The coinage of the United States tell some truly fascinating stories about America’s heritage. To hold a US coin in the palm of your hand can feel as though you are literally holding a piece of history.
I have always been intrigued by American coins, but there are so many that it is a difficult decision knowing which ones you should own.
But, after some research, I have discovered what I believe to be some of the most interesting coins from the past 120 years of US numismatic history.
While they aren’t necessarily the best coins out there, they are certainly the ones with the most intriguing stories behind them…
1. Columbian Half Dollar (1892-1893)
The 1892 Columbian Half Dollar was the first ever commemorative coin issued in the United States. It was intended to raise money to fund the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893 – each half dollar was sold with a 50 cent surcharge which went towards the project. The design pays tribute to the 400th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492.
2. Walking Liberty Half Dollar (1916-1947)
Struck from 1916 until 1947, the Walking Liberty Half Dollar is sometimes referred to as the most beautiful circulating American coin. Its design, by Adolph A. Weinman, owes more to sculpture than functionality, and was critically acclaimed upon its issue. In respect of its status, the design has been reprised as the obverse of the current ‘Eagle’ series of Silver Bullion coins, making it one of the most recognisable designs in American numismatic history.
3. Peace Dollar (1921-1935)
The Peace Dollar was proposed as a lasting commemoration after the tragedies of World War I. It was also the last ever Silver US coin struck for circulation. Featuring an eagle clutching an olive branch above the word ‘peace’ on the reverse, the coin was not without controversy. Word escaped that the design was to include a broken sword next to the eagle, but this was seen as a symbol of defeat. Public outcry stopped the design, but the dies had already been finished. Remarkably, amendments were carried out so skilfully that for 85 years it remained a secret that the sword had ever been engraved onto the coin.
4. Kennedy Half Dollar (1964-Present)
One of the most poignant American coins, this Half Dollar was commissioned just months after Kennedy’s assassination, and was in circulation by 1964 – a remarkable feat of planning and design. Your version is one of the very first coins struck, and contains 90% silver content. The combination of the emotional resonance of the coin with the silver content led to extensive hoarding and from 1965 the silver was reduced and eliminated entirely in 1971.
5. Eisenhower Dollar (1971-74 & 1977-78)
This coin was proposed in 1969 as a commemoration of two major events that occurred that year. The first was the passing of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the second was the success of the Apollo II mission landing on the moon. The coin was eventually released in 1971 and features an interpretation of the Apollo II insignia on the reverse and Eisenhower’s effigy on the obverse. There is speculation that the production of this coin was encouraged by lobbying from the Gambling industry, who wanted a large dollar coin in circulation for use in their casinos.
6. Standing Liberty Quarter (1916-1930)
The Standing Liberty Silver Quarter was first minted in late 1916 and instantly became America’s most scandalous coin. The designer was famed sculptor Hermon A MacNeil, and he used Broadway actress Irene MacDowell as the model for Lady Liberty. However, Liberty was shown with an exposed breast – and the Society for the Suppression of Vice was very vocal about the coin being immoral and obscene. There was such an uproar that the U.S. Mint was forced to change the design in 1917 to cover Liberty’s breast with a chain-mail shirt.
Two weeks since America went to the polls, the history of its coinage is as rich and as varied as that of its presidents. Discover why I believe these are 12 of the United States most iconic coins of the last 150 years …
1. Indian Head Cent (1859 – 1909) – the first coin of America’s single currency issued surprisingly late in 1859. The cent in circulation today is still the same size and the design has only changed once in over 150 years
2. Two Cent Piece (1864 – 1873) – the first coin to bear the inscription ‘In God We Trust’ which became the US’s official motto in 1956 and now appears on most of America’s coins
3. Morgan Silver Dollar (1878 – 1921) – arguably the most famous American coin ever despite the fact it was designed by an Englishman born in Birmingham – Mr George T. Morgan
4. Columbian Half Dollar (1892 – 1893) – America’s first ever commemorative coin issued to raise money for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Design marks 400th
anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492
5. Lincoln Cent (1909 – 1958) – first introduced in 1909 in honour of the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and became famous as the first US coin to feature a recognisable public figure
6. Buffalo Nickel (1913 – 1938) – underwent a design change in 1913 but during the Great Depression (1929-39) many coins were hoarded making them incredibly sought-after today
7. Standing Liberty Quarter (1916 – 1930) – caused outrage when it was first minted as the designer depicted an exposed breast of the Broadway actress who modelled as Lady Liberty as part of the design. Such was the uproar, the US Mint changed the design in 1917
8. Mercury Dime (1916 – 1945) – so-called because the design was mistaken for Mercury, the messenger of the Greek gods, when it was in fact a young Liberty with a winged helmet. The name has stuck in almost 100 years
9. Walking Liberty Half Dollar (1916 – 1947) – often thought of as America’s most beautiful coin due to Adolph A. Weinman’s exquisite design which was later used on the ‘Eagle’ Silver Bullion coins
10. Lincoln Steel Cent (1943 only) – to preserve Copper reserves during WWII, in 1943 the Lincoln Cent was struck in zinc-plated steel but problems such as rusting saw a return to copper the following year
11. Kennedy Half Dollar (1964 – present) – in circulation by 1964 just months after the President’s assassination but the high silver content led to extensive hoarding and by 1971 was eliminated completely
12. Delaware State Quarter (1999 only) – the first in a remarkable series of coins designed to boost Americans’ interest in numismatics. ‘Delaware’ was the first specially themed ‘State’ quarter and sparked the collecting phenomenon of the decade
Are we missing something?
Is there another American coin that you think should be part of this list?