Making Change

How the Susan B. Anthony shaped the Golden Dollar.

Making Change

In the mid-1990s, when Congress and the U.S. Mint set out to create a new dollar coin, history was not on their side. The previous effort, the Susan B. Anthony, was such a disaster that the supply from the original print run lasted 20 years. Ironically, that was good enough to make it the most successful dollar in over 200 years of U.S. coinage.

With the Susan B. Anthony debacle still fresh on the minds of bank officers, the Mint took care to learn the lessons of the S.B.A. when conceiving its successor. The result was the tremendously popular Golden dollar, whose image has only been slightly tarnished by complaints that it shows wear too quickly.

To get the inside story on how the Susan B. Anthony impacted the conception of the Golden dollar, Failure interviewed Philip Diehl, former director of the Mint, who oversaw its launch and the well-received 50-state quarters program. Diehl recently left the security of his longtime post for the uncertainty of Internet commerce, accepting a position as president of Zale.com.

What was the motivation for launching the Susan B. Anthony dollar?
I think it reflected the fact that there had not been a successful new denomination coin in a couple of generations, and there was a feeling that the nation’s coinage system was being outdated by the inflationary period of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even though there was the Kennedy half-dollar, it didn’t circulate because the coin was too big for people to carry around in their pockets. Then the Treasury department and Congress repeated the same mistake in 1971 with the Eisenhower dollar, which was the same size as the large silver dollars of the 19th century.

What was the problem with the Susan B. Anthony?
When Congress began getting serious in 1995 about launching a new dollar coin, I wanted to make certain that we’d at least learn the lessons of the Susan B. Anthony. So I went back and looked at the research that was done in the mid-‘70s—research that the Treasury department presumably relied upon. Number one, it said the coin had to be smaller in size. They got that part right. But it also said it needed to be a different color from the quarter and needed to have a distinctive edge. The research also specified that the Treasury should undertake a major public awareness and marketing campaign. Well, three out of four of those recommendations were ignored. So, sure enough, when the coin came out in 1979 it was immediately beset with problems. The fact that it was so easily confused with the quarter and that Americans did not find it particularly attractive added to the public relations problems.

What was the story behind the design?
Originally, the artwork that the U.S. Mint engraver came up with depicted a less severe S.B.A., but when it got to the Treasury dept. they said, “No, that’s not her. You prettified her.” The artist was directed to do a more realistic depiction. In Ken Burns’ PBS program on Susan B., he talks about why it is that we have this frozen image in the public mind of a very stern S.B.A. He said that they had gone through thousands of photos looking for a more pleasant expression on her face, and they never found one. Susan B. was committed to being taken seriously and she believed that if she smiled for the camera she couldn’t be taken seriously.

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