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Blame short-lived 20-cent piece on West

They were short-lived and with good reason, but they are still an interesting collection and significant type coins. Certainly the story of the 20-cent piece is one every collector should know and it seems especially appropriate at a time when so many new issues are being authorized. The lesson can be learned that being authorized and actually enduring are two very different things.

The first, and still the very best question about the 20-cent piece is precisely what officials and lawmakers were thinking when they came up with the denomination. Certainly the original authorization for coins of the United States did not include the 20-cent piece. Lawmakers at the time opted for a quarter and there is no record of a 20-cent piece or “double dime” even receiving serious consideration.

Those early lawmakers were more than willing to consider new denominations. The Mint was a little more cautious as the Mint was aware of the problems they were having simply trying to make the denominations that had originally been authorized.

As a result, a move to have a two-cent piece authorized in the early 1800s was not directly opposed, but rather shoved to the back burner by a series of concerns from the Mint involving the alloy. At the time there was the potential that the alloy for a two-cent coin would involve silver and that might be difficult to remove if the coins were ever melted down. Back at the time even losing a small amount of silver was a concern so the two-cent piece simply was put on the shelf for decades.

As the Mint began to make progress on solving the national coin shortage, the possibility of new denominations became more real. That became all the more possible with adequate supplies of metals and the approval of the first branch mints.

A steam-powered press was installed in 1836 and a couple years later mints in Dahlonega, Ga., Charlotte, N.C., and New Orleans, La., would come on line. There was no immediate push for new denominations until gold was discovered in California in the late 1840s.

The discovery of gold prompted the mining interests and bankers in the area to push for new gold coins primarily just to use it. There was very quick approval of a gold dollar in 1849, which had actually been used with some success by the Bechtler family mint in the South for years and a double eagle, or $20 gold piece the same year. The feeling probably was basically that it would make the mining interests happy and could do little or no harm. In fact, that line of thinking was probably behind the later approval of a $3 gold coin, which had no particular purpose. It was not, however, a blank check for new ideas as proposals for $25, $50 and $100 gold coins were not approved.

The discovery of gold also resulted in a new silver coin. With all that gold arriving on the East Coast the traditional gold-to-silver ratio was upset. Suddenly the cost of producing silver coins was higher than their face value. Congress really wanted no part of a decision to reduce the amount of silver in the coins but in an effort probably designed simply to stall in the hope that things would take care of themselves, a 75 percent silver three-cent piece was approved in 1851.

It was a classic case of spin as lowering the postage rate to three cents the Congress could claim the new denomination was primarily an attempt to make the purchase of stamps easier while conveniently failing to focus on the fact that the new coin was only 75 percent silver.

Once Congress was forced to act in 1853, the three-piece was made 90 percent silver, although its mintage declined as it really had little or no role in circulation. Moreover, at 90 percent silver the next time there was silver hoarding the new three-cent piece would be potentially part of the problem and not part of the solution.

It did not take long for that problem to appear. The outbreak of the Civil War not only caused the three facilities in the South to be lost, but it also created a wave of uncertainty which saw Americans suddenly start to hoard virtually everything,  specially gold and silver. It was not, however, just gold and silver as even copper-nickel cents eventually were hoarded leaving the public to make change any way they could, which saw them use postage stamps, tokens and eventually Fractional Currency.

The crisis in circulation during the Civil War resulted in a new bronze cent as well as a bronze two-cent piece that turned out to be another fairly short-lived denomination lasting just over a decade. The three-cent and five-cent silver coins received company in the form of copper-nickel issues of the same denominations.

If there had been any pattern up to and including the Civil War, it was that new denominations had been most likely to emerge from unusual situations both good and bad. Certainly the discovery of gold was good at least for those doing the discovering while the Civil War was bad, but both had played a role directly or indirectly in seeing the approval of new denominations.

In the case of the 20-cent piece it was a situation not unlike the gold discovery in California. The Comstock Lode and its great wealth of silver had actually been discovered just prior to the Civil War, but it would take time for the importance of the silver to be recognized and exploited. Moreover, with the suspension of specie payments and hoarding during the Civil War, any suggestion of new silver coins was simply pointless. It was to continue that way for years after the conclusion of the war.

By the 1870s, however, the matter of all that silver located in some place called Nevada (admitted as a state in 1864) began to take on a greater importance.  There were significant changes in 1873, which saw the amount of silver in coins increased and the authorization of a Trade dollar while the old silver three-cent piece, silver half dime and bronze two-cent piece were discontinued. That, however, would not prove to be enough to do anything to solve the problem of the price of silver declining under the weight of large silver supplies emerging from the Comstock Lode.

How the idea of the 20-cent piece got started is actually hard to say, but we know the champion was Sen. John P. Jones of Nevada. In all probability the compelling reason behind the denomination was simply to use more silver. Otherwise there was little reason for the denomination as the United States had plenty of dimes to handle any 20-cent needs in commerce.

There was apparently some discussion of problems making change in the West, but of course if there were problems they were self-inflicted as it was the Western interests who were behind a prohibition that would not allow any mints other than Philadelphia to make coins containing no gold or silver. That meant lower denomination were only made in Philadelphia and were unlikely to be shipped to areas of the country that had mints but would not allow lower denominations to be produced.

Certainly there were gaps in the logic for the new denomination. Of course there were 20-cent pieces in Canada, but it seems unlikely that the proposal would have been approved on the basis that it would allow the United States to follow the lead of Newfoundland. The proposal might not have been approved at all were it not for the fact that Mint Director Henry R. Linderman weighed in with his support.

Precisely why Linderman did this is hard to imagine except that Linderman had his own agenda, which was to keep the mints busy and consequently any new coin was a good idea in his mind. But he was also tied to the silver interests. It can also be plausibly argued that it was part of the American flirtation with metric weights. The 20-cent piece weighs an even five grams. His support helped and the 20-cent piece was approved on March 3, 1875.

The staff at the Mint was very aware of the potential problem of the new denomination being too close in size to the quarter. William Barber and Joseph Alexis Bailly prepared patterns with very distinctive designs but they were not approved.

The problem is seen in a letter from Mint Superintendent Pollock to Mint Director Linderman in which he stated of the patterns, “The other specimens, two each of silver and copper are peculiar in design, very beautiful, but not conforming to our other coinage. They cannot, therefore, I assume be adopted.”

Pollock was clearly aware of the size issue as he also noted, “To distinguish there more readily from the quarter dollar we have made the edge plain not reeded.”

That was a start but would prove to not be enough. The obverse design was basically the same as the quarter and the reverse while using the Trade dollar reverse was still similar but the size remained an issue as the quarter at 24.3mm was very close to the 22mm 20-cent piece in size and the public was not about to check the reverse to determine based on the design what denomination they were holding.

The complaints started almost immediately, making it very clear that the public did not like and did not want to use the new 20-cent piece. Lawmakers responded and the 20-cent piece had barely reached circulation when a bill calling for its elimination was introduced in the Congress. It would take until 1878 for the legislation to pass and that proved to be more than enough exposure to the 20-cent piece for everyone.

The first year mintages actually seem to reflect the opinion of the prospects for the new denomination from the various facilities. At Philadelphia the 1875 mintage was just 39,700 and an estimated 2,790 proofs. That would seem to suggest that Philadelphia was not at all confident that the new denomination was going to be popular. That total would drop even further the second year to 15,900 with an estimated 1,260 proofs. That is clear indication that there was little or no use of the new 20-cent piece around Philadelphia.
Today the 1875 is at $165 in G-4 while the 1876 is at $185. They are $835 and $800, respectively, in MS-60. The 1876 at $5,600 in MS-65 while the 1875 is $5,500 with a Proof-65 of either around $9,500. In fact the numbers seen at the Professional Coin Grading Service suggest the two are not very available. In Mint State PCGS has seen the 1875 about 175 times, with 29 being MS-65 or better. The 1876 has been seen more with about 225 appearances and an MS-65 or better total of almost 50.

The nerve center of all things political in the West was San Francisco and as a result it should be no surprise that San Francisco would have a heavy mintage. The San Francisco total in 1875 was 1,155,000, which would rank as the top 20-cent piece mintage in history. In fact, it was so high that San Francisco would never produce another 20-cent piece even though it had been a leading center for those championing the idea. This would support the idea that the Mint thought the main demand would come from the West and its peculiar need for making change in saloons known as bit houses

A bit was actually 12-1/2 cents, but dimes were accepted. But this worked in reverse, too. Saloons would simply give back a dime if a quarter was tendered. Apparently, the 20-cent piece was to be used by the thirsty miners so getting a dime in change involved no loss to them.

Thanks to Bob Van Ryzin for this bit of Western lore.

So, with the large mintage, the 1875-S is the most available date today at $100 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $500 and an MS-65 at $4,900. In fact, the availability of the 1875-S is far ahead of the other dates with PCGS reporting well over 1,000 examples in Mint State and about 190 in MS-65 or better.

It might be expected that Carson City would also be a center of support for the new denomination and to a degree that is true as the 1875-CC had a mintage of 133,290, which was actually a decent total for Carson City. The new 20-cent piece fared no better in Carson City than anywhere else as the 1876-CC total dropped to just 10,000.

The 1875-CC is the one available Carson City 20-cent piece for those wanting an example from each of the three mints that had production. Today the 1875-CC is at $335 in G-4, $1,650 in MS-60 and $10,000 in MS-65. The PCGS totals for the 1875-CC show about 240 examples in Mint State, but only 19 of them in MS-65 or better.

 The 1876-CC not only had a 10,000 mintage showing the denomination was being rejected in Carson City as well but it appears that the mintage might well have been melted. It might seem odd to make coins and melt them, but there is evidence of that happening before in Carson City as 1873-CC dimes, quarters and perhaps even Seated Liberty dollars were produced but apparently melted. In the case of the dime and quarter, it appears that literally the entire mintage was destroyed with just a single dime and a small number of quarters remaining today. It was possible as they were replaced that year with examples of the same denominations containing slightly more silver. Those new 1873-CC dimes and quarters would have arrows at the date as well as more silver and it simply appears that the only survivors of the 1873-CC dimes and quarters without arrows were examples saved for the Assay Commission or purchased by someone before the destruction. In the case of the 1873-CC Seated Liberty dollar, there are examples but not as many as might be expected, leading us to suspect melting resulting from approval of the new Trade dollar.

Under the circumstances it would not have been terribly unusual to see melting of the unwanted 1876-CC 20-cent piece. We have fewer than 20 known examples today and about one-half of the total came from a hoard discussed by Q. David Bowers in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards. According to Bowers in the 1950s Baltimore dealer Tom Warfield had a hoard of 7-9 Mint State examples of the 1876-CC of which Bowers was able to purchase four.

The origin of the hoard is unknown but Bowers offered his opinion that, “It is my opinion that these may have come from someone who once served on the Assay Commission which in 1877 reviewed the prior year’s coinage.”

Whatever the original source, the known examples of the 1876-CC 20-cent piece all appear to be Mint State so there is no proof that the 1876-CC ever actually reached circulation. At NGC they have seen 5 examples while PCGS adds a dozen to the total, although some are probably repeat submissions, but the general belief of roughly 20 known seems to be generally accepted.

The 1876-CC brings the sort of price that might be expected, with the Eliasberg MS-65 bringing $148,500 while a 1999 Heritage sale of an MS-63 resulted in a price of $86,500, according to Coin Market.

There were no business strikes in 1877 and 1878 of the 20-cent piece but there were proofs, with estimated mintages of 350 for the 1877 and 600 for the 1878. Those totals result in prices of $10,000 for the 1877 and $9,500 for the 1878 in Proof-65. The two are actually similar in Proof-65 or better as PCGS reports the 1877 at 40 examples in Proof-65 or better while the 1878 is at 42 in the same grades. What should be noted is that many more have been graded in Proof-60 to -64 grades, so the two are available but finding a premium grade is tougher than expected.

With passage of the law ending the 20-cent piece in 1878 the short-lived denomination was consigned to the history books. The story, however, remains interesting and whether as a type coin or perhaps an example from each of the three facilities the 20-cent piece is an interesting coin to own and remember.                

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