For much of the 19th and early 20th century, one-dollar coins circulated freely in American commerce. Even though one-dollar paper notes have been printed since the 1860s, the one-dollar coin remained a staple of everyday commerce until the 1930s. With that in mind, why have more recent one dollar coins failed? This article will explore why modern attempts to circulate a one-dollar coin have proved difficult.

One immediate question that often comes to mind: why would the United States government issue both a one-dollar bill and a one-dollar coin? In a word, the answer is durability. A dollar coin costs more to produce, but it can circulate for decades. Meanwhile, a one-dollar paper note will become unusable after 3-6 years. The United States government would save a tremendous amount of money by striking $1 coins in lieu of $1 bills.

While the cost advantages are clear, getting the public to accept dollar coins has been difficult. The first attempt at a modern circulating dollar coin was the Eisenhower dollar of 1971-1978. While the coin was roughly the same size as the Silver Dollars of 1794-1935, it was rejected in the 1970s as being too big and bulky. Apparently Americans had a greater tolerance for weight and size in the 19th century compared to the 20th century.

In response to the public’s complaints, the U.S. Mint then introduced a smaller one-dollar coin. The Susan B. Anthony dollar coin of 1979-1981 was far more compact—but it was too close in size to the quarter. Vending machine manufacturers were also hesitant to reconfigure their products to accept Susan B. Anthony dollars.

The U.S. Mint tried once again in 2000 with the release of the Sacajawea dollar. The “Sac Buck” was still the same size as the Susan B. Anthony dollar—and therefore still in the same ballpark as the quarter. However, it was issued with a golden color to differentiate itself from the quarter. The color difference made the coins easy to differentiate visually, but they were still hard to distinguish by touch. The public regarded Sacajawea dollar coins as curiosities and never started using them in everyday commerce.

Despite the Sacajawea dollar’s limited success, the U.S. Mint continues to produce them to this day. It is also releasing Presidential dollar coins of the same size and metallic composition. First introduced in 2007, these Presidential issues feature four different presidents each year. While relatively popular among numismatists, these have been largely rejected by the public for day-to-day spending.