US Coins

Monday Morning Brief for Dec. 17, 2018

Collectors generally are unhappy that the date on the American Innovation dollars will be placed on the edge and not the obverse.

Original images courtesy of the United States Mint.

When the subject of edge lettering on current United States coinage is raised, collectors are pretty much in lockstep in their opposition to placing the date and Mint mark on a coin’s third side rather than on the traditional obverse or reverse.

The opposition to placing those crucial design elements on the edge of the upcoming American Innovation dollars, as voiced in several letters on the opposite page, on collector-based social media, in this week’s “The Joys of Collecting” column by Q. David Bowers, and at other venues, is pretty universal. Virtually no one likes it.

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In some of the letters I have received from readers and in email from other correspondents, much blame is directed at the United States Mint. But that is the wrong target. The various dollar coins with edge lettering issued since 2007 — the Presidential, Native American, and American Innovation programs — all had their edge devices specified in their respective authorizing legislation. 

At first, with the Presidential dollar programs, many collectors saw some merit to the idea of placing certain inscriptions, including the date, Mint mark and some of the mottoes on the edge. Doing so freed up valuable space on coins that were already “busy” with inscriptions identifying the depicted president and the dates of his term in office. 

For the Presidential dollar program, the first big opposition to the edge lettering came not from the collector community but instead from certain elements in the Christian religious community. The eight 2007 and 2008 coins had the motto IN GOD WE TRUST placed on the edge, as dictated in the legislation. Since that motto had previously appeared either on the obverse or reverse of all coins issued since the late 1930s, the change was jarring. Many noncollectors probably did not even look at the edge. Complaints about the “Godless” coins began appearing almost as soon as the coins entered circulation; chain email was shared in religious communities claiming that the motto had been removed from the coins. Such email chains are fairly common, with a common thread being that a government official had ordered the motto be removed.

Congress, which had mandated the placement of the motto on the edge, passed new legislation in 2007 requiring that the Mint move the motto to either the obverse or reverse. Although passage of the measure came too late to implement with the 2008 coins, the 2009 dollars and subsequent issues had the motto placed on the obverse. All subsequent legislation addressing edge inscriptions was worded to make sure that the motto IN GOD WE TRUST would remain in a more traditional position on coins like the Native American and American Innovation dollars.

But Congress did not abandon edge inscriptions. In a copy-and-paste approach to legislation-making, the two dollar programs that came after the Presidential?series included provisions for edge inscriptions, including requirements that the date and Mint mark appear on the edges of the coins.

Problem is, no one asked collectors what they thought of the idea. It has been years since Congress has conducted hearings on coin legislation, something that used to be routine when the collector community was granted opportunities to express their views on the merits of pending legislation. But those days are long past, unfortunately, and programs like the American Innovation dollar series continue policies that many collectors find deeply upsetting.

A noncollector might ask, why all of the fuss? Collectors tend to be completists, and many like to display their collections in albums or grading service slabs. When the date is placed on a coin’s edge, it cannot be seen when the coin is in its place in the hole of an album or in a slab. For collectors, that matters. That was not a big problem for the Presidential dollar series since they were issued in sequence, starting with George Washington and ending with the final president to be depicted on a coin the series, Ronald Reagan — a natural sequence that made issue dates less important.

With Congress indifferent to the opinions of the collecting community, there may be little that anyone can do to effect change to the American Innovation dollar program. A new Congress opens in January, with new committee and subcommittee leadership. Whether the collecting community can persuade congressional leaders to change how numismatic legislation is written and debated is anyone’s guess.

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