Where did the word “numismatics” come from? First documented as an English word in the early part of the 1800s, this word derived from a French adjective, numismatiques, which means "of coins." In turn, that word came from the Latin word for “coin.” The meaning of the word gets even more interesting when the Latin word gets traced back to the original Greek that it was borrowed from. After some iterations, the word came from the Greek nemō, or "I dispense or divide."


Know your U.S. coins: Sacagawea dollar

The Sacagawea dollar coin was first issued in 2000.

Images courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts

After years of trying to trying to downplay what many had considered one of the United States' greatest coinage failures, the U.S. Treasury Department on Oct. 21, 1997, did an about face. In testimony before the House Banking Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary Policy Nancy Killefer, assistant secretary for management and chief financial officer of the Treasury Department, for the first time in more than 17 years went on record encouraging production of a new circulating small-sized dollar coin to replace the Anthony dollar.

The driving force in changing Treasury's attitude was the eminent drawn-down of the government's stockpile of Anthony dollars, which Killefer estimated would be depleted within 30 months. The threat of depletion forced the question of what kind of dollar coin should be produced. Since its introduction in 1979, the public had not generally accepted the Anthony dollar and relatively few coins were drawn out of government reserves in the early years. However, in 1994, demand for Anthony dollars increased, due to an acceptance by several metropolitan transit systems and the installation of 9,000 stamp vending machines by the U.S. Postal Service that accepted Anthony dollars and dispensed them as change for paper currency. Both Killefer and Mint Director Philip Diehl, who also testified before the House panel, advised against simply making more Anthony dollars. Instead they supported legislation to mint a new, gold-colored coin with a distinctive edge. Actual production of a new coin, Diehl said, would require time for the Mint to research and test coin alloys and suitability for use in commerce, as well as to gear up the production facilities. He estimated the Mint needed approximately 30 months of lead time.

For more than a decade, the Dollar Coin Coalition – a lobbying group supported by the vending machine and mining industries – had tried to bring about circulation of the small-sized dollar coin by forcing withdrawal of the $1 Federal Reserve note. Most government and private studies, both in the United States and abroad, had determined that a dollar coin would not gain full acceptance if a $1 note remained in circulation.

Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., chairman of the monetary policy subcommittee and chief sponsor of the United States $1 Coin Act of 1997 (the subject of the Oct. 21 hearing), readily acknowledged that withdrawing the paper dollar would greatly enhance the integration of the dollar coin into general commerce, but he recognized that political and social realities precluded the government from taking action that the public would view as heavy-handed. By side-stepping the issue of whether to withdraw the dollar note, Castle's legislation encountered virtually no opposition. He later combined his dollar coin proposal with legislation authorizing the 50 State quarters initiative (PL105-124) and the multifaceted bill was signed into law by President Clinton on Dec. 1, 1997.

The new law was specific: "The dollar coin shall be golden in color, have a distinctive edge, have tactile and visual features that make the denomination of the coin readily discernible, be minted and fabricated in the United States, and have similar metallic, anti-counterfeiting properties as United States coinage in circulation on the date of enactment of the United States $1 Coin Act of 1997." It also stated forthrightly that "Nothing in this Act or the amendments made by this Act shall be construed to evidence any intention to eliminate or to limit the printing or circulation of United States currency in the $1 denomination."

While that stipulation temporarily put to rest the debate regarding coin versus paper dollar, controversy soon erupted over what designs should be on the coin. Many voiced the opinion that since Anthony was the only female honored on a circulating U.S. coin, she should be replaced by a female.

Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin established the Dollar Coin Advisory Committee to "consider design concepts for the obverse side of the new $1 coin and recommend to the Secretary of the Treasury a single such design concept."

Diehl chaired the committee as a nonvoting member and announced that the obverse would depict a female figure, either an allegorical representation or a historical figure. He noted that by law the reverse of the coin would be required to depict an eagle. Other members appointed to the committee by Rubin were Rep. Castle; Constance Berry Newman, undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution; Peggy Cooper Cafritz, vice chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities; Arthur Houghton, president of the American Numismatic Society; Hilario Candela, fellow and president of Spillis, Candela and Partners Inc., architects, and member of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities; artist and sculptor Edward Vega; Gail Shaffer, executive director of the Business and Professional Women U.S.A.; and Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity College.

The committee invited the public to submit design ideas and on June 8, 1998, convened the first session of a two-day public meeting in Philadelphia at which anyone could give a five-minute oral presentation. After listening to hours of presentations advocating nearly a dozen separate individuals, as well as themes of "Liberty" and "Peace," and after hours of sometimes lively discussion among the panelists the committee voted 6 to 1 to recommend that the obverse "depict Liberty as represented by a Native-American woman inspired by Sacagawea."

COIN VALUES: See how much Sacagawea dollar coins are worth today

Sacagawea or the "Bird Woman," a Shoshone who lived most of her life as a slave, was a native guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest from 1803 to 1806. Committee members did not offer how their suggested depiction should be accomplished other than to recommend that Native American artists and historians be consulted on the design. The committee also voted to recommend that the word "Peace" be included on the coin. The decision was a compromise, voting to honor a woman of history for whom there was no known likeness. Other finalists included Eleanor Roosevelt and black aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman.

Castle, the lone dissenter, introduced legislation July 24 seeking to override the panel's recommendation and to direct Rubin to select the Statue of Liberty for the design of the new dollar coin. However, his proposal failed to gain support and the Treasury went forward with a design contest based on the recommended theme. Mint sculptor-engravers as well as outside artists were invited to submit design sketches and some 121 obverse and reverse designs were submitted.

Nov. 16 through 18 in Washington, D.C., Mint employees, coin collectors, artists, historians and invited guests reviewed the submitted designs, offered comments and indicated their preferences to a Mint design selection committee. On Nov. 20, members of Congress, noted historians and authors, Treasury Department and Federal Reserve Board officials and others had their opportunity to comment about the proposed designs. A Mint design selection panel – whose members Mint officials declined to identify – narrowed the selection to six obverse and five reverse designs, which were posted on the Mint's Web site. The Mint design selection panel reconvened on Dec. 14 to narrow the selection to three obverse and three reverse designs before submitting them to the Commission of Fine Arts for review. The six designs, complete with final design recommendations from the Mint, were forwarded to Rubin in late December of 1998.

Five months later and to the beat of American Indian drums in a special White House ceremony May 4, 1999, the selected obverse was announced to be the work of Santa Fe, N.M., artist-sculptor Glenna Goodacre, whose design features a representation of Sacagawea looking back over her right shoulder, with her infant son, Jean Baptiste, strapped to her back. The winning reverse design was the work of U.S. Mint Sculptor-Engraver Thomas D. Rogers Sr. His design captures an eagle in full flight, its wings sweeping across the reverse field, and surrounded by 17 stars. The number of stars represents the states of the Union at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The 17th state, Ohio, was admitted in 1803. It would be the first time 17 stars would be used on a circulating U.S. coin denomination. Both Goodacre and Rogers attended the unveiling ceremony as did Goodacre's model for Sacagawea, Randy L'Teton.

The alloy composition for the Sacagawea dollar was unveiled Oct. 6, 1999, in New York City. Although golden in color, it contains no gold. Both the golden Sacagawea dollar and silver-colored Anthony dollars are clad coins, sharing a three-layer composite construction, with a pure copper core sandwiched between and metallurgically bonded to outer layers of alloy material.

The alloy layers on each side of the pure copper core of the Anthony dollar is copper-nickel, a material composed of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel, the same alloy that comprises the Jefferson 5-cent coin. With the Sacagawea dollar, the alloy layers on each side of the copper core are manganese bronze, a golden-colored alloy composed of 77 percent copper, 12 percent zinc, 7 percent manganese and 4 percent nickel.

Taking into account the pure copper core, the overall composition of the Sacagawea dollar is 88.5 percent copper, 6 percent zinc, 3.5 percent manganese and 2 percent nickel. The overall composition of the Anthony dollar is 87.5 percent copper and 12.5 percent nickel. The alloy used in the Sacagawea dollar was developed to match the electromagnetic signature of the Anthony dollar and thus did not require any retrofitting to be accepted by existing vending and transit authority machines.

Full-scale production of 2000 Sacagawea golden dollars began Nov. 18, 1999, at the Philadelphia Mint, moments after ceremonial first strikes. Mint Director Diehl also announced a series of all-out promotions to ensure the success of the Sacagawea dollars that would put 100 Sacagawea dollars in the hands of members of the general public even before the coins are placed in general circulation in March. Diehl also announced the Mint would be working with two major nationwide retailers who planned to use the Sacagawea dollars extensively in their over-the-counter operations, including using the sixth change slot in cash drawers for the new dollars instead of for rolls of other denominations. He also announced a joint promotion with General Mills that would place specially packaged Lincoln cents dated 2000 from the Philadelphia Mint in each of 10 million specially marked Cheerios boxes and also include a single, specially packaged Sacagawea dollar in every 2,000th box. At General Mills' insistence to further "sweeten" the promotion, Diehl said every 2,500th box, in addition to a 2000 Lincoln cent, would include a certificate than could be redeemed for 100 Sacagawea dollars struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The promotion was launched in January 2000 and put the coins into the hands of the general public a full two months before the scheduled circulation release.

Once placed in circulation, Diehl said an extensive four-month public awareness blitz would be waged via print, radio and television outlets to educate the public about using the new dollar coin.

Despite all of the Mint's efforts to entice use and circulation of the Sacagawea dollar coin, two years after its release, few Americans had ever encountered one in circulation. In 2002 the Mint curtailed production of circulation-quality Sacagawea dollars and began producing them only for collector products.

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:


Dimes and half dimes:


Half dollars:


Gold coins:

Community Comments

Numismatics is about more than just coins.

While many people use numismatics as a general term to refer only to the study of coins, this word actually refers to the study of all kinds of money. As such, it includes the study of coins and also paper bills, tokens, and other related objects that have been used as currency by various people throughout history, as well as noncurrency items like medals. Some kinds of money used at different points in history might surprise novice numismatists; for example, a culture might have used shells as a currency. 

Barter, or the trade of objects and services for other objects and services, has long been used in the marketplace and continues today. In some cases, the line between barter and currency still provides a topic of debate, but in most cases, articles about numismatics cover subjects like coins and paper money. Numismatics might become easier to comprehend by understanding the numismatic values of coins and paper money, and this refers to the value of a coin or note that is higher than the intrinsic or face value. In other words, this could also be called the collectible value. For example, a historical gold coin has an inherent value that is based upon its bullion value. It may also have a face value, or the actual value of the money assigned by the country that produced it. However, that same coin might be worth much more than the gold or the face value because it is rare, historically significant, beautiful, and/or designed by a famous artist.

Ultimately, understanding numismatics really depends upon understanding the nature of money. In the past, money might have been shells, gems, or precious metals. Today, most societies rely upon coins and paper money, but in this digital age, even that has begun to change as billions of dollars get exchanged every day electronically without the need for physical currency. Even more revolutionary, there are new digital currencies that have never been based upon any nation's physical currency. As it has in the past, it is likely that the study of numismatics will continue to evolve as currency evolves.