Since the United States first began producing coins in 1792, our currency has undergone constant redesign and improvement. Many of these changes were purely aesthetic in nature—but some of America’s coins can be truly described as innovative. This article will describe some of the more interesting and creative coins our country has produced.
The silver dollar was a staple of American commerce for over a century; from 1794 to 1935 it was produced in massive quantities. Despite its popularity and heavy use, the silver dollar had one major flaw: its weight. Being such a large and heavy coin, many Americans felt it was cumbersome to carry and use in day-to-day commerce. When California gold was discovered in the 1840s, the US Mint decided to start making one dollar coins in gold. Unfortunately the opposite problem of the silver dollar was encountered: the gold coin was too small.
The Mint’s initial plan was to create a ring-shaped gold dollar that was bigger than the standard version but still smaller than the hefty silver dollar. Unfortunately, the coin never made it beyond the prototype phase; eventually the Mint decided to enlarge the gold dollar slightly rather than make it ring-shaped. Today these “ring dollars” are coveted rarities that fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction.
The Indian design quarter eagles and half eagles are also considered highly innovative. Introduced in 1908, these goals feature an interesting incused design whereby the design details are sunken, rather than raised. The public feared these coins would collect dirt and germs in the recesses, but these fears were unfounded. The coins were ultimately discontinued in 1929 due to a preference towards paper money—not out of health concerns.
While today’s American coinage may seem pedestrian and ordinary, their metallic composition is actually an interesting feat of design and technology. The penny is made of copper-plated zinc, thus allowing the coins to retain the classic red-orange color without the expense of using pure copper. The nickel, dime, quarter and half dollar contain a cupronickel blend that offers the appearance of silver without the cost. Not only do our cupronickel “clad” coins cost less to manufacture than their silver counterparts, but they are also much more durable. On a scale of 1-70, most circulating copper/nickel coins grade somewhere between XF 40 to MS 60. Meanwhile, most pre-1965 silver coins exited circulation grading between F 12 and VF 35.