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Overkill At the United States Mint With New Coin Designs

This article was written by in Coin Collecting, Consumer. 27 comments.


In 1909, the U.S. Mint decided to honor assassinated President Abraham Lincoln by putting his likeness on the obverse of the lowest denominated coin in regular circulation, the cent. This new design, introduced for the centennial anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, replaced the “Indian head” cent. The model for this design was most likely not a native American; most sources point to Sarah Longacre, the daughter of the cent’s engraver, wearing an Indian-style head dress.

This was the first time a coin in this country would depict a political leader. Those who created the first coinage in the country several centuries prior desired to distance this country from the monarchies of the Old World, where it was common for state leaders to decree their countries’ coinage should depict their images. American coins, for the most part, would depict a representation of “liberty” until the introduction of the Lincoln cent.

Public reaction

The design change in that year drew mixed emotions among the public. Some welcomed the change. As A.A. Leve wrote on August 15, 1909, in his letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1909, “… [T]he long line of illustrious Americans on our coins will have more education and patriotic influence on the citizens of our country than all the biographies and histories ever combined.” At least in the coin collecting community, you often hear of long-time collectors using their coins to teach their children and grandchildren about American history, so Leve may have been correct.

But there was also dissent. C.F.H. also wrote to the New York Times in August of 1909:

… [T]he chief aim governing a plan to honor such a being as Abraham Lincoln should be to comply with what his wished might be were he given full opportunity to express them. For, in failing to take account of so important a factor, such an honor as that involved in the new product of the mints of this freedom is left incomplete.

To think that Lincoln would find progress expressed in the recent insult to our National symbol of liberty, the “Indian head” on the cent, which, though it might be improved upon, should always remain, is inconceivable.

Throughout the twentieth century, the U.S. Mint was judicious in changing designs on coins. But over the past decade, they, and Congress who has been authorizing these changes, have been on a tear. Although the government’s stated purpose was to incite interest in coins again, it is clear that the U.S. Mint would much rather function like the Franklin Mint, releasing new products as often as possible so they can collect money from coin collectors.

The beginning of redesign overkill

First we had the State Quarters program, which began in 1999. Five new designs would adorn the reverse of the quarter dollar each year for ten years. The artistic and metaphorical engravings of prior centuries were replaced with run-of-the-mill images of whatever each state could come up with to commemorate itself. In 2000, the dollar coin came back in full force with the Sacagawea dollar.

The next coin to be awarded a new design was the nickel in 2004. This year saw two different designs for the reverse. In 2005, two more new reverse designs were used, as well as a new portrait of Thomas Jefferson on the obverse. The following year, the Mint found yet another portrait of Jefferson for the obverse and returned to the pre-2004 reverse.

In 2007, the Mint began a new dollar coin design in addition to the Sacagawea coin. To satisfy Presidents other than those already depicted on coinage, every American President would get a chance to appear on the dollar coin. Four new designs have been released every year since 2007, each with a portrait of a President, released in the order they took office.

The Mint couldn’t go another year without announcing something new, so in 2008 they decided to follow the State Quarters series with additional designs, including representations of D.C., Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Northern Mariana Islands.

Are we done yet? No. This year is the centennial anniversary of Lincoln’s first appearance on the cent. If you’ve looked carefully at your change this year, you may have noticed new penny designs.

A better idea

It’s time to stop commemorating people on our coins. Let’s go back to artistic designs depicting the idea of liberty, like this beautiful engraving of “walking liberty” by Adolph A. Weinman or another liberty engraving by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Choose one design for each coin and stick with it for a long time, at least one generation and perhaps more than two. Give the public some time to get used to each design.

Continuous design changes don’t make coin collecting interesting for the long term. And for those interested in investing, I doubt that collecting any new coins will ever be financially worthwhile due to the vast quantities that are minted each year. All that is left for collectors besides the coin’s face value is the art. It might as well be good art rather than homages to elected leaders.

The Lincoln Cent (Letter to the Editor), A.A. Leve, The New York Times, August 15, 1909.
The Lincoln Cent (Letter to the Editor), C.F.H., The New York Times, August 6, 1909.

Updated January 26, 2011 and originally published October 8, 2009. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar ctreit

I have to admit that I like new coin designs. Not that I collect them, but it feels refreshing to hold a new coin in my hands. I really liked the 50 states quarters when they first came out. These quarters made me feel connected to the other 49 states when I saw what mattered the most in one particular state.

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avatar Ken

With all these designs, I’m surprised we’re not seeing more errors like those errors that occurred in the Wisconsin quarters. That does make coin collecting more interesting.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,465 (Platinum)

The mint process is much more controlled than it used to be. Quality control is usually very strong, so there isn’t as much of a chance of errors anymore. The Wisconsin quarters issue was a strange exception, so much so that I’m willing to believe someone at the Mint wanted to attract some attention.

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avatar mbhunter

When the Presidential $1 coins started up, the minting process was new. There were a lot of Washington $1 errors. Not nearly as many in the subsequent ones.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,465 (Platinum)

I agree, the Mint threw themselves for a loop with the new process for the Presidential $1 coins.

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avatar Tom Dziubek

I dunno Flexo, I think the redesigns are a lot of fun and they breathe some life into the coin collecting industry. Nobody really took much interest in collecting quarters until the state designs came out.

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avatar Jim

I really like all the different designs. But then I’m a collector. Boils down to personal opinion and I’m sure some people dislike change and people either like or dislike having presidents or generic stereotype women in togas. Aside from personal tastes though… Whats the downside of multiple designs? I really don’t see it having any real negative consequences.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,465 (Platinum)

Part of the reason I feel this way is because I *am* a collector. The Mint is now in the business of making collector’s items rather than circulating coins. It’s just like baseball cards in the early 1990s. Too many designs, too much production, and a Mint that gears its products towards collectors all devalue the idea of collecting, in my opinion.

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avatar Evan

Flexo,

If they didn’t redesign – how would so many people justify their jobs?

/sarcasm

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avatar Robert

How about this: One coin, one design? Not such a bad idea, huh?

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,465 (Platinum)

I would be fine with that!

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avatar mbhunter

One thing that’s a bit under the radar on this whole thing: If people are collecting these coins, they’re not spending them into circulation. So there is $X million in “circulation” but it really isn’t, so prices aren’t rising as fast as they might be due to inflation of the money supply.

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avatar Hilde

You should be happy that you don´t live in the Euro-zone. Here, each of the 15 or so contries designs the obverse of its coins. You can find everything from artistic depictions to stick figures. At least the bills are all the same.

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avatar weasle94

I enjoy collecting and the new coins are a lot more fun due to the varities. They do try to produce too many different ones. There needs to be a balance. ,but I donot want to go back to looking for errors etc. as the main differences .(1964 and below)

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avatar Kristen from FiLife

Over at FiLife we use images of coins for users who don’t upload a picture. Almost all of the images depict white men. I wish the Mint would design coins representing a more diverse group of people.

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avatar Stephanie PTY

I spent several months in a high school Latin class cleaning and identifying real Roman coins that were dug up out of the ground in Europe. (Fun fact: the reason so many of these coins are in the ground is that there were no central banks in Roman time, of course. So what’s a soldier to do with his payment of coins? Bury it in the ground!) Roman coins almost always depicted a ruler or political figure on them. I have no trouble with idea of continuing that tradition in modern America.

Also, I’m a bit of an amateur coin collector, and I really like seeing all of the different designs.

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avatar From a Designer

What if I were a government appointed official who was in charge of the alphabet, say the secretary of language perhaps, and I decided to change what the letters looked like five times a year, would that be beneficial?

A coin’s design visually communicates a numeric value. It is quicker to count or “read” money that remains constant. Changing a coin’s design contributes to the illegibility of currency. The first time I came across a new 5 cent piece I thought is was a foreign coin. I didn’t know what it was. I see people have to take a second look when I pay for something with those new dollar coins as well. It is obvious they have trouble reading them, too.

Now as to why the government wants it’s currency to be confusing, I will leave that to another person to comment on…

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avatar david

Coinage reflects the character of a nation. I am a life long numismatist and though many of the designs are very good the constant redesign of our coins and currency have reached a saturation point. Current coinage suggests that we have no direction as a nation.

Long term classical design would restore confidence in how we earn and spend money.

Abolish the federal reserve system and return to our constitutional standard of gold and silver!

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avatar From a Designer

There are now 56 new “America the Beautiful” quarter designs to be released in addition to the state quarters for a grand total of 112 different designs for the same coin. I wonder if that makes counterfeiting more difficult … or easier.

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avatar Jason Stevenson

After reflecting on all of these design changes one question came to mind. How much do all of these redesign projects cost taxpayers or the federal government. Im sure they spend tons on research, design commitees, advertisement, creating new templates, etc. Spending any money on programs like this is just plain stupid when the government promises to lower taxes and its own spending. In regards to original designs that have stood the test of time, if it aint broke dont fix it!

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avatar bubba

All these redesigns don’t cost the taxpayer anything. The Mint is responsible for the expenses and the Federal Reserve buys the coins from the Mint at face value. The coins earn the Mint a mint because every commemorative coin is purchased by millions of coin collectors. It is win/win.

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avatar William

Of course these redesigns DO cost the taxpayer. From the Mint’s annual report, “Seigniorage is the difference between the face value and cost of producing coinage. The Mint transfers seigniorage to the Treasury General Fund to help finance national debt.” Therefore, if the Mint’s costs are higher (due to frivolous spending on new coin designs), seigniorage is decreased and less is available to pay down the national debt.

Redesigning coins is recklessly wasteful, and serves as yet another example of our stupid, bloated government acting irresponsibly. Our government seems to be good at exactly one thing: inventing new ways to spend other people’s money.

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avatar William

More evidence that the US Mint is wasting tax dollars:

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/us-mint-wasting-money-making-money/story?id=14052997#.UCxFAUKPU_B

The story doesn’t even mention the cost of designing the coins and setting up/maintaining the production facilities.

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avatar Brady

I have been thinking the same thing. I think the budget needs some spring cleaning. I decided to even write a post about it: http://bradymower.com/spring-cleaning-needed-for-the-us-budget/

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avatar Go Back to Artistic and Inspiring Designs

The Mint needs to stop playing roulette with our coin designs just to satisfy coin collectors! Our coins and currency should represent our Nation to it’s 300 million citizens and to the rest of the World. Not make collecting more interesting to the small minority of coin collectors out there.

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avatar STEPHENS

Will it be a problem for children to learn to make change with all the different coin designs?

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avatar Paula

My biggest problem with all the newly minted coins is that it is costly, and for a country with as huge of a deficit as we have and everyone complaining that we have to cut health & human services, why not cut out minting new coins? The coins we have work fine, and I’d rather make sure people have basic needs than carry a bright new shiny penny in my pocket that the government spent millions of dollars to mint, and which they have already said they are going to discontinue using soon. Can we flush any more of our taxpayer dollars down the toilet?!!

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