History of U.S. coinage: Designs

By , Coin World Almanac: Eighth Edition
Published : 06/10/15
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(Page 5 of 5)

The next members of the bullion coin family, the platinum American Eagles, stay near the tried-and-true designs of the past although the renditions are new. On the obverse, John Mercanti rendered a medium close-up view of the Statue of Liberty, but deliberately thinned Liberty’s lips and made other cosmetic changes. The reverse depicts a fairly realistic rendering of an eagle in flight with the sun in the background. In an interesting decision, Mint officials decided that beginning in 1998, the Proof versions of the platinum coin would depict a new reverse design every year for five years. The original reverse design remains in use on the bullion versions of the coins.

As the 1990s came to a close, the most exciting news for collectors was a decision to introduce new designs into circulation on a regular basis. For years, hobbyists and others had called for new designs on circulating coins. However, for decades, Mint officials had publicly opposed the idea, stating that to change coinage designs would cause hoarding of the old designs, thus generating a coinage shortage. However, that policy briefly changed in April 1988 when Mint Director Donna Pope, appearing before the Senate Banking Committee, reported that the Treasury had no major objections to a bill calling for the redesign of all circulating U.S. coins.

Congress had split over the redesign issue. The Senate had supported the measure for years, having passed redesign legislation more than a half dozen times. Redesign advocates found a champion in Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif. Cranston made the coinage redesign issue his last great issue. He retired at the end of the 102nd Congress at the end of 1992.

The House of Representatives, however, long opposed coinage redesign as unnecessary and unwanted by a majority of the American public. Again and again the House voted down redesign legislation. At one point in early 1992, it appeared as though the Senate and House had reached agreement on coinage redesign. The measure was added to an omnibus coin bill seeking a variety of commemorative coins for 1992 and beyond. However, on the day the vote was scheduled, someone on Capitol Hill began spreading the false rumor that the legislation would eliminate “In God We Trust” from U.S. coinage. The House defeated the bill because of the false rumor.

Finally, however, Congress changed its mind and authorized limited coinage redesign through the 50 States circulating commemorative quarter dollar program. Fifty new reverse designs were introduced over a 10-year period beginning in 1999 at a rate of five per year, one approximately every 10 weeks.

New designs were used on the new dollar coin introduced in January 2000. An unusual mixture of allegorical and historical themes were used, with the coin depicting an allegorical image of Sacagawea, the teenaged interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and her baby. This design concept was selected after unprecedented public discourse on the subject on June 8 to 9, 1998, in Philadelphia. Members of the public were invited to speak before a panel empowered to recommend coinage designs for the dollar coin. Artists, coin collectors and others recommended such subjects as Eleanor Roosevelt, allegorical portraits of Liberty and other themes, with the Sacagawea-inspired theme selected by the panel. The decision was controversial, since no portrait of Sacagawea exists. (The reverse depicts an eagle.)

Additional design changes were made during the first two decades of the 21st century, as circulating commemorative coin programs became something of the norm. (See the U.S. Commemoratives chapter for details.)


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