US Coins

Road to change circulating coin designs: From the Memory Bank

Secretary of the Treasury James A. Baker III, seen on his official U.S. Mint medal, was reluctant to engage in a political fight to remove presidents from coin designs.

Images courtesy of eBay seller stst201212 and the United States Mint.

Ironically the 1982 George Washington and 1983 to 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Coin commemorative programs launched a collector campaign for new designs for circulating coins.

During congressional hearings in 1981, the resumption of commemorative coins after a 28-year hiatus was hailed as the much-needed stimulus to bring new collectors into the market. But after the highly successful first two programs were completed, Coin World’s analysis of sales uncovered a surprise.

More than 90 percent of all of the commemorative coins had been purchased by collectors. Precious few were reaching the general public; thus, the hoped-for boost in coin collecting was proving to be a pipe dream.

It was time for a new approach.

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Collectors and hobby leaders began the conversation in a very public way through educational forums at major coin shows and in editorials and letters to the editor columns of the weekly numismatic publications.

Their thesis — that more people would become interested in coin collecting if they began seeing new designs in their pocket change — was rooted in their own collecting experiences and historical evidence. The U.S. Mint historically had produced much larger mintages of denominations with new designs the first year of issue because the public saved the new designs.

On paper, it appeared to be logical and tantalizingly simple. By 1985 the Washington quarter dollar, Roosevelt dime, Jefferson 5-cent coin, and Lincoln cent designs all had been in circulation more than 25 years, the threshold established by law at which the secretary of the Treasury has the authority to order new designs. The Kennedy half dollar was only four years away from meeting the requirement.

Although the Mint would have to create new designs and manufacture new dies to produce them, costs could be recouped through seigniorage and sales of numismatic products containing the new designs. The Mint could even make substantial profits.

James A. Baker III was President Reagan’s chief of staff during the first term and became secretary of the Treasury Feb. 2, 1985. When Commissioner of Fine Arts Diane Wolf broached the idea of new designs for circulating coins with Baker, he was cautious because he perceived it as controversial.

He saw the minefield: All five designs were portraits of presidents, each with political constituencies. Would removing or modifying their portraits on the coins create a public backlash and a firestorm in the Congress? He was not anxious to pick a fight with Congress over coinage designs.

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