Pennies and Quarters and Dollars, Oh My!

  Jerome Shea       August 5, 2008      Weekend Wonk

Long live the penny! And live long it probably will, despite Jim Kolbe’s efforts (see “A Nickel for Your Thoughts” and “A Penny Saved or a Penny Spurned?”). The U.S. Mint says that there are no plans to discontinue it. As to what it costs to make a penny—I first said 1.4 cents and then 1.7 cents—the actual cost seems only slightly less volatile than the commodities market (which may be no surprise). At this writing, however, it does cost more than a penny to make a penny. The folks at the mint say they are always working to bring that cost down. More power to them.

Still drawn to the change in my pocket, I started thinking about other coins, especially the quarter and the dollar. In this I was aided (abetted?) by my old friend Joe K. and by the U.S. Mint itself, which has an excellent website ( The mint’s facts and Joe’s opinions have kept me sputtering along since the last wonk.

My thoughts first turned to the state quarters series, begun in 1999 and due to finish up this year. I am keen on this because I am collecting them, with one of those big wall maps to display them. I now lack only Arizona, which is just out, and Alaska and Hawaii. I’ll bet you didn’t know that in 2009 there will be issues for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.). Some of the quarters are very handsome on the reverse, others a bit muddled or too visually busy for my taste. Connecticut is quite good: a simple depiction of the Charter Oak fills most of the reverse. Delaware, too, is clean, a depiction of Caesar Rodney, a mover and shaker from Delaware in Colonial times. He is astride a galloping horse, to commemorate—no, not the Pony Express—the famous 80 mile ride he made, through a “dark and stormy night,” from Delaware to Philadelphia to cast Delaware’s vote for independence. Poor New Hampshire. “The Old Man of the Mountain,” a rocky outcropping in the White Mountains that looks like the craggy (no pun) profile of an old man, has been synonymous with New Hampshire for two centuries. (Nathanial Hawthorne based a short story, “The Great Stone Face,” on it.) On May 3rd, 2003, the old outcropping, severely weakened by winter storms, came crashing down. Illinois has a full length Abe Lincoln, so now he is on the $5 bill, the penny, and the Illinois quarter, and eventually he will be on the Lincoln presidential dollar. I doubt I could have figured out Iowa’s contribution without help. The mint’s website says it is based on a Grant Wood—an Iowa favorite son—painting of a country schoolhouse with a tree planting taking place in the side yard. Ah! Arbor Day, which originated in Iowa. Good old stolid Wisconsin offers us the bust of a dairy cow, an ear of corn, and a round of cheese. Florida features some palm trees, a galleon, and the space shuttle. Utah features two locomotives facing each other on either side of a giant phallus. Oops, my mistake! That must be the famous golden spike that joined together the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific at Promontory Point in 1869. Anyway, it’s always nice to get to know the neighbors and in a sense the quarters do just that.

If the quarter is the coin least in danger of going out of circulation, the dollar coin is probably a lost cause in that regard. Even the half-dollar, though rare, does sometimes turn up in one’s pocket.* But when was the last time you came across a dollar coin? For some mulish reason, we just refuse to accept the idea. Whether it be the dollar coins of my youth (the Eisenhower, and the Liberty dollars that preceded it), the foredoomed Susan B. Anthony, or the Sacagawea Golden Dollar, the dollar coin has never caught on. One might argue that the old dollar coins were too large, too bulky in one’s pocket. And the Anthony (what were they thinking?) really was too close to the quarter for comfort. The Sacagawea is a handsome coin, I think. Just a smidgen larger than a quarter, it is a warm brass color—in fact, it is mostly brass—so one would never mistake it for the 25 cent piece. And, I ask you, who could resist that sweet little Pompey asleep in his mother’s wrap? Well, evidently we all can. Or perhaps for that very reason people are hoarding the Sacagaweas, but I doubt it.

And you can’t blame the mint for not trying. Last year they began minting the Presidential $1 Coins series. Four coins released each year, the first with Washington’s likeness on the obverse and scheduled to continue right on down to the present day. It is the same size and composition as the Sacagawea. And starting in 2009, each year the Sacagawea will have on the reverse a depiction of “an important contribution of Indian tribes or individual Native Americans.” Unlike the “First Spouse Gold Coins” (no, really), these are meant to circulate.

But I will bet the rent that they won’t, despite the obvious advantages of coin over paper. “Put money in thy purse,” said Iago. Alas, he wasn’t thinking of Sacagawea.

*My friend Joe suggests that the half-dollar is so rare because of the continuing reverence for JFK, whose likeness is on the obverse: people hang on to them, collect them. Perhaps, but I think we just have an aversion to any coin much larger than a quarter.

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