The Birth (and Death) of the Modern Small Dollar
Of all of the coins struck over the long career of the United States Mint, no coin had as much support from the federal government only to see it immediately cast aside upon release as the Susan B. Anthony dollar. Even the Morgan dollar, a large clunky silver coin that went largely unused in much of the country, stayed in service long enough to make America’s silver mining interests wealthy.
Once proclaimed the “dollar of the future” but quickly derided as the “Carter quarter” or the “Agony dollar”, the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin came into being after President Jimmy Carter signed its authorizing act into law on October 10, 1978. The coin had unanimous support in the United States Senate, which voted on August 22, and passed the House of Representatives by a 368-38 vote on September 26.
Congress and the Treasury Department saw the small dollar as a practical alternative to the large cartwheel Eisenhower dollar, which was produced to great fanfare and large numbers but relatively little circulation.
The Anthony coin was created after a series of outside studies and Treasury reports.
In 1975, the U.S. Mint commissioned the Research Triangle Institute to look into the efficacy of the United States’ current coinage and its various metallic compositions. This review came one year after the Mint struck cents in an experimental aluminum alloy attempting to reduce the cost of producing one-cent coinage. One of the RTI’s findings was that the large size and weight of the U.S. one-dollar coin denomination was detrimental to that coin’s circulation, so the RTI recommended the production of a dollar coin with a size in between that of the quarter and the half dollar.
A year later, the Treasury commissioned its own study, which resulted in the publication of a report titled, “A New Small Dollar Coin: Technical Considerations”.
With the Treasury testing design concepts, Treasury Chief William E. Simon published a “State of Coinage Report” wherein he advocated for a small dollar coin.
Also in 1976, Federal Reserve Governor Philip E. Coldwell supported the coin, seeing cost savings for the Treasury in excess of $4.5 million over the Eisenhower dollar–more, if they were struck to replace the $1 Federal Reserve Notes.
The Treasury saw the new mini-dollar as a boon to the vending industry as well, which could offer a new range of products with the new smaller coin. The American Bankers’ Association, however, voiced opposition to the idea, citing the government’s “piecemeal approach to the nation’s circulating coin and currency system” and suggesting without a clear policy and public information campaign that the project was doomed to fail.
Interestingly enough, the Treasury Department, despite its internal optimism, foresaw many of the coin’s shortcomings as the project came closer to fruition.
Former U.S. Mint Director Philip Diehl, who oversaw the release of the Susan B. Anthony small dollar replacement, the Sacagawea dollar, in the 2000s, said in an interview that several design recommendations were ignored by the Mint when the coin went into production. For starters, experts had recommended that the coin be a different color than the quarter, have a different edge, and that the Mint should undertake a massive advertising campaign to promote the coin. All three of these concerns were ignored in the final product.
In theory, the Susan B. Anthony was meant to be 11 sided. The vending industry lobbied against this on the grounds that their machines were designed to accept round coins and therefore the 11-sided dollar coin would require an expensive refit of their machines.
The Mint ultimately backed down from this idea and instead kept the 11-sided polygon as a design embellishment on the rim of the coin. The Susan B. Anthony dollar also came with a reeded edge, which made the new dollar coin and the quarter confusingly similar in size, shape, and appearance.
Upon release, the National Automatic Merchandising Association took a wait-and-see approach to the new coin to determine whether the public would accept it before the trade organization and its members bore the expense to update their machines. After the enthusiasm around the coin’s launch gave way to apathy and indifference, the vending industry pulled its support.
Rejecting Allegory and Political Shifts Away from Feminism
Although many women have made substantial contributions to the nation, they’ve all fallen short of the presidency. To depart from the past precedent of using “Miss Liberty” would surely invite unnecessary controversy.
—W. Michael Blumenthal, Secretary of the Treasury (January 23, 1977 – August 4, 1979)
The Susan B. Anthony dollar was the first circulating coin to honor a non-mythical woman. Although the Isabella quarter of 1893 was struck to honor Spain’s Queen Isabella and was sold as a souvenir at the Women’s Pavillion at the World’s Columbian Exposition, the coin was not intended to circulate as a regular U.S. coin. Even on this coin, with no known likeness of Queen Isabella to draw from, Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber had to imagine her likeness.
Placing the 19th-century suffragette and civil rights leader on the obverse of the new dollar was not the Treasury’s original intent. Instead, the Department proposed that the new coin would feature an allegorical Liberty, whose likeness had dominated United States coins until former presidents and founding fathers began to accumulate on our coinage.
In line with the Treasury’s plan to use Liberty on the coin’s obverse, Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro created a design that was loosely based on the Flowing Hair cent design of 1794. Photographs of models made using this design, dated 1977, have been widely distributed in the numismatic media.
The coin’s authorizing legislation called for a different approach.
Ohio Representative Mary Rose Oakar (D), introduced a bill calling for a mini-dollar bearing the likeness of Susan B. Anthony. Oakar felt that allegorical representations of American womankind were not appropriate. Given the fact that American coins had featured the likenesses of presidents and founding fathers since 1909, Oakar’s position had historical justification.
Ultimately passed in a bipartisan fashion, Oakar’s bill garnered support from a panoply of women’s groups, including the League of Women Voters, Daughters of the American Revolution, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and the American Association for University Women.
Eventually, Gasparro, too, lent his support.
On the opposing side were a number of voices, including Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, who suggested that no woman’s accomplishments had reached the same level of importance as the presidency.
It is interesting to note, and perhaps coincidental, that at about the same time, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly had successfully lobbied the Republican Party to end its support of the Equal Rights Amendment, evoking a dystopian future where women were conscripted into the military and both sexes shared public bathrooms.
After President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the Mint silently concluded its production of the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin.
A Legacy Beyond Failure – The 1979-P
The Susan B. Anthony dollar marked the end of Frank Gasparro’s design imprint on circulating U.S. coinage. It was a sour note to go out on and it also marked an end to the era of powerful chief engravers at the Mint.
Gasparro was replaced in 1981 by Elizabeth Jones, but her tenure saw a total diminution of the position–which went unfilled for 16 years after her departure in 1990.
Although most Susan B. Anthony dollars dated 1979 were struck that year, the coin actually went into production on December 13, 1978. The inclusion of the P mintmark marked the first time coins struck at Philadelphia bore a mintmark since the silver-clad Jefferson nickels were struck from 1942-45. From this point on, the P mintmark would be used on all coins struck at Philadelphia with the exception of the cent.
As a collectible, the coin enjoyed a degree of success when the Mint introduced Susan B. Anthony coin sets in 1985 and was one of the most popular items in the catalog. The 1979-P dollar was sold in Mint Sets and was widely distributed into circulation. The bulk of the year’s 360,222,000 mintage, however, was held in storage for decades until most of the stock was released into circulation at the end of the 1990s.
When discussing the Susan B. Anthony dollar with CoinWeek, Chief Engraver John M. Mercanti passed on a curious, yet uncorroborated anecdote: When the design of the Susan B. Anthony was being reviewed by Ms. Anthony’s niece, the woman commented that Gasparro had made her appear too pretty. It seems that the Commission of Fine Arts felt the same way and asked Gasparro to present Anthony in a more realistic way during the coin’s design phase.
Value in Today’s Market
In circulated grades and in raw uncirculated condition, the Susan B. Anthony dollar has a minimal numismatic value over face. Given the effects of inflation over time, the typical Susan B. Anthony dollar is worth less today than when it was struck for circulation. Regardless, there are a number of criteria that make the 1979-P dollar potentially valuable. They are: Varieties and Errors, Premium Eye Appeal Authentic Toning, and Conditionally Rare High Grades (certified by NGC or PCGS).
The two major varieties of the 1979-P dollar are the Wide Rim and Narrow Rim varieties. Differentiating between the two can be difficult to the untrained eye, but the easiest method to identify the more valuable Wide Rim variety is to look at the roundness of the rim and the close proximity of the numerals 1 and 9 to the rim. On the Narrow Rim variety, the rim has been cut back, is sharper, and the 1 and 9 are farther away. In MS65 and MS66, the Wide Rim has a value of about $45-$50. At the conditionally-rare grade of MS67, this value jumps to over $1,600. The Narrow Rim is worth a fraction of these values, with a certified example in MS65-MS66 being worth less than the cost of submission (i.e., Terminal Grade) and the conditionally scarce MS67 being worth about $225.
Premium Eye Appeal Authentic Toning is scarce on clad coins, but it does happen on Susan B. Anthony dollars. The 1979-P seems to be especially prone to toning in pleasing rainbow colors, and high-grade examples with PQ color that have been certified by PCGS or NGC bring significant premiums. Beware, however, that unscrupulous sellers are known to use chemical agents to rapidly tone inexpensive coins in order to sell them on eBay. Any toned coin with color that is not certified by PCGS or NGC or sold through a reputable dealer should be treated as inauthentic.
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The obverse of the coin displays a right-facing portrait of Susan B. Anthony in a high-necked blouse or shirtwaist, her hair pulled back into a bun. The designer’s initials “FG” appear just below Anthony’s left shoulder. The rim is not denticled but instead consists of smooth but angular line segments that frame an 11-sided polygon (an undecagon or hendecagon for you trivia lovers). The word LIBERTY is at the top, the date at the bottom, and the national motto IN GOD WE TRUST in small letters to the right of Anthony’s chin. Thirteen five-pointed stars circle the inside of the rim, seven to the left and six to the right; those on the right are split into two three-star groups by the motto. A small “P” mintmark is located just above Anthony’s right shoulder.
The reverse features yet another take on the Michael Collins-designed mission patch of Apollo 11 – a mission that included mankind’s first steps on the surface of another planetary body (the moon). The 11-sided rim is repeated, framing a left-facing eagle with wings spread as if landing on the cratered surface of the moon pictured on the bottom third of the coin. The eagle is clutching an olive branch. Planet earth appears above and to the left of the eagle’s head, with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM just to the right at top center. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA encircles nearly the top half of the rim against the darkness of space, and ONE DOLLAR is at the bottom over the lunar landscape. Thirteen five-pointed stars form an arc around the eagle, below the top legend but above the earth and motto. Gasparro’s initials “FG” are also on the reverse, below the eagle’s tail feathers.
The edge of the 1979-P Susan B. Anthony dollar coin is reeded, as are all other issues of the type.
Year Of Issue:
1 Dollar (USD)
75% Copper, 25% Nickel
Frank Gasparro | Michael Collins