Generally speaking, United States coinage designs were intended for long-term use. Classic motifs like the Seated Liberty silver series, the Coronet gold series and Barber designs remained in place for decades without any substantive changes. Keeping the same basic appearance year after year may have been a bit repetitive, but the U.S. Mint adopted a “don’t fix what’s not broken” approach. Unless there was a design flaw or serious shortcoming, designs were left untouched as long as possible.
With that being said, there are a few notable short-lived design types. There is a common thread among these fleeting coinage motifs: some kind of technical difficulty, public backlash or complain about the coin’s aesthetics. Ironically, many (if not most) of these “flawed” coins have become prized collectibles in the numismatic community today.
The Flying Eagle Cent of 1856-1858 was the first “small cent.” From 1793-1857, one cent coins were larger than a quarter and made entirely of copper. In the mid-1850s, thanks to increased copper prices, the US Mint decided to reduce the penny’s size and change it to a nickel alloy. With the composition change came a new design featuring a flying eagle on the obverse and a wreath on the reverse. The new motif and hard nickel alloy proved disastrous; the design did not strike well and was quickly abolished in 1858.
Another nickel coin ended with somewhat disastrous results. The 1883 Liberty Head nickel replaced the Shield nickel produced from 1866-1883. The Liberty design featured the Roman numeral “V” to indicate that the coin had a denomination of five cents. Unfortunately the word “CENTS” was not engraved on the coin. Unscrupulous fraudsters would take these 1883 “No Cents” nickels and gilt them so that they looked like five dollar half eagles. The nickels were about the same size as the $5 gold coin and, if anyone asked about the unusual design, they would be told that it was a new edition just released. The Mint soon responded by adding the word “CENTS” to the reverse, thus creating a one-way “NO CENTS” design type.
Perhaps one of the most amusing short-lived design types is the Standing Liberty Quarter of 1916-1917. This motif is considered highly attractive by numismatists and art historians, but was met with severe controversy upon its release. The figure of Liberty was originally engraved with a bare breast showing—a feature advocated by engraver Herman MacNeil but frowned upon by the Treasury department. Government officials felt that Liberty should be fully covered on the coin and a chain mail vest was added in 1917.