History of U.S. coinage: Denominations

By , Coin World Almanac: Eighth Edition
Published : 06/10/15
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United States coinage history is a fascinating subject involving economics, politics, artistic expression, personal rivalry, technological breakthroughs, gold and silver discoveries and more. In short, the history of the country’s coinage is the history of the United States.


Since coinage began at the Philadelphia Mint in 1793, more than 20 denominations have been used as circulating, commemorative and bullion coins of the United States. In platinum, the denominations have been $100, $50, $25 and $10. In gold, the denominations have been $50 (commemorative and bullion coins only), $25 (the American Eagle bullion coin), $20, $10, $5, $3, $2.50 and $1. Among silver coins (many later changed to copper-nickel by the Coinage Act of 1965), there have been the silver dollar, the Trade dollar, the half dollar (50 cents), the quarter dollar (25 cents), 20-cent coin, dime (10 cents), half dime (5 cents) and 3-cent coin. The Mint has also struck copper-nickel 5-cent, 3-cent and 1-cent coins; a bronze 2-cent coin; cents in six different alloys; and a copper half cent.

The 1792 half disme was struck in small quantities for circulation, according to a report by George Washington, making it the first U.S. coin struck under the 1792 act. It was not struck at the Mint facility, which was still under construction, but was produced under the supervision of Mint officials at a Philadelphia business. Production of U.S. coinage began in earnest in 1793 with the production of copper half cents and cents. The Mint began striking silver half dimes, half dollars and dollars in 1794; and silver dimes and quarter dollars in 1796. Gold coinage began in 1795 with the $5 half eagle and the $10 eagle, followed by the $2.50 quarter eagle in 1796.

During the earlier years of the U.S. Mint, not all denominations were struck in all years. In 1804, coinage of the silver dollar ceased with the striking of 1803-dated coins; dollar coinage was not resumed until 1836. A few gold eagles were struck in 1804, but coinage of the $10 coin then ceased until 1838. No quarter eagles were struck from 1809 through 1820. Production of the other denominations was sporadic except for the cent; planchet shortages prevented any 1815-dated cents from being produced, although some 1816-dated pieces were struck in December 1815. (The British firm Boulton and Watt was the Mint’s supplier of copper planchets; the embargo on imports from Britain during the War of 1812 included a ban of planchet shipments, and thus the Mint finally exhausted its inventory in 1814. After the end of the war, shipments were resumed, the first arriving near the end of 1815.) Otherwise the cent series has been issued without interruption since 1793.

Meanwhile, as the country’s borders and population grew, the monetary system grew with them. The denominations authorized in 1792 were no longer sufficient to meet the country’s monetary needs at the midpoint of the 19th century. Congress authorized a gold dollar and a gold $20 double eagle, both under the Act of March 3, 1849. A silver 3-cent coin was authorized to facilitate the purchase of 3-cent postage stamps (Act of March 3, 1851). A gold $3 coin was introduced in 1854 (Act of Feb. 21, 1853), again to help in the purchase of 3-cent stamps (in sheets of 100). A smaller, copper-nickel cent was approved in 1857, replacing the pure copper large cent. The half cent was eliminated, also in 1857.

The Civil War erupted in 1861, causing massive hoarding of coinage and the necessity of coinage substitutes like encased postage stamps, privately produced copper-alloy cent-like tokens and finally, the first federal paper money, some notes in denominations of less than $1. More changes to U.S. coins began in 1864, when the composition of the cent was changed to 95 percent copper and 5 percent tin and zinc (bronze), and when a bronze 2-cent coin was introduced (both under the Act of April 22, 1864).

A copper-nickel 3-cent coin was issued in 1865 (Act of March 3, 1865) to circulate alongside the silver 3-cent coin (which was struck in decreasing numbers until the last coins were produced in 1873). A copper-nickel 5-cent coin was introduced in 1866 (Act of May 16, 1866); the silver half dime was eliminated after 1873.

The year 1873 brought significant, unprecedented changes to the U.S. coinage system. The Act of Feb. 12, 1873, is called by numismatic historian Don Taxay “the most exhaustive [coinage act] in our history.” Four denominations were abolished by the act: the 2-cent coin, the silver 3-cent coin, the half dime and the standard silver dollar. The act authorized a Trade silver dollar for use by merchants in Asia; Congress revoked the Trade dollar’s legal tender status in the United States in 1876. The weights of the silver dime, quarter dollar and half dollar were increased. In addition, the act, in effect, demonetized silver and placed the United States on a gold standard.

Another new denomination was authorized under the Act of March 3, 1875—the silver 20-cent coin. The coin was struck for circulation in 1875 and 1876, setting the record for the shortest-lived denomination in U.S. coinage history. Coinage of Proof 20-cent coins continued for collectors only in 1877 and 1878.

Meanwhile, the powerful silver interests in the United States, faced with the demonetization of silver left by the 1873 act, lobbied Congress. The result of that lobbying effort, the Act of Feb. 28, 1878, reinstituted the standard silver dollar abolished by the Act of Feb. 12, 1873. The specifications were unchanged from the silver dollar of 1837 to 1873. Obverse and reverse designs created by Mint Engraver George T. Morgan were selected for the dollar, today generally called the Morgan dollar (it was originally called the Bland or Bland-Allison dollar, after the names of the members of Congress responsible for the bill). Coinage of the Morgan dollar continued through 1904. Coinage denominations in use continued unchanged through 1889, when the gold dollar, $3 coin and copper-nickel 3-cent coin were struck for the last time.

The circulating silver dollar was resurrected twice for circulation: in 1921, to continue through 1935; and in 1965, although the 1964-D Peace silver dollars struck in 1965 were all destroyed before being placed into circulation. The government had withdrawn support for the coins and wanted to ensure that none inadvertently entered circulation or collector circles. Tales that Mint employees were allowed to purchase the coins before the order canceling their distribution are apparently rumors; there is no credible, verifiable evidence that any of the coins survive. The copper-nickel clad dollar was introduced in 1971, with a design honoring President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Apollo 11 lunar mission. A smaller dollar (the Anthony dollar) was issued briefly from 1979 to 1981 and again in 1999. A new Anthony-dollar sized dollar coin made of a manganese brass clad composition and depicting Sacagawea entered circulation in 2000 but like the coin it replaced, failed to circulate widely; production from 2002 to 2008 was for numismatic sales only. In effort to both replicate the popularity experienced for the State quarter dollars program and to encourage broader circulation of a dollar coin, a Presidential dollar program was started in 2007. The coins are struck on the same manganese-brass clad planchets used for the Sacagawea dollars. Four coins are issued annually, with all deceased presidents to be so honored (as long as the president has been dead for at least two years before the issuance of a coin depicting him). Each coin depicts one of the presidents on the obverse and a standard Statue of Liberty design on the reverse. Many of the inscriptions were moved from the obverse and reverse to the edge: the date, Mint mark and the mottoes e pluribus unum and in god we trust. Slightly different configurations of edge inscription elements were used in 2007 and 2008, with the 2007 coins bearing two stops (•) and the 2008 coins, three stops. Congress, which had ordered the use of edge inscriptions, reversed itself partially in 2008 and ordered in god we trust moved from the edge to the obverse or reverse. Tens of thousands of error George Washington dollars were released into circulation without edge inscriptions, prompting complaints from some in the religious communities about “Godless” dollars. In addition, some felt that the religious motto deserved more prominence than its position on the edge. The motto was moved to the obverse starting in 2009 though the other edge inscriptions remain. Thirteen stars were added to take the place of the relocated motto and the “stops” were removed.

Despite the hopes of backers of the legislation creating the Presidential dollars, the coins do not circulate widely. The mintage for the George Washington coin is the highest by far, with mintages of later releases declining.

In yet another attempt at getting a dollar coin to circulate and to use circulating coins for commemorative purposes, the Sacagawea dollar was rebranded as the Native American dollar in 2009, with the retained obverse being joined by an annual commemorative reverse. The series is designed to commemorate the accomplishments and contributions of Native Americans. Although Congress intended the Native American dollars to circulate, the Federal Reserve has ordered none for circulation as of early 2011. They are only available directly from the Mint.

The standard silver dollar lives on in commemorative coinage, with dozens of different commemorative dollars struck since 1983. In addition, there is a 1-ounce silver bullion coin that bears a $1 denomination, introduced in 1986 as part of the American Eagle bullion program.

Since the Mint Act of 1875, only three new denominations have been authorized, none for circulation. A gold $50 coin was approved to commemorate the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition being held in San Francisco. More than 70 years later, in 1986, the $50 denomination was revived for the American Eagle bullion program. That same legislation (Act of Dec. 17, 1986, Public Law 99-185) also approved the United States’ first $25 coin, the American Eagle half-ounce gold bullion coin. A $100 denomination was given to the American Eagle 1-ounce platinum bullion coin, introduced in 1997.

The last gold denominations struck for circulation occurred in 1933, when coinage of the eagle and double eagle ceased under President Franklin Roosevelt’s anti-gold executive orders. The gold quarter eagles and half eagles were last struck in 1929. All gold coins struck since 1984 have been commemorative or bullion coins.

A new, supersized version of one of the original denominations authorized in 1792 was introduced in late 2010 as part of the America the Beautiful quarter dollars program. The act authorizing the commemorative quarter dollars also ordered production of 3-inch, 5-ounce .999 fine silver bullion coins. The designs of the regular America the Beautiful quarter dollars and the larger bullion coins, also denominated a quarter dollar, are the same, though the bullion pieces have an additional inscription on the edge identifying the bullion content of the coin.


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