The Sacagawea Dollar Coin
There’s something about the dollar bill that is beloved by Americans. Despite a variety of efforts to replace it with a dollar coin, most Americans still prefer the dollar bill.
One recent effort to reintroduce a dollar coin into circulation was the Sacagawea dollar. Legislation authorizing a new dollar coin was introduced in Congress in 1997. The law specifically requires the new coin to be “golden in color, have a distinctive edge, [and] have tactile and visual features that make the denomination of the coin readily discernible.” One major reason for these requirements was the perceived design failure of the 1979-1981 Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, which were often considered to be indistinguishable in their appearance from quarters. To maintain compatibility for machines accepting and dispensing Susan B. Anthony dollars, the Sacagawea dollar has nearly identical dimensions and electromagnetic properties, despite its golden color. The Sacagawea dollar is not actually gold; it is mostly copper, with a manganese brass cladding.
The design process involved the general public in an unprecedented manner for US coinage, largely owing to recent changes in technology. The Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, instructed that the design should feature a non-living female figure. A committee formed to select a design reviewed recommendations from the general public, including many submitted by email and narrowed down the design concept: Sacagawea (a Native American guide who accompanied the Lewis & Clark Expedition) on the obverse, and an eagle on the reverse.
More specific designs were solicited from 23 specifically-chosen artists, and the Mint subsequently received tens of thousands of more emails and much other feedback regarding the design proposals. One problem with the selection of Sacagawea was that there are no contemporary portraits of her, only descriptions. Sculptor Glenna Goodacre actually hired a young Shoshone woman to model for her design, which was ultimately selected for the obverse. The reverse design was produced by the Mint’s own Thomas D. Rogers.
Despite the large public participation in the design process, the public response to the Sacagawea dollar’s release was not as favorable. The Mint marketed the new dollar coins very aggressively, even going so far as to partner with General Mills: one in every two thousand boxes of Cheerios cereal would contain a Sacagawea dollar. This initiative produced a curious opportunity for collectors, as it was discovered that the “Cheerios dollars” were unintentionally produced from a different set of dies as the standard dollars. Today, they are worth thousands.
After producing over a billion coins in 2000, the US Mint sharply curtailed production. Only the 2000 and 2001 coins were released for circulation, with subsequent years for collectors only. The Mint produced more Sacagawea dollars for circulation in 2009, with new reverse designs for 2009 and onward (with a new design each year). These did not prove popular, either, and the production runs from 2012 on have again been for collectors only.
Curiously, the Sacagawea dollars have become popular in circulation outside of the United States. Both El Salvador and Ecuador currently use the US dollar as their official currencies, and Sacagawea dollars have become popular in general commerce in those countries.