Silver Uncirculated Eisenhower
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The Presidential Dollars represent the latest attempt by the US Mint to circulate a one dollar coin in the United States.
It's a noble ambition... well, at least it's a worthy attempt to save some money. Dollar coins cost pennies to make, and they last a long, long time. Paper dollars don't cost much to make either, but they only last about six months on average.
Will the public actually use them? Does it matter?
The dollar coin has never been wildly popular with the public. Back in 1794, when the first US dollar coin was introduced, a dollar was a lot of money. People didn't need many of them day to day. That was fine. The fledgling US mint was initially a jury rigged establishment not known for its efficiency. Mintages were low.
And besides, the Spanish silver "piece of eight" was much more plentiful. It was recognized by the public as a coin made from good silver. The US Congress specified that the new American dollar coin be made to a specification very similar to that of the Spanish coin, which it also allowed to circulate as legal tender until 1857.
By the time the mint had developed into a more significant institution, with ample ability to produce coins of high quality in sufficient quantity, the need for the still large silver dollar was threatened, first by the Civil War, during which coins of all sizes were hoarded by the citizenry, and then, as an outgrowth of the wartime coin shortage, the growing acceptance of paper money. Paper dollars were more convenient, especially in the populous Eastern states.
Now, it's interesting to know, that even though the public, except at the gaming tables in Nevada, has never been fond of the "silver cartwheels" - the government has rarely let that stand in the way of dollar coin production. When silver mines overproduced during the 1870s, and the price of silver was falling, Congress passed legislation requiring that, for every paper dollar printed, a silver dollar would be struck.
And so they were - by the millions. But they didn't circulate, at least not in the quantities being produced. Most of the silver dollars of that era were put into canvas bags and stored in bank vaults.
Many were stored at the mint. I have personally observed the curved indentations made by these coins in the lead lined walls of a San Francisco Mint vault when I toured the building years ago. And when I was a kid in the 1950s, I could take a twenty dollar bill to my local bank and exchange it for a roll of twenty silver dollars. Many of these were in uncirculated condition with dates in the 1870s, 80s, and 90s!
By 1935 the mint had struck its last traditional 90% silver one dollar coin.
Moving ahead to 1971 a new dollar coin appeared. This was the Eisenhower dollar, which commemorated the first President remembered by most of the Boomer Generation. It was the same size as the old silver dollar, but at best, contained barely 40% silver. The first time I received "Ike" dollars in circulation was in 1972 at a gas station in California, just beyond the Nevada state line. It was the only time I ever saw them in change.
Then in 1979 we were offered another chance to love the dollar coin. Known by many as "The Suzy", the Susan B. Anthony dollar was not especially fetching. It had no silver content whatsoever and, it was very near the size of the quarter. Those who tried to spend them were often rebuffed as short changers by cashiers who had little time to scrutinize each coin for the piercing glance of Susan B.
The Sacagawea dollar coin of 2000 was unique in appearance. With its golden color it looked like no other US circulating coin - but to no avail. It didn't widely circulate either. The paper dollar still ruled!
Now in 2007 we have the Presidential Dollars which will be struck for four different presidents each year until all presidents who have been dead for at least two years have been honored. They are the same golden color as the Sacagawea coin, and so far, these too have failed to circulate. People love their paper dollars. And so far, Congress has not seriously considered retiring it. Even with the success of nearby Canada in circulating a dollar coin, success eludes the US coin.
Why has Canada managed to pull this off? No more Canadian paper dollars, that's why.
So, is the US Mint Director gnashing his teeth in frustration?
No, because the dollar coins are still successful economically, from the mint's perspective, even if none of them EVER circulated. This is because the mint spends a few cents to produce the dollar coin, but gets to carry the coin on its books at full face value. The difference is called seniorage. It makes the balance sheet at the mint a healthy shade of black, and helps to offset the ugly red numbers that come from making pennies and nickels!
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Silver Uncirculated Eisenhower