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Collecting the Presidents

February 15, 2010


An elementary school teacher asked her class, “Do you have any hobbies?”

Several students raised their hands. The teacher called on the pupils to respond.

“I collect dolls!” exclaimed one girl.

“I collect rubber bands,” said one boy. “Sometimes I have to stay after school for shooting them at people.”

“I collect presidents,” boasted another child.

“You collect presidents?” the teacher inquired. “How many presidents do you have in your collection?”

“Just twelve so far, but by next Christmas I’ll have sixteen.”

The United States Mint has introduced a new series of one-dollar coins commemorating former United States Presidents in the order in which they held office. Four new coins will be issued in each calendar year through at least 2016. To date, twelve coins have been issued. The Mint is making yet another attempt to restore the use of dollar coinage to general circulation.

There is a myth that, as a boy, George Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. Actually, his childhood home was on the banks of the Rappahannock River, which is not nearly so wide as the Potomac. Furthermore, the silver dollar did not exist until after George Washington became our first president.  Still, many Americans associate Washington with the dollar.

United States dollar coins have long been a favorite among collectors.

Seated Liberty Dollars were introduced in 1840. The dollars were used in general circulation until 1853 when the value of the silver became more than the face value of the coin. Trade dollars, used mainly in the Orient were still minted. In 1870, when the price of silver dropped, dollars were returned to circulation.

The gold dollar had its origins in the Carolina Gold Rush of the 1830s. The first gold dollars were minted in the United States, not by the government, but by a North Carolina jeweler, Christoph Bechtler. He capitalized on the Gold Rush by offering to turn prospectors’ raw gold into coins, which was perfectly legal at the time. By 1840 he had produced over $2.2 million in gold coinage. Nearly half of this was as one-dollar gold pieces.

The federal government decided to open new mints at Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dahlonega, Georgia, specifically to produce gold coins.

The California Gold Rush sparked demand for more gold coinage. In 1849, Congress authorized production, not only of gold dollars, but another new coin, the Double Eagle.

The U.S. Mint produced silver dollar coins from 1794 to 1803, and then stopped until 1836. Silver dollars from this period are highly prized by coin collectors and are exceptionally valuable. 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.

During the Civil War, Union gold reserves were running low. President Lincoln joked that instead of “In God We Trust,” a more fitting motto for the dollar would be the words of Acts 3:6: “Silver and gold have I none.”

The Morgan silver dollar, minted between 1878 and 1921, features a female Liberty head. Production of the Morgan dollar ceased in 1904 for a period of seventeen years. Because Morgan dollars were 90 percent silver, hundreds of millions of them were melted down by the government and private refiners when silver prices rose.

Introduced in December of 1921, the Peace dollar was issued to commemorate the end of World War I. It was minted each year until The Great Depression of 1929.

From 1971 to 1978, the U.S. Mint issued the Dwight D. Eisenhower dollar. These new dollars contained no silver. The coins were never very popular, primarily due to their large size and weight, which made them inconvenient to carry.

During the brief interval between 1979 and 1981, the Mint produced Susan B. Anthony dollars. The Anthony dollars were sometimes referred to as Carter quarters. This was a snide reference to both the deterioration of the value of the dollar during President Jimmy Carter’s term and the Anthony dollar’s confusing resemblance to the quarter.

In 1997, Congress authorized the gold-tone Sacagawea dollar to replace the Susan B. Anthony dollar. Sacagawea was the Shoshone Indian who assisted the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Dollar coins today are used infrequently in general commerce in the United States. Exceptions are their use in vending machines, for mass transit fare in large cities, and in slot machines at casinos. They are also given as change in U.S. Postal Service stamp machines.

Alison Krauss sings an old Bluegrass song, “Another Day, Another Dollar.” This expression is used to describe a weary lifestyle that includes a tedious job.

Perhaps the Presidents’ series of one-dollar coins will allow the cliché to take on new meaning. Maybe the new coins will not only be popular among collectors, as the state quarter series has been, but they will also find their way into general circulation.

When I was in high school, I saw one boy offer another a dollar to eat a bar of soap.

“I’ll do anything for a dollar!” With that, he ate the soap.

The fellow missed school for a couple of days. When he returned, he lamented, “I was as sick as a dog. My mama made me take castor oil, more than two dollars worth. The worst thing was, she made me buy the castor oil.”

Another day, another dollar.

Kirk H. Neely

© February 2010

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