A Brief History of US Dollar Coins

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Before the paper dollar bill, Americans carried the US dollar coin in their pockets. Developed centuries ago as the main form of currency, US dollar coins have since become a collector’s item, in part because their production has waned and because the oldest examples can be hard to find. In this article we cover the history of the US dollar coin, along with some of the most valuable versions, while also exploring some of the factors that make a US dollar coin worthy of collecting.

1794-1804: The First US Silver Dollar Coins

While different types of coinage were circulating in North America prior to 1792, it was not until The Coinage Act of this year that the idea of the US dollar coin developed. Minting of these silver dollar coins began two years later and featured a profile of the personification of Liberty on the obverse (aka the front).

Some, called “Flowing Hair” dollar coins, featured Lady Liberty with tresses seemingly animated by a light breeze. Others, known as “Draped Bust” dollar coins show the same profile but offer a lower cut to reveal hints of the drapery of her Classically-inspired garment. Both featured the contours of an eagle on their reverse (or back). As these are the earliest US dollar coins to survive to the present, their prices at auction can be astronomical. The current record for a “Flowing Hair” dollar coin was set in 2013 at $10 million through auction at Stack’s Bowers Galleries.

1836-1885: Seated Liberty US Dollar Coins

The 1836 “Seated Liberty” coin presented a slight variation on the earlier US silver dollar versions. On these coins, Liberty is perched on a rock and looks behind her as she grips her staff in her left hand and guards her shield, which rests on the ground to her right.

One of the US silver dollar coin types created during this period that continues to compel collectors is the “Gobrecht” silver dollar coins (above), made briefly between 1836 and 1839, the Gobrecht silver dollar coin takes its name from designer Christian Gobrecht, whose name appears proudly in the coin’s design. Also popular was the “Trade Dollar” coin, which was minted in expectation of expanded international trade. Trade Dollar coins consisted of 90% silver and weighed 420 grains (a fact noted on these coins’ inscriptions), or approximately 1 ounce. Thanks to this composition, many of the millions of trade dollar coins minted were eventually melted down, leaving few available on the market today.

A Silver Trade Dollar, 1878.

A Silver Trade Dollar, 1878. Sold for $143,750 via Heritage Auctions (January 2007).

While these were the two dominant styles of dollar coins used in circulation during this period, it is also important to note the introduction of the US gold dollar coin in 1848, coinciding with the Gold Rush. These coins reused the earlier Liberty profile image and were made from 90% pure gold at intervals until 1889.

Gold Liberty Head Dollar 1861

Gold Liberty Head Dollar, 1861. Sold for $1,610,000 via Heritage Auctions (August 2006).

1921: The Advent of the Peace Dollar

Following a brief pause in production in the early years of the twentieth century, the US silver dollar returned with a new likeness for Lady Liberty in 1921, when a push for peace following the atrocities of World War I resulted in a competition to update this coinage’s composition. This new “Peace Dollar” coin was also made from 90% silver (and 10% copper) and was created by Anthony de Francisci, who returned to Liberty’s profile format. Francisci’s Liberty also featured a spiked diadem secured not among flowing waves of hair but rather in a loose bun. The eagle on the obverse was also redesigned to be gazing triumphantly over the rays of a new dawn to symbolize the hopeful era of peace that was to come.

1921 peace dollar

The Liberty Peace Dollar, 1921; an exceptionally rare proof striking. Sold for $69,000 via Heritage Auctions (April 2006).

That peace would soon come to an end with the arrival of World War II less than two decades later, but the Peace Dollar coin would cease even earlier, as minting numbers plummeted with the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929. The US silver dollar itself ended soon after. The last minting of US silver dollar coins occurred in 1935 in part due to a surplus of the coinage on the market.

The 1970s: From Eisenhower Dollars to Susan B. Anthony Dollar Coins

The US dollar coin was not revived until 1971, with the creation of the “Eisenhower Dollar” coin, designed to commemorate President Dwight D Eisenhower’s efforts as both a military commander in World War II and in the Oval Office.

The Eisenhower Dollar was minted until 1979, the same year that the “Susan B. Anthony” dollar coin debuted. Designed to celebrate the efforts of the accomplished suffragist, Susan B. Anthony coins received a lukewarm reception and were minted for only two years (save for a brief return in 1999).

The 2000s: The “Golden” Years of US Dollar Coins

While the US Mint no longer crafts dollar coins as part of their circulating currency, they did begin creating several styles of non-circulating US dollar coins for commemorative series in the early 2000s. For example, marking the dawn of the new millennium was the introduction of the Sacagawea Coin. These coins, crafted from brass-covered copper, appear to have a golden hue and lead to the creation of the Native American $1 Coin Act in 2009, which commissioned a series of coins depicting imagery of various essential Native American figures to be showcased on the obverse of Sacagawea coins.

Another popular celebratory “golden” series is the Presidential $1 Coin Program, launched in 2007. Enacted by the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005, this coin series showcases the likeness of past American presidents on the obverse with the Statue of Liberty illustrated on the reverse. The most recent of these commemorative series is the American Innovation $1 Coin Program, which debuted its first coin in 2018 and, through 2032, will release a series of 50 coins that celebrate major scientific and technological advancements across all 50 states.

What Makes a US Dollar Coin Expensive

If you think all US dollar coins are worth only a dollar, think again: several factors can contribute to astronomical prices for historic US dollar coins. These include:

Minting

Some of the most coveted US dollar coins were minted in very small amounts. An example is the US dollar coin known as the “1804 Coin” (despite the fact it was struck in the early 1830s). It was commissioned by President Andrew Jackson to be used solely as diplomatic gifts. Less than 20 were ever minted, which is why when these elusive coins appear they can achieve million-dollar prices.

Surviving Examples

Even some US dollar coins originally minted in the millions are still considered rare because many do not survive to the present. Many US silver dollar coins have been melted down or simply lost over history, leaving even fewer surviving coins for collectors to acquire.

Condition

Considering US dollar coins were minted for daily use, it is easy to imagine that the wear-and-tear of many years of use can take its toll. Well-preserved coins will often sell at higher prices than those showing wear or damage (except for flaws in production, which can make certain coins even rarer – see below).

Design (Flaws)

Very often collectors seek out specific US dollar coins because of their design. For instance, some might seek out a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin because they are a fan of her work for women’s rights; others might seek out Gobrecht dollar coins because they appreciated his modifications to the coin’s imagery. Still others look for coins that are unique for the imperfections they showcase. US dollar coins showing evidence of minting mis-strikes or missing text are often coins collectors clamor for on the auction market.

Material

Many antique US dollar coins were crafted in silver, however, other precious metals like gold were also used, which can also influence the price.

Diving Into US Dollar Coins

We might think of coins as just change in our pockets, but the legacy of the US dollar coin reveals a fascinating look at the role of coinage, its design, and its symbolism across history. So, regardless of whether or not you are on the hunt for one of these rarest of US dollar coins, let this guide serve as inspiration to inspect the striking details of your next dollar coin a bit more carefully.


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