Major events in American history have often been reflected in numismatics. Examples include discoveries of gold and silver, financial panics, population shifts, political changes, and wars. This is especially true for the Civil War, World War I and World War II; all three conflicts had a profound impact on United States coinage. In fact, some of the changes incited by these wars affect America’s money to this day.
Perhaps an entire book could be written on how the Civil War impacted American coinage. For starters gold and silver was hoarded during the War Between the States; mintages of larger gold and silver pieces plummeted in 1862 and remained extremely low for the remainder of the decade. It was also during this time that government began printing paper money; the goal was to fill the coinage void. However, the most notable change was the introduction of the motto “In God We Trust” to US coins. The move was controversial due to the motto’s religious nature, but against the backdrop of national turmoil, most Americans embraced the decision. The motto has survived on US coins to this day.
World War I did not affect mintages like the Civil War did, but it did have an influence on two coinage designs. The first is the Peace silver dollar, which was first introduced in 1921. The coin’s reverse shows an eagle holding on olive branch with the word “Peace” inscribed underneath. The symbolic olive branch also appeared on the Mercury dime—which was first minted in 1916—but this time positioned next to a battle ax. The goal was to represent a dual message of both peace and defense.
World War II’s impact on numismatics was also very different. It did not affect mintages like the Civil War or designs like World War I; the primary effect was seen in metallic compositions. Copper and nickel became precious wartime commodities during WWII for ammunition and military equipment. Thus, in 1943, the copper “penny” was made out of zinc-plated steel instead. While unusual and interesting in appearance, steel cents were considered highly problematic.
The five cent nickel, meanwhile, was shifted to an unusual alloy. Since nickel was a critical and desperately needed war material, the nickel’s composition changed to 56% copper, 35% silver and 9% manganese. Although this mix still required some valuable copper and silver, it eliminated the need for nickel altogether. This unusual composition was continued through the end of the war and nickels did not return to their original alloy until 1946.
In conclusion, the Civil War, World War I and World War II have all had a profound impact on American coinage. Each conflict had a different effect, whether it be in the forms of designs, production levels or metallic compositions. Coins are often referred to as “history in your hands” and America’s wartime money perfectly exemplifies this saying.