Time for a change: Coining a design for our money
Appeal Staff Writer
It began simply as a way to generate more funding for the U.S. Mint and has evolved into a phenomenon that has gained the attention of nearly every household in the country.
The faces and adornments featured on American coins have been an anchor of the U.S. Mint. The designs themselves have remained unchanged for decades, the founding fathers in profile and important monuments on the reverse.
In 1999, the Mint began a major facelift of its coinage that saw changes to the nickel and the beginning of the widely known statehood quarter program. Soon even the penny, which has remained the same for almost 100 years, will be getting a new look.
The push to change our change began in 1982, when the Mint decided to issue a commemorative half-dollar honoring George Washington. Not knowing if the program would be a success, the Mint released another series of commemorative coins in 1983 and 1984 honoring the Olympics in Los Angeles.
The coins were an overwhelming success. Since then the Mint has continued to release new coins honoring anniversaries and important events, including the placement of the Statue of Liberty and the anniversary of Mount Rushmore.
But the Mint was looking for a way to make the appeal of coins more widespread. They decided that to make an impact, one of the major coins would have to change. The obvious choice was the George Washington quarter, whose design had been around since 1932.
“The revenues from the commemorative coins were just incredible and it prompted the Mint to come up with the idea for the statehood quarters,” said Rusty Goe, owner of Southgate Coins in Reno. “We are talking minting into the billions of coins. While the Mint doesn’t make money on all the coins they do make money on the proof sets and the silver dollar proof sets. But more importantly, it introduced people to the Mint’s Web site.”
At 10 a.m. Tuesday, the quarter honoring Nevada will be unveiled on the Capitol steps, marking the 36th new quarter to be released since the program began in 1999.
“This program has been the biggest shot in the arm for coin collectors in decades,” State Treasurer Brian Krolicki said. “By changing the look of the money the Mint has made it a commercial endeavor again.”
The U.S. Mint estimates that approximately 125 million people are collecting the quarters, meaning about one person in every household in the country is involved with the program.
“This is bigger than the Comstock Lode, the government discovered a gold mine to market to its customers,” Goe said.
After the success of the quarters program, the Mint saw another approaching anniversary as a wonderful catalyst for changes to the Jefferson nickel, originally designed in 1938.
Beginning in 2004, the Mint began the “Westward Journey Nickel Series” to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase and the exploration of the new territory by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
For two years, Monticello was replaced with images commemorating their journey including a keel boat, a buffalo and a view of the Pacific.
This year the Mint added another first to our coins, replacing the traditional profile of Jefferson with one taken from a 1800 Rembrandt Peale portrait in which the nation’s third president is looking forward, with just the hint of a smile. The word “Liberty” in Jefferson’s handwriting is also shown as is the phrase “In God We Trust.”
The Mint expects to produce nearly 1 billion of the new nickels, with more than 80 million having already been shipped to the 12 federal reserve banks earlier this month.
After the completion of the new nickels and with the state quarter program ending in 2009, the Mint has undertaken another sweeping change, altering the 100-year-old design of the Lincoln penny.
“The Lincoln penny is going to be another gold mine for the Mint. It’s the 100th anniversary of that penny and the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and it will be met with so much fanfare,” Goe said.
“This coin has been in circulation for 100 years. The Mint usually changes the designs about every 40 years. It’s a generational change, each generation changes the coins in circulation.”
The image of Lincoln on the coin will remain in profile although the Lincoln Memorial on the other side will be replaced with various images of Lincoln’s life.
All of the changes have resulted in a resurgence of interest in coin collecting in general and, in Nevada, an interest in the U.S. Mint in Carson City, the historic building now serving as the Nevada State Museum.
“My first reaction is that it’s great because people are collecting but are also learning and interacting with history. I see the value in collecting but it’s also in teaching. It’s great to remind people of the history of the state and the nation as well as its historical figures,” said Bob Nylen, curator of history for the museum.
The Carson City Mint began operation in 1870, making the “CC” mark on coins – a mark now sought by collectors – until the Mint closed in 1899. Today the press is used to make medallions for the museum marking historic anniversaries and themes such as the V&T Railway and the Northern Nevada Railroad Museum.
As part of the unveiling ceremony for the Nevada quarter, the museum will unveil a new medallion, made of almost pure silver and titled “Spirit of the West.”
“It’s another way to educate the public about the past and this Mint while connecting it to the modern mint,” Nylen said.
Nylen was also on the committee of 18 that helped select the original themes for Nevada’s quarter. The public eventually voted in the wild horses design.
“You very seldom get the chance to participate in history. This ranks right up there with the great moments in my career. You get a sense of history holding one of the first quarters in your hand,” Nylen said.
Despite the long-held themes on coins, change is inevitable. Just ask Benjamin Franklin whose portrait remained on the half-dollar only 16 years before being replaced by John F. Kennedy.
“These coins have been around well past their expected time changes. It may have just been time to update them,” Goe said.
n Contact reporter Jarid Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1217.