Most U.S. coins encountered by collectors will likely be from the twentieth century. This is a century of transition, a century in which the public would see first the demise of gold coins as currency, then the demise of silver coins, finally ending the century using nonprecious metal or fiat coinage (and bank notes) as money. Specie coins are those coins whose intrinsic and face value were meant to be equal, while fiat money is coinage and bank notes that do not contain and are not backed by precious metals.
The Nation to 1933
In 1906, the Denver Mint opened, followed by minor denomination coins being struck at branch mints for the first time only two years later. A minting facility would strike cents at West Point, but no mint mark would be applied, making them impossible to differentiate from the Philadelphia issue cents.
Do not confuse the D mint mark on coins! The Dahlonega mint only struck gold coins, and it closed in 1861. The D mint mark appearing on coins beginning in 1906 stands for Denver.
President Theodore Roosevelt impacted the future of our coinage directly. Roosevelt allegedly carried an ancient Athenian silver tetradrachm because he liked its artistic beauty. Roosevelt encouraged the redesign of our coinage that resulted in such classic designs as the Buffalo nickel, Mercury dime, Standing Liberty quarter, Walking Liberty half dollar, Indian Head Quarter Eagle, Half Eagle, and Eagle gold coins, and the St. Gaudens Double Eagle gold coin. Beginning in 1909 with the Lincoln cent, prominent Americans appeared on our circulating coinage.
Silver dollar production ceased after 1904 due to a lack of demand for the coins. The Pittman Act, passed in 1918, authorized needed silver to resume their production, which began in 1921 and continued through 1928 when supplies once again were exhausted. The silver dollar was revived one last time in 1934 to once again subsidize silver mine owners, but it ceased production permanently the following year.
Off the Gold Standard
Things changed rapidly following the Roaring Twenties, especially regarding the crash of 1929, the ensuing Great Depression, with subsequent events leading up to World War II. In 1929, the dimensions of paper money were reduced for economic reasons, with the country going off the gold standard by presidential decree in 1933. Gold coins were no longer legal as currency, and many of them were melted. It wasn't until 1974 that private ownership of gold was legal again in the United States.
The importance of paper money in the U.S. economy increased as gold coins no longer circulated. In 1934, the Federal Reserve banking system was implemented.
During World War II, certain metals were needed for the war effort, so alternate materials were used in the cent and nickel. Between 1942 and 1945, a copper-silver-manganese mix replaced the usual copper-nickel composition in the nickel, while during 1943, the normally 95 percent copper cent was produced of steel coated with zinc. Between 1944 and 1946 salvaged cartridge casings were used to make cents.
War nickels can be differentiated from other nickels by the large mint mark P, D, or S that appears above Monticello on the reverse.
Commemorative coinage was first introduced during 1892. By the 1930s so many commemoratives were being issued each year that the collecting public lost interest in the series, and the final commemoratives of this series were issued in 1954. The commemoratives issued through 1954 are considered to be the classic series, whereas the series beginning in 1982 is the modern series.
Proof sets were first offered during 1936, but ceased production after 1942 due to the war. During 1947, uncirculated mint sets were introduced, followed by the modern proof set in 1950. Both are issued annually and can be purchased directly from the U.S. Mint in the year of issue or from coin dealers at a later date.
Coinage Act of 1965
The next major event in twentieth-century U.S. coinage was due to the Coinage Act of 1965. This law took the United States off the silver standard. In 1965, the silver composition dime and quarter were replaced with copper-nickel coinage, and between 1965 and 1970, the 90 percent silver half dollar was replaced with a debased silver-clad half dollar. Beginning in 1971, the half dollar also became a copper-nickel coin. Silver certificate bank notes were still redeemable in silver through 1968, but after that date they were relegated to the status of legal tender at their face value.
The Dollar: Paper or Metal?
During 1971 the circulating dollar coin was revived, however as a copper-nickel coin. After 1987, the traditional 38.1 millimeter diameter dollar size was replaced with the Susan B. Anthony dollar. This coin was so similar to the quarter in diameter, color, and weight that it was never popular; however when German bankers discounted its value at coin exchanges during 1980 the future of the coin was doomed. The Susan B. Anthony dollar was struck between 1979 and 1981, with additional coins struck in 1999 to fill inventory while the new golden color Sacagewea dollar coin was being prepared for issuance the following year.
The dollar denomination coin didn't circulate well when it was composed of silver. It hasn't fared well as a nonprecious metal coin either.
While other countries have forced a coin of a similar denomination into circulation by withdrawing its paper equivalent, the United States has steadfastly continued to issue dollar bills simultaneously for political reasons. This is likely why the dollar coin fails to circulate.
The Sacagewea dollar coin met with resistance from the public. During 2000 and 2001, a significant number were produced, but most found their way to Ecuador once that nation dropped its own currency system in favor of the U.S. dollar. Sacagawea dollar coins struck beginning in 2002 were primarily made for collectors.
Modern Commemorative Coins
Beginning in 1982 the United States resumed commemorative coin issues. Collectors generally consider the commemoratives of 1892 to 1954 to be a separate series from this so-called “modern” commemorative series.
The commemoratives first issued in 1982 are noncirculating legal tender issues. Beginning in 1999, the United States joined a growing number of countries issuing circulating commemoratives as well. The statehood quarter coinage program is a ten-year program available in proof and mint sets, but also available from circulation. Its introduction created a renewed interest in coin collecting within the general public.