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Twenty-cent piece short-lived for good reasons

It would certainly be fair to question what the United States was doing with a 20-cent coin. The answer to that question is interesting and in the trials and tribulations of the short-lived 20-cent piece there are many fascinating insights into a very different America.

The impact of the 20-cent piece is not as distant as might be expected. Along with the problems of the 20-cent piece and the available supply of some dates today, we also see some modern day ramifications of a denomination which seems old and very distant.

The creation of the 20-cent piece was certainly not the idea of the Founding Fathers. The Mint Act of April 2, 1792 is absolutely silent on the idea of a 20-cent piece, so those who decided on the initial denominations for the United States cannot be blamed for what happened. In all probability there was no discussion of a 20-cent piece or “double dime” at the time.

In fact, there was probably little or no discussion of such a denomination for decades and with good reason. The United States Mint had its hands full simply attempting to create the denominations that were authorized. There was a host of problems, perhaps the most important being uncertain supplies of metal from which to make coins, as well as the capability of the early Mint. The problems can be seen in the fact that the gold eagle and silver dollar both had their production suspended in 1804 to free up resources to make lower denominations that were desperately needed. However, even that action did not suddenly produce a rush of production of lower denominations.

There is actually a very good case to be made for the notion that things were not really under control at the U.S. Mint until at least the later part of the 1820s. By that time, most denominations were in regular production with mintages of 1 million pieces or more. Realistically, though, it would still be another decade before there were branch mints on line and better equipment to really suggest that there was light at the end of the tunnel when it came to chronic coin shortages and irregular mintages.

The idea of any additional denominations was not totally foreign even during the times of significant problems. There had been a bill to authorize a two-cent piece in the early 1800s. What stopped that legislation was not the fact that the Mint was up to its ears in problems but rather questions as to what alloy could be used. If it was just copper being twice the size of a large cent a two-cent piece would be the size of a rock and probably not very popular with the public. Other options would reduce the size but using silver in small amounts would mean it was very difficult to recover the silver if desired and back in the early 1800s wasting metal was not an idea many would have supported.

As it turned out the three-cent piece would actually be the first new denomination, even though there had been little or no discussion of the idea. The three-cent piece emerged at a time of additional problems. The discovery of gold in California caused the cost of producing silver coins to rise above their face value. The public was aware of the situation and began hoarding silver issues, causing a coin shortage just at a time when it finally appeared that such problems were a thing of the past. What was really needed was a slight reduction in the amount of silver in the regular issues and not a three-cent piece, but Congress, probably wanting to avoid the appearance that they were somehow responsible for the situation, opted instead for a 75 percent silver three-cent piece which was actually able to circulate. Once Congress was finally forced to act in 1853, the three-cent piece became 90 percent silver, but its use dropped significantly since there had really been no need for the denomination.

Another crisis produced another new denomination. The Civil War saw Americans both in the North and the South hoarding just about everything. Gold and silver hoarding could have been anticipated, but people even began hoarding copper-nickel cents. Desperate officials tried Fractional Currency, which was very unpopular, while the public was reduced to using tokens and stamps among other things simply to conduct regular commercial activities.

The answer to a lack of cents was a change to a bronze composition and that touched off a wave of changes including a bronze two-cent piece as well as copper-nickel alternatives to the silver three-cent piece and half dime. They were all emergency issues and the two-cent piece, which had been discussed a number of times in the past, proved to be helpful in an emergency but not very helpful once regular issues could circulate. That made it last for roughly a decade before being eliminated.

In the period after the Civil War, there was little push for any new denominations. In fact, gold and silver coins, while circulating in the West, were not seen with any regularity in the eastern part of the country for years. Even at the time Sen. John P. Jones of Nevada introduced legislation to authorize a 20-cent piece, there was still somewhat sporadic use of gold and silver coins in some areas.

The basic idea for the 20-cent was simply to use up silver. That was an issue, because the Comstock Lode had produced a situation where the supply of silver was far greater than the demand and that meant declining prices. The elimination of the silver half dime in 1873 probably had little impact, but it helped to create an opportunity in the minds of some to make a case that another silver denomination was needed.

In reality, there are severe doubts that another silver denomination was needed, but by the time Jones introduced the legislation it was becoming apparent that the Trade dollar was not the answer to the silver surplus problem. There was no history of a “double dime” or 20-cent piece in the United States, although Canada had seen the denomination used. Probably more important than any actual evidence that the denomination might work was the fact that by the mid-1870s it had become rather common for mining interests to seek help from the Congress in the form of new coins.

The gold in California had very clearly resulted in the addition of a gold dollar, a gold double eagle and a few years later a gold $3. In fact, there had been proposals for gold $25, $50 and $100 although there were limits as to how far the Congress would go in creating new issues just to use metal. Later, in the Civil War, a fellow from Pennsylvania named Wharton convinced Congress to use a copper-nickel alloy. While the alloy actually did work, it would be wrong to suggest that Wharton was simply being public spirited. At the time, he happened to own the only operating nickel mine in the country.

Realistically, in seeking a silver 20-cent piece, Jones was simply following a historical path already used by others in attempting to get an additional silver coin to help out the mining interests in his home state of Nevada. He did not actually phrase it that way; instead there was some discussion about the difficulty in making change in the West. Lost in that discussion was what a 20-cent piece could do that two dimes could not, as well as the fact that, if there were problems, they were basically self-inflicted since the West was refusing to use bank notes and coins unless they were made from gold or silver.

In fact, Jones was having trouble convincing Congress that a 20-cent coin was a good idea until he picked up a surprise endorsement from Mint Director Henry R. Linderman. The reason for Linderman’s support of the idea had little, if anything, to do with the merits or lack thereof, but rather that in his mind any new coin was a good idea because it kept the mints busy. If a new issue caused no problems and kept the mints busy, Linderman was happy and better able to get the things he wanted from Congress.

The rub, however, was that the coin caused no problems and no one anticipated that there might be any problems other than the new denomination being ignored when it was approved on March 3, 1875.
Actually the Mint engravers were ahead of everyone else in anticipating that the 20-cent piece might actually cause problems. In the patterns created by Joseph Alexis Bailly and William Barber, there were interesting designs but officials were stuck on the idea that the silver coins had to be fairly similar in design. We see the situation in a letter from Mint Superintendent Pollock to Mint Director Linderman where he stated, “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 presume be adopted.”

There were some small steps taken with Pollock suggesting an answer when he stated, “To distinguish these more readily from the Quarter dollar, we have made the edge plain, not reeded.”

That was, in fact, a start. But with an obverse similar to other silver issues and a reverse which was basically the same as a Trade dollar, the response was not enough The 20-cent piece would be 22mm in size, which was too close to the quarter which was 24.3mm in size. Almost exactly a century later a very similar problem would help to doom the Anthony dollar as people kept confusing them with quarters.

The history of 20-cent piece mintages show very clearly there were problems. The first year was their peak of production followed by far lower mintages the second year and then proof-only production in their final two years.

The mintages give us a pretty good idea as to how the various facilities viewed the entire idea. The 1875 mintage at Philadelphia was just 39,700 with an estimated 2,790 proofs. That business strike total was lower than Carson City and San Francisco, suggesting that for some reason Philadelphia did not see much of a future for the 20-cent piece. Despite its low mintage, the 1875 is available with a $165 G-4 price while an MS-60 is at $835 with an MS-65 at $5,500.

In Nevada, where the whole idea had been given birth, there was what might be seen as an average mintage with the total being 133,290. As was often the case, the saving at Carson City was low, which explains why the 1875-CC today lists for $335 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $1,650 and an MS-65 is $10,000.

The largest initial mintage came from San Francisco where a total of 1,155,000 1875-S 20-cent pieces were produced. In fact, that is not surprising as at the time much of the silver from the Comstock Lode would be shipped to San Francisco. Many San Francisco banks and others had interests in the silver activity in Nevada so some enthusiasm for the new denomination in San Francisco is not unexpected. That large mintage makes the 1875-S the most available 20-cent piece with a price of $100 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $500 and an MS-65 is at $4,900. Interestingly enough, even in San Francisco there was no real support for the denomination. That is seen in the fact that, in 1876, of the original three mints which produced the 20-cent piece, San Francisco would be the one which would have no production in 1876.

The 1876 mintages clearly show the denomination was not being well received. The Philadelphia mintage of 1875, which was already low, dropped even further to just 15,900 pieces along with an estimated 1,260 proofs. That made the combined total at Philadelphia for the two years fewer than 60,000 pieces. The 1876 is available today for $185 in G-4, $800 in MS-60 and $5,600 in MS-65 with a proof from 1875 at $9,500 and a 1876 at $9,400 in Proof-65.

The Carson City mintage in 1876 was just 10,000 pieces, suggesting even in Carson City there was little demand for the new denomination. In fact, there is reason to question whether any examples of the 1876-CC circulated at all or whether it was simply made and then melted.

We know the 1876-CC is a significant rarity with fewer than 20 examples known, explaining the 1997 Heritage sale price of an MS-63 of $148,500. In fact, of the small supply, it would appear, many can be traced to the same source as Q. David Bowers explained in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards. He explains that 7-9 pieces were owned by a Baltimore dealer named Tom Warfield. Bowers described the coins saying, “Each piece was a lustrous gem, delicately toned and virtually perfect.”

Bowers went on to suggest, “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.”

The totals from the grading services also suggest the 1876-CC may have never reached circulation as NGC has so far graded five examples while PCGS has seen 12. So far, of the 17 coins graded, not a single one was called circulated. In the case of Carson City that is extraordinary as Carson City usually had very little saving. The Bowers observation looks better in light of such totals as the appearance is that someone, or perhaps more than one person, managed to acquire examples of the 1876-CC with intent to save them. There is no evidence at all of any 1876-CC having ever reached circulation.

The legislation to end the ill-fated 20-cent piece was already in Congress, but realistically it appears clear that the public had already decided the fate of the denomination. That saw proof-only mintages in 1877 and 1878 with totals put at 350 for the 1877 and 600 for the 1878 with those totals resulting in price of $10,000 for the 1877 and $9,500 for the 1878.

There is little doubt that two factors played a critical role in the failure of the 20-cent piece. The first was confusion with the quarter, a factor much like that which was seen in 1979 when the Susan B. Anthony dollar failed to live up to expectations. The second factor was even more basic as the 20-cent piece simply had no real role in circulation. The fact that it could do nothing which two dimes could not remained a cloud over its potential in its short time in circulation. The confusion with the quarter was causing trouble and to have a coin which is not needed causing trouble is a sure recipe for disaster.
With its short history, the 20-cent piece is not a large collection. Realistically, roughly half the dates are very tough or significant rarities in the case of the 1876-CC. The 20-cent piece, however, is interesting. The available dates, thanks to low demand, make for good values. This, in turn, makes even a limited 20-cent piece collection an interesting one.                   

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