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United States Dollars


Early dollar coins

Before the Revolutionary War, coins from many European nations circulated freely in the American colonies, as well as decimal coinage issued by the various colonies. Chief among these was the Spanish silver dollar coins (also called pieces of eight or eight reales) minted in Mexico and other colonies with silver mined from Central and South American mines. These coins, along with others of similar size and value, were in use throughout the colonies and later the United States and were legal tender until 1857.

In 1776, the Continental Congress authorized plans to produce a silver coin to prop up the rapidly failing Continental—the first attempt by the fledgling US at paper currency. Several examples were struck in brass, pewter, and silver, but a circulating coin was not produced, due in large part to the financial difficulties of running the Revolutionary War. The Continental Dollar bears a date of 1776, and while its true denomination is not known, it is generally the size of later dollars, and the name has stuck. The failure of the Continental exacerbated a distrust of paper money amongst both politicians and the populace at large. The letters of Thomas Jefferson indicate that he wished the United States to eschew paper money and instead mint coins of similar perceived value and worth to those foreign coins circulating at the time.

The Coinage Act of 1792 authorized the production of dollar coins from silver. The United States Mint produced silver dollar coins from 1794 to 1803, then ceased regular production of silver dollars until 1836. The first silver dollars, precisely 1,758 of them, were coined on October 15, 1794 and were immediately delivered to Mint Director David Rittenhouse for distribution to dignitaries as souvenirs.  Thereafter, until 1804, they were struck in varying quantities. There are two obverse designs: Flowing Hair (1794-1795) and Draped Bust (1795-1804). There are also two reverse designs used for the Draped Bust variety: small eagle (1795-1798) and heraldic eagle (1798-1804). Original silver dollars from this period are highly prized by coin collectors and are exceptionally valuable, and range from fairly common to incredibly rare. Due to the early practice of hand engraving each die, there are dozens of varieties known for all dates between 1795-1803. As the earliest examples of the largest circulating coins ever struck by the United States Mint, they bear a certain mystique that has enthralled collectors for two centuries.

It is also one of only two denominations (the other being the cent) minted in every year from its inception during the first decade of mint operation. However, the order was given by President Thomas Jefferson to halt silver dollar production due to the continued exportation of US dollars. The Spanish 8 Reale, which was slightly heavier than the US dollar, nonetheless traded at a 1-to-1 ratio. So US dollars went to the Caribbean, were traded for heavier 8 Reales, and those were then brought back to the US, where they would be recoined for free into more US dollars, and the difference in silver was kept by the exporter. This ensured that no dollars would circulate in the US, but would instead be exported for their heavier counterparts overseas, leaving little but old, foreign money to circulate in the United States in a process known as Gresham's Law.

This highlights a dilemma that would continue to haunt the United States mint well into the 20th century: if a coin was too heavy in precious metal, it would simply be melted and sold for more as bullion. If it was too light, it would be exported for heavier weight coins from foreign governments. Maintaining this precarious balance is eventually what led to the abandonment of gold as specie worldwide in the 1930s and 1940s, and silver rapidly following suit by the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The 1804 dollar

The 1804 silver dollar is one of the rarest and most famous coins in the world. Its creation was the result of a simple bookkeeping error, but its status as the king of coins has been established for nearly a century and a half. The silver dollars reported by the mint as being struck in 1804 were actually dated 1803 (die steel being very expensive in the early 1800s, dies were used until they were no longer in working condition. This is why many early US coins exhibit all kinds of die cracks, occlusions, cuds, clash marks, and other late state die wear. Dies were used until they literally fell apart. Nearly every coin the US struck from 1793 to 1825 has an example that was struck in a year other than that which it bears.) No dollars bearing the date 1804 were ever struck in 1804, though this was unknown to mint officials at the time the 1804 dollar came to be.

The 1804 silver dollar was actually produced in 1834, when the U.S. Department of State decided to produce a set of U.S. coins to be used as gifts to rulers in Asia in exchange for trade advantages. Since 1804 was the last recorded year of mintage for both the dollar and $10 Eagle, it was decided that the set would contain examples of those coins dated 1804, as well as the other denominations currently being produced. Mint officials, not realizing that the 19,000+ dollars recorded as being produced in 1804 were all dated 1803, proceeded to make new dies dated 1804. Little did they know the stunning rarity they were creating. Only 15 silver dollars with the date of 1804 are known to exist; in 1999, one of them sold at auction for more than $4 million. There are 8 Class I dollars, struck in 1834 for the aforementioned sets, 1 Class II dollar, struck over an 1857 Swiss Shooting Thaler (and now residing in the US Coin Collection at the Smithsonian Institution), and 6 Class III dollars, struck surreptitiously sometime between 1858 and 1860 to meet collector demand for the coin.

Seated Liberty dollar (1836–1873)

Seated Liberty Dollars were introduced in 1840 and were minted in larger quantities than the sparsely minted Gobrecht Dollar that preceded it. The dollars were used in general circulation until 1853. In 1853, the value of the silver was more than the face value of the coin. The coin was continued to be minted mainly as a trade coin to be used in the Orient. This ended in 1870 when the price of silver lowered allowing the dollars to be placed back in normal circulation.

Each coin is composed of 0.77344 troy oz of silver. They were minted at Philadelphia, New Orleans, Carson City, and San Francisco.

Gold dollar coins (1849–1889)

The gold dollar was a United States dollar coin produced from 1849 to 1889. Composed of 90% pure gold, it was the smallest denomination of gold currency ever produced by the United States federal government. When the US system of coinage was originally designed there had been no plans for a gold dollar coin, but in the late 1840s, two gold rushes later, Congress was looking to expand the use of gold in the country’s currency.[1] The gold dollar was authorized by the Act of March 3, 1849, and the Liberty Head type began circulating soon afterward. Because of the high value of gold, the gold dollar is the smallest coin in the history of US coinage.

Trade Dollar (1873–1885)

The Trade Dollar was produced in response to other Western powers, such as Great Britain, Spain, France, and particularly Mexico, circulating large, crown size silver coins in Asia. Trade Dollars had a slightly higher silver content than the regular circulation Seated Liberty Dollars and Morgan Dollars, to compete with these foreign trade coins. Most Trade Dollars ended up in Asia during their first two years of production, where they were very successful. Many of them exhibit chopmarks which are counterstamps from Asian merchants to verify the authenticity of the coins. Many trade coins of the western powers and large silver coins from China, Korea, and Japan also bear these chopmarks. While most chopmarked coins are generally worth less than those without, some of the more fascinating chopmarks can actually give the coin a modest premium.

Trade Dollars did not circulate in the United States initially, but were legal tender for up to $5. Things changed, however, in 1876, when the price of silver spiraled downward as western producers dumped silver on the market, making the Trade Dollar worth more at face value than its silver content. That resulted in Trade Dollars pouring back into the United States, as they were bought for as little as the equivalent of 80 US cents in Asia, and were then spent at $1 in the United States. This prompted Congress to revoke their legal tender status, and restrict their coinage to exportation demand only. However, this didn't stop unscrupulous persons from buying Trade Dollars at bullion value, and using them for payment as $1 to unsuspecting workers and merchants.

Production of the Trade Dollar was officially halted for business strikes in 1878, and thereafter from 1879-1885, produced only as proof examples of the coin. The issues of 1884 and 1885 were produced surreptitiously, and were unknown to the collecting public until 1908.

In February 1887, all non-mutilated outstanding Trade Dollars were made redeemable to the United States Treasury, and approximately 8 million of them were turned in.

Collectors are warned that a large number of perfect copies, apparently made in China, have been made. Buying only from known dealers, or certified specimens, is highly recommended.

Morgan DollarMorgan dollar (1878–1904; 1921)

Morgan silver dollars were minted between 1878 and 1921, with a notable break between 1905 and 1920. The 1921-dated coins are the most common, and there exists a substantial collector market for pristine, uncirculated specimens of the rarer dates and mint marks. Morgan dollars are second only to Lincoln Cents in collector popularity. The large size, design and inexpensive nature of most dates of the Morgan dollar makes them highly popular. The coin is named after George T. Morgan, its designer. Some people collect Morgan dollars by "VAM" designation (named for Leroy C. Van Allen and A. George Mallis, who did extensive research on the die characteristics of this series.) The top 100 VAM varieties are highly collectible. As well, this is the most popular United States series collected by grade, with "finest known" being a very attractive selling point.

The mint mark is found on the reverse below the wreath, above the 'O' in 'DOLLAR'.

One of the keys to the series is the proof-only 1895 (struck at the Philadelphia mint), which can sell for up to $100,000 in top condition. Since the rarity of the coin was not initially realized (there were 12,000 business strikes recorded, but these were later melted), and since the coins were available at the Mint for a modest premium above face value, circulated, or "impaired" specimens are known. Because no business strike exists for this date and mint, many collectors are forced to buy the proof, or settle for what is regarded as an incomplete date/mint collection. The rarest (by mintage) business strike Morgan is the 1893-S with a paltry 100,000 examples struck, and certainly not all examples survive. A top condition example (MS67 is currently the highest known) can bring nearly $1 Million at auction. Morgan dollars from the Carson City mint ("CC" mintmark) are worth a premium. 1889-CC, while not the rarest Carson City dollar by mintage, is the rarest by surviving examples today, and is the most valuable Carson City dollar. Other rare dates include 1892-S, 1893, 1893-O, 1894, 1894-S, 1895-O, 1895-S, 1902-S, 1903-S, 1903-O, and 1904-S all worth $100 or more even in circulated (Fine-About Uncirculated) conditions. Several coins in the series, while quite common in circulated condition, are very rare in uncirculated conditions, and can command hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. 1901 is such a coin, as is 1884-S. There is currently only a single known MS68 1884-S dollar and if sold at auction, that coin could easily bring $750,000-$1,000,000...for a "common" date coin.

Many of the spectacular rarities of the series, both by grade and absolutely, can be attributed to the order to melt down 270 million silver dollars still on hand by the Pittman Act of 1918. Because of this, and subsequent melting, it is estimated that only 17% of all Morgan dollars minted still survive. However, that's still many millions of examples.

Many examples exceed $100 in uncirculated condition, but the majority do not. A common date in uncirculated can normally be found for around $20, and often as little as $12 circulated and $16 uncirculated, depending upon the current price of silver.

High-grade Morgan dollars are generally considered "investor" coins. This is because the prices are very volatile, and the values for certified ("slabbed") pieces are set on well-established exchanges.

Peace DollarPeace dollar (1921–1935)

Introduced in December 1921, the Peace dollar, designed by medalist Anthony de Francisci, was promulgated to commemorate the signing of formal peace treaties between the Allied forces and Germany and Austria. These treaties officially ended the Allies' World War I hostilities with these two countries. In 1922 the Mint made silver dollar production its top priority, causing other denominations to be produced sparingly if at all that year. Production ceased temporarily after 1928; original plans apparently called for only a one year suspension, but this was extended by the Great Depression. Mintage resumed in 1934, but for only two years.

In May 1965, 316,000+ Peace Dollars were minted, all at the Denver Mint and dated 1964-D; however, plans for completing this coinage were abandoned, and most of those already minted were melted, with two known trial strike specimens being preserved (for assay purposes) until 1970, when they too were melted, and none released either for circulation or collection purposes. It is rumored that one or more pieces still exist, most notably any examples obtained by key members of Congress, the President, or mint officials. However, this coin, much like the 1933 $20 gold Double Eagle (aside from the "exception", sold in 2002 for over $7 million), is illegal to own and would be subject to confiscation.

Release of dollars by the US Treasury: the GSA sale

Because of the size and weight of the dollar coins, they circulated minimally throughout their history, except in the West (especially at casinos in the early to mid 20th century, where they were commonly used both at the tables and at slot machines.) As a result, the coins were generally shipped to Washington and stored in the vaults of the US Treasury; at times these stores numbered into the hundreds of millions.

They were very popular as Christmas gifts, however, and from the 1930s to the early 1960s, many bags were annually released to banks nationwide to be distributed as presents. In November 1962, during this annual distribution, it was discovered that there were some rare and valuable dates, still sealed in their original mint bags, all in uncirculated condition, among the millions of dollar coins still in the Treasury vaults. Collectors/investors/dealers lined up to purchase them in $1,000 bags, trading silver certificates for the coins. Before this event, the great rarity of the Morgan series was 1903-O, which was by far the most expensive of the entire set. It was discovered that there were millions of this specific date and mint in the Treasury vaults; an estimated 84% of the entire mintage sat in these bags, untouched for 60 years, all in uncirculated condition. While still relatively expensive in circulated grades, uncirculated examples can be had for a modest amount over common dates.

On March 25, 1964, the Secretary of the Treasury announced that Silver Certificates would no longer be redeemable for silver dollars. Subsequently, another act of Congress dated June 24, 1967, provided that Silver Certificates could be exchanged for silver bullion for a period of one year, until June 24,1968.

Following this, the Treasury inventoried its remaining stock of dollar coins, and found approximately 3,000 bags containing 3 million coins. Many of the remaining coins were Carson City mint dollars, which even then carried a premium. The coins were placed in special hard plastic holders and the General Services Administration (GSA) was given authorization to sell them to the public in a series of mail-bid sales. Five sales were conducted in 1973 and 1974, but sales were poor, and the results unspectacular. There was much complaining among the coin buying public, many stating that the United States Government should not be in the "coin business", especially considering that the government had spent little more than a dollar to mint and store each coin. After these sales, more than a million coins were still left unsold.

These sat again until 1979-1980, where, amidst an extraordinarily volatile precious metals market, the remaining coins were sold under chaotic conditions. The GSA, having published minimum bids in November 1979, announced on January 2, 1980, that those minimum bids were no longer valid, and that prospective bidders would have to "call in" to a toll free number to get current minimum bids. Then, on February 21, 13 days after the bidding process officially began, the maximum number of coins per bidder was changed from 500 to 35. Many bidders, under these confusing conditions, ended up with no coins at all. Complaints again flooded in to Congress, but the damage had already been done, and the last silver dollars held by the United States Treasury were gone.

Over the years, many of these GSA dollars have been broken out of their special holders for purposes of grading or otherwise, and now GSA dollars still in the unbroken original holders carry a small premium. Some third party grading companies have begun to grade coins still in their GSA holders, as a means of preservation, though this is not without controversy.

Eisenhower dollar (1971–1978)
The Eisenhower clad dollar (obverse).
1975/1976 Bicentennial Commemorative coin (reverse).

From 1971 to 1978, the U.S. Mint issued dollar coins with the obverse depicting Dwight D. Eisenhower and the reverse the insignia of the Apollo 11 moon landing, both designed by Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro. The 1976 Bicentennial commemorative design, produced in 1975 and 1976, featured the Liberty Bell and the Moon on the reverse (designed by Dennis R. Williams), while retaining the Eisenhower obverse. The Eisenhower dollars minted for general circulation contained no silver or gold, but were instead composed of the same copper-nickel clad composition used for the dime, quarter, and half dollar. This made the circulation coins extremely resistant to wear and, like the smaller denominations, they still retain a good deal of shine even when subject to mass usage. From 1971 through 1976 the Mint also produced dollars composed of 40% silver aimed at the collector market.

The coins were never very popular, primarily due to their large size and weight which made them inconvenient to carry and the fact that very few vending machines were designed to accept them. They saw the greatest use in casinos, and one-dollar tokens in United States casinos still approximate the size and weight of the coins. Prior to the withdrawal of the coins, which remain legal tender (and are often still available at banks, by request[citation needed]), many casinos did not strike their own tokens, but instead used the Eisenhower dollar.

Susan B. Anthony dollar (1979–1981; 1999)
The Anthony clad dollar.

From 1979 to 1981, and again in 1999, the Mint produced Anthony Dollars, depicting Susan B. Anthony, the first non-fictitious woman portrayed on circulating U.S. coinage. (Many earlier circulating coins featured images of women, but the women depicted were all non-specific representations of Liberty. Spain's Queen Isabella was portrayed along with Christopher Columbus on the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition commemorative half dollar, but it was not a circulating coin.) The Anthony dollars, like the Eisenhower dollars, were made from a copper-nickel clad. The 1981 coins were issued for collectors only, but occasionally still show up in circulation.

The Anthony dollar resembled the quarter in size. It was quickly discontinued, but resurrected in 1999 when Treasury reserves were low, and the Sacagawea dollar was still a year away from production. While reserves of the coins were initially high, the coins were in demand to be used as change in vending machines, most often in transit systems and post offices.

This dollar is often referred to as a "Suzy" or "Susie"; another variation is to refer to the coin as a "Susan B" or "Susie/Suzy B".

American Silver Eagle

The American Silver Eagle is the official silver bullion coin of the United States. It was first released by the United States Mint on November 24, 1986. It is struck only in the 1 troy oz denomination which has a nominal face value of one dollar and is guaranteed to contain one troy ounce of 99.9% pure silver. It is authorized by the United States Congress and its weight and content is certified by the United States Mint. The American Silver Eagle bullion coin may be used to fund Individual Retirement Account investments. The United States Mint also produces a proof version for coin collectors. The Silver Eagle has been produced at three mints. One is the Philadelphia mint, and some of those issued there carry a "P" mintmark. In the early years of the series, the San Francisco mint issued proofs and these bear an "S". More recent proofs are from the mint at West Point, New York. The latter have a "W" on the reverse, as illustrated here.

Sacagawea dollar (2000–present)
Obverse of the Sacagawea Dollar
Reverse of the Sacagawea Dollar, 2000-2008
Reverse of the 2009 Sacagawea Dollar

The Sacagawea dollar was authorized by Congress in 1997 because the supply of Anthony dollars, in inventory since their last mintage in 1981, was soon expected to be depleted. Delays in ramping up Sacagawea dollar production led to a final 1999-dated mintage of Susan B. Anthony dollars. As predicted by Coin Coalition representatives at Congressional hearings on the United States $1 Coin Act of 1997, the government's decision not to eliminate the U.S. one dollar bill prevented the Sacagawea dollar from being widely circulated. While dollar coins are used infrequently in general commerce, they are used in place of tokens in some areas and are given as change in many United States Postal Service stamp vending machines, creating a relatively small but significant demand.

The obverse was designed by artist Glenna Goodacre, using Shoshone Randy'L He-dow Teton as a model for Sacagawea.

There are approximately 1 billion Sacagawea coins in circulation and about 250 million more in reserve. The United States Mint greatly reduced production of Sacagawea dollars after the 2001 minting, citing sufficient inventory. As of 2006, the dollar is still being minted for collectors, and is available in uncirculated rolls, mint sets, and proof Sets, but has not been released for general circulation since 2001.

The Mint took great care to create the coin with the same size, weight, and electromagnetic properties as the Anthony dollar, but with a golden color. Unlike most other coins in circulation, the selected alloy has a tendency to tarnish quite severely in circulation, as is the case with most brasses, resulting in a loss of the golden "patina". While some consider the blackening an undesired quality, the Mint suggests the uneven tarnishing effect gives the coins an "antique finish" that "accentuate[s] the profile and add[s] a dimension of depth to the depiction of Sacagawea and her child".

The coin featured a plain edge through 2008, but starting in 2009 incused lettering was applied. The year and mint mark moved from the coin's obverse (front) to its edge.

As of 2007[update], dollar coins are not widely encountered in commerce in the United States, except in vending machines for rides on mass transit, some pay and display machines, and U.S. Postal Service stamp vending machines, which give the coins as change; and at some casinos, where they are used in slot machines. Most vending machines have been redesigned, however, to accept dollar coins for purchase over a quarter-dollar. The Sacagawea dollar has achieved popularity in Ecuador, where the US dollar is also the official currency.

Native American series

With the passage of the Native American $1 Coin Act, on September 20, 2007, the U.S. Mint began designing a series of Sacagawea dollars with modified reverses to further commemorate "Native Americans and the important contributions made by Indian tribes and individual Native Americans to the development of the United States and the history of the United States." Unlike the Presidential $1 series, the Native American $1 coin will be minted indefinitely. The first Native American series coin was released in January 2009 and has a reverse that depicts a Native American woman sowing seeds of the "Three Sisters", symbolizing the Indian tribes' contributions to agriculture. Like the Presidential Dollar, the year of issue, mint mark, and motto "E Pluribus Unum" have be moved to the edge of the coin to allow more room for the design. Unlike the Presidential $1 coins from before 2009, "In God We Trust" will remain on the obverse and the vacant space on the edge lettering will be taken up by thirteen stars, symbolizing the Thirteen Colonies. The act passed by Congress requires that 20% of the total dollar coins minted in any year during the Presidential $1 Coin Program be Sacagawea dollars bearing the new design.

Presidential Dollar Coin (2007–present)
Main article: Presidential $1 Coin Program
Obverse of the George Washington (#1) coin
Reverse of the coin

In December 2005, Congress decided to create a new series of $1 coins which will honor the former U.S. presidents. In 2007, Presidential coins of four different designs were produced. Another four designs will be produced each year, honoring the Presidents in order of service. (Grover Cleveland will be on two coins, since he served two non-consecutive terms.) The Presidential $1 Coin Act is intended to create renewed interest in the coin like that seen during the 50 State Quarters program. At least one third of all dollar coins produced are still Sacagawea coins, with the remaining coins making up the four presidential coins annually. Under federal law (31 U.S.C. § 5112), no coins may be issued featuring a living president, or a president who died less than two years earlier. The program will run until at least 2016 with the coin commemorating Ronald Reagan, but may continue longer depending on the longevity of the currently living former presidents, and the longevity of the current president or presidents yet to be elected.

The presidential dollar coin is the same size and composition as the Sacagawea dollar. "In God We Trust", "E Pluribus Unum", the issue year, and the mint mark appear on the edge. The fact that these national mottoes appear on the edge has caused some conservative commentators to decry the designs. The first dollar, honoring George Washington, was released into circulation on February 15, 2007. However, H.R. 2764 became law on December 26, 2007 which moved "In God We Trust" from the edge to the obverse.

A common minting error on this coin, estimated at 80,000, from a mintage of 300,000,000 coins, is the omission of the edge lettering causing with a plain outside edge. Because the omission includes the words "In God We Trust", some in the popular media have dubbed it the godless coin. A false (although at one time widely reported) error is the report that the edge lettering is upside down. The edge lettering does not occur at the same time as the minting of the coins, allowing for the natural occurrence of the lettering in either orientation.

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