The Big 2-5-0

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

America’s semiquincentennial is coming up. Or is it a sestercentennial? Or bicentennial-and-a-quarter?

Whatever you want to call it, it’s America’s 250th birthday. Planning commissions are already meeting to figure how to properly commemorate the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. If history is any guide, commemorative coins will be part of those plans.

Will it be like 1876, when the U.S. Mint produced an official centennial medal? Or will it be like 1926, when it produced a sesquicentennial commemorative half dollar? Or 1976, when it produced new bicentennial reverse designs for circulating quarters, half-dollars and dollar coins?

In August 2019, the Mint announced it would seek legislation requesting a one-year redesign of all circulating coins to commemorate the nation’s 250th anniversary. According to Coin World, then-Mint director David Ryder did not provide any specific details or plans for the re-designs — or whether it would solicit outside submissions like it did for the bicentennial coins.

On the one hand, it’s understandable why the Mint wanted to go this route. Putting new designs on circulating coins guarantees a wider audience and inspires new generations of coin collectors.

1976-S Washington Quarter (Deep Cameo). (Image via me)

Plus, there was no internet in 1976. Today, a design contest would attract tons of submissions and facilitate greater participation from the general public — especially when it came time to vote. Obviously, this is the internet we’re talking about, so there will be no shortage of trolls who submit joke designs and manage to get even more trolls to vote for them. But there are always safeguards available — like a bifurcated or weighted voting process.

On the other hand, there are several drawbacks to redesigning circulating coins. For one thing, cash transactions have been decreasing for decades, thanks to the proliferation of electronic payment options. COVID-19 has caused that steady decline to become a deluge, as people are abandoning cash in droves in favor of touchless payments. In fact, there’s been a shortage of circulating coins for over a year now.

The other drawback is that the Mint has already redesigned the quarter many times over the last 20-plus years. Starting with the 50 State quarters in 1999 and continuing to the America the Beautiful quarters in 2010, there are 112 different reverse designs on quarters currently in circulation. Starting this year, the Mint will start releasing American Women Quarters, featuring a new obverse bust of George Washington and famous American women on the reverse. The Mint has also redesigned the nickel to commemorate Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, and the penny to honor important milestones in Abraham Lincoln’s life. More redesigns might seem like overkill.

Perhaps with that in mind Congress decided to take a different tack. In July 2021, Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) introduced bills in the House and Senate, respectively, to authorize the Mint to produce new semiquincentennial commemorative coins. Their bills call for the minting of a $25 gold coin, a $2.50 silver “dollar” (I guess they wanted something with “250” in it), and a quarter.

Of course, plans could still change. The Toomey/Watson Coleman bills might not pass. Or someone else might jump in and propose a bill that’s more in line with what the Mint had originally asked for.

If they do go the newly-designed commemorative coin route, hopefully, they’ll learn their lesson from a century ago.

The maligned 1926 Sesquicentennial Commemorative Half Dollar (image via me).

The sesquicentennial coin was notable for several reasons. The obverse design was meant to commemorate the first President (Washington) and the current president (Calvin Coolidge). However, Washington was not President in 1776 (the President of the Continental Congress at the time of the Declaration of Independence was John Hancock — which is why his signature is so large and prominent on the document). Meanwhile, Coolidge’s image made him the only President to appear on a coin or dollar bill during his Administration — an accomplishment that violated an 1866 federal statute that forbade using images of living individuals on U.S. currency (a prohibition that has, nevertheless, been violated numerous times).

Ultimately, the coin fell flat — almost literally. According to Q. David Bowers, the National Sesquicentennial Exhibition Association asked for a low-relief coin, presumably because they anticipated high demand and wanted a cost-effective way of minting a large number of coins. Unfortunately, the flat design and weak striking meant the coin failed to catch the eye and wore down easily. According to PCGS, MS-65 and higher graded coins are rare to the point of near non-existence.

As noted, the relief of the designs is very … unsatisfactory, and even the finest preserved pieces lack detail and appear flat, usually with graininess (from surface characteristics of the Original planchet) on the cheek of Washington. From the standpoint of aesthetic appeal the coin is at the bottom of the popularity charts along with the 1923-S Monroe half dollar among half dollars produced up to this point in time.

Q. David Bowers, Commemorative Coins of the United States.

The coin does have some defenders, however. Cornelius Vermeule called the reverse, featuring the Liberty Bell, “jewels of precision.” In fact, the design would be recycled for the Benjamin Franklin half dollars, which went into circulation in 1948.

But ultimately, the public voted with their pocketbooks. According to PCGS, over 1 million coins were minted, but 86% ended up unsold and were returned to the Mint for melting. Of course, that also means that, due to the low sales figures, these coins can be quite valuable and expensive. For instance, an MS-65 specimen sold last month at auction for $1,050.

Hopefully, the Mint will learn from this and design a beautiful, high-relief, eye-catching coin that will entice buyers to part with their hard-earned cash (or more likely, electronic payments).

Or, they might consider this. Given how popular the Morgan and Peace Dollar reissues have been, maybe the Mint should consider bringing back some other beloved designs. Maybe put new semiquincentennial reverses on the Standing Liberty quarter, Buffalo nickel or Mercury dime? The Mint already has the dies and would save money by not having to design new ones.

If they did that, they would certainly have my money. Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll probably buy whatever they come up with.