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.