three months. I don’t think “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust” really belong on coins, and placing these (along with the year and mint mark) onto the edge of the coin leaves the faces of the coin pleasantly uncrowded. Reducing ONE DOLLAR to $1 and the omitting LIBERTY contribute to this also. Compare with the heads side of the statehood quarters, which was intentionally crowded to allow some freedom in the tails designs.

The lettering on the edge is harder to read than I had expected, and I suspect the way the Statue of Liberty twice overhangs the concentric circle may soon become dated. I’m not wild about the designer’s monogram (“JFM” for Joseph Menna) in Washington’s neck, but perhaps I just haven’t noticed this in other coins. Overall though, the design is a winner.

dollar coin comparison
from left to right: presidential dollar heads, presidential dollar tails, Sacagawea dollar, Anthony dollar, quarter, coin edges (from bottom to top: Sacagawea, presidential, Anthony, another Sacagawea, quarter). Click to enlarge, and click again if using Firefox.

I am not a fan of the Anthony dollar. The inscribed hendecagon is cool but the coin looks too much like a quarter, especially from the edge. Research has shown that any society can learn easily to distinguish any two coins within a generation, and in fact I don’t have too much trouble telling them apart, but alas many cashiers do.

The Sacagawea dollar, with its brass color and smooth edge, is easily distinguishable from a quarter even though it is the same size and weight as the Anthony. I like the coin and try to keep a few in my pocket. The problem is that after the initial introduction they became difficult to obtain. The only way I could get them from my bank was to order a $1000 box of mixed rolls of Sacagawea and Anthony coins.

box of 1000 mixed Sacagawea and Anthony dollar coins

Now how many people (besides me, and I went in 50/50 with my father) are going to be willing to do that? That’s a lot of cash to outlay, and almost a third of the coins will be of the insufferable Anthony variety. It may not have done any better on its own, but by making the Sacagawea dollar only available mixed with the unsuccessful Anthony, the U.S. Mint bound their fates together.

It seems that this will be less of problem for the new dollar coins. The Fed will allow banks to order unmixed coins for a six-week period for each presidential design. Since new designs will arrive every three months, they should be at least 50% available through 2016.

Will they catch on with the general public? The experts say not unless the paper dollar bill is retired, which would be an extremely unpopular move. In some ways, it’s too late for the dollar coin. Vending machines now have bill receivers, toll roads now have E-ZPass, casino slot machines now use dollar slugs, and mass-transit systems now use stored-value cards, as do places like Kinko’s.

Last week the New York Times reported that the U.S. dollar bill has the lowest buying power of any circulating bill in the world. I remember that not too long ago Iraqis were buying groceries with wheelbarrows of bills, so perhaps it’s not true, but the lowest bill in most countries is worth between $4 and $8. That sounds about right to me.

[Now that the NYT has changed its archive policy I can see that the actual article says, “The American dollar is now one of the smallest-value banknotes remaining in circulation in the world.” (emphasis added) I recommend the article.]

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5 Responses to “U.S. $1 Coins”

  1. PB said

    Nice article.

    I’m skeptical of that the new coin will be successful. Perhaps the third time is the charm, though.

    I think two key criteria for widespread acceptance are acceptance by vending machines and having cashiers give them out as change. One measure that might help with the latter could be to retire the penny. On a simple basis, the cashier drawers wouldn’t need to be reconfigured. On a more psychological basis, the number of types of coins in circulation would remain constant. The effect would be a tangible way to convey to people that inflation has resulted in the dollar being “reduced” to coin status.

  2. Alan Cole said

    The “new” dollar coin won’t work any better this time than the last 2 times they tried it.

    The Susan B. Anthony $1 coins never caught on — too easy to confuse with quarters, people said.

    The yellow-brass Sacagawea $1 coins didn’t catch on, either. After a big publicity push when they were introduced in 2000, they were left to languish in people’s junk drawers & cigar boxes after the introductory ballyhoo was over.

    Some folks around here don’t even like leaving them for tips. They think people receiving them won’t recognize them as U.S. legal tender — will think they’ve been stiffed with unspendable foreign coins or oddball arcade FunLand skee-ball tokens. They could be right; recently a cashier noticing some Sacagaweas in my hand as I fumbled for exact change asked whether I was carrying Canadian money.

    Meanwhile, the vending machine industry no longer cares. They long since quit waiting for a reasonable $1 coin to go into circulation & instead invested in high-tech paper-money-reading technololgy. These days folding-money acceptance slots are found on everything from pepsi machines to Las Vegas 1-armed bandits, not to mention self-checkout lanes at supermarkets & Home Depot.

    I’m pretty sure the U.S. Mint doesn’t get to make the decisions itself about such things. Instead, the Mint follows the directions it receives in the form of public laws passed by congress & signed by the president. So it goes.

    However that may be, if they want regular walking-around people to start using $1 coins with the same ease & familiarity with which folks use quarters, dimes, nickels, & pennies, there is a way that can be done — in short order. All that’s necessary is to quit printing $1 bills & supply the banks with $1 coins instead, calling in & shredding the current supply of $1 bills as they wear out. Shouldn’t take more than a year or 2 to complete the switch.

    If I were in charge (which I never, ever will be — no way, José), both the $1 & the $2 bills would be phased out at the same time. (Shucks, $2 bills are semi-rarities as it is.) In addition to the previously announced $1 coins, a new $2 coin would appear, modeled after the UK 1-pound coin — between a quarter & a nickel in diameter, & lots thicker than a nickel, with E Pluribus Unum & the names of the U.S. states & territories die-stamped into the edges of the new $2 coins (i.e., 55 or so different edge designs on the $2 coins — just to tickle the collectors’ fancy).

    People might grumble at 1st, but pretty soon the novelty would wear off & familiarity would set in. But don’t hold your breath waiting, because it’ll never happen — it’s just too simple & just makes too much sense.

    Meanwhile, whatever happened to the U.S. half-dollar coins? How long has it been since you’ve had a 50¢ piece in your pocket or purse? How come people don’t use those any more?

  3. I found it kind of sad that these new Presidential coins got very little mainstream media coverage, despite tens of thousands of them being found with one of the most significant errors the U.S. Mint has ever accidentally let out in large numbers: coins without the edge inscriptions that include the DATE and MINT MARK, not to mention E PLURIBUS UNUM and IN GOD WE TRUST.

    It wasn’t until some wag dubbed the coins missing the edge lettering the “Godless Dollars” that the media finally took notice.

    As an expert in the field of numismatics and circulating American coinage, I can state with absolute conviction that until the U.S. eliminates the paper One Dollar bill, the dollar coins will not circulate widely. We, (the USA,) are the only major nation in the world who still uses paper for its base monetary unit.

  4. Syd Polk said

    I don’t have much to add here. I collect half dollars and dollar coins. That being said, I still prefer bills for everyday use. My pockets are already too full because of my inhaler, blackberry, and car keys. When I get too many coins, my pants fall down. It would help if I weren’t fat, but even when I was skinny, it was true. When I am in Europe, I have this problem in spades.

  5. Months ago I wrote that U.S. dollar coins can be hard to obtain. Well now it’s easier thanks to the U.S. Mint’s circulating $1 coin direct ship program, […]

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