US Coins

Now, let’s change U.S. coin designs: The Memory Bank

Then-Director of the United States Mint Donna Pope testifies before Congress in 1988 at a hearing about U.S. coinage designs.

Coin World file photo.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew’s April 20 announcement that for the first time in more than a century the face of a U.S. paper money denomination will feature the portrait of a woman — Harriet Tubman — marks a historic turning point in the way top government officials, especially within the Treasury Department, view the role of the subject matter portrayed on our money. In fact, the introductory statement at the Treasury Department’s website detailing the upcoming design changes for the $20, $10, and $5 Federal Reserve notes is revolutionary:

“America’s currency is a state­ment about who we are as a nation. Our modern money honors our history and celebrates our values.”

I have only one quibble. The last sentence should read: “Our modern money will honor our history and celebrate our values.”

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We are not there yet. The announced design changes are four to five years from rolling off the BEP’s presses.

Twenty-eight years ago, when I and others from the hobby testified before the Senate Banking Committee urging Congress to approve legislation to authorize new designs for the five coin denominations in circulation, Mint Director Donna Pope initially espoused the view that the presidential portraits on the nation’s coins were “time honored” and need not be changed. Later she pivoted to “Treasury would have no objection” if Congress chose to change the designs.

In testimony before the Senate committee, I pointed out that our coins are our nation’s calling cards to the world, advocating that they should honor men and women who have played a role in our nation’s development or depict events that speak to our shared values and ideals. I noted that a thousand years hence, should our coins be the only survivors of our civilization, archeologists would likely conclude that America during the 20th century was a male-dominated society ruled by successive Caucasian kings. (A similar case could be made for 20th and early 21st century paper money. The paper money would be helpful in identifying the “kings” because the notes bear the names of those in the portraits, whereas circulating U.S. coins remain nameless.)

In announcing his decision, Lew acknowledged the role the Internet and social media played in Treasury’s decision, noting that he had received “more than a million responses via mail and email, and through handwritten notes, tweets, and social media posts.”

The drive to bring new designs to our coins in the late 1980s and early 1990s originated in the numismatic community and largely remained there. Had social media existed then, our circulating coins would likely today bear different designs. It’s not too late. Coins should be the next campaign!

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