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20-Cent Coin Tried and Failed Quickly
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
June 26, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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It’s every type collector’s nightmare and it did not work very well in circulation, but the 20-cent piece is still an official coin of the United States even if no one was ever quite certain why. If nothing else, a good case can be made that the 20-cent piece, which lasted just a few short years, set a standard for failure that saw it receive a lot of attention when the Anthony dollar was destined to follow in its footsteps almost exactly a century later.

Strangely, the idea for a 20-cent coin was not exactly new when the first one appeared in 1875. It had been kicking around a while. If you check, you will find that none other than Thomas Jefferson had suggested the denomination as early as 1783. It might, however, be noted that Jefferson, while absolutely brilliant at many things, was not terribly successful with this idea. It was not included in the Mint Act of 1792, which authorized the denominations for the Unite States. Instead of a 20-cent piece, the authorization was for a silver quarter. At the time, it probably made little difference to what was found in circulation as the United States was not in a position to make many silver coins of any denomination. The nation as it existed then had no silver and the Spanish Empire did, so it was Spanish silver that circulated.

There was little improvement by 1806 when Sen. Uriah Tacy promoted a bill for a “double dime,” which actually managed to pass the Senate. At the time, the entire production of quarters of the United States stood at less than 350,000 pieces, so the case can certainly be made he was jumping the gun a bit if the reason for the double dime was some perceived failure of the quarter.

The reason so few quarters had been issued was not that people hated the idea of quarters, bu rather the nagging lack of silver bullion.

If at the time you had brought silver into the Mint, you could request the coin denomination you would like to receive in return. Prior to 1804, the preference was for silver dollars. When dollar production was suspended in 1804 in an attempt to have greater production of other denominations, it would still be some time before there were large supplies of other denominations and an end to a perpetual coin short. Under the circumstances, it was just as well that the double dime proposal was not approved by the House of Representatives.

That was end of the 20-cent idea for a while, although it is wroth noting that Canada did in fact use a 20-cent coin issued in 1858. The denomination must have worked inititally because it was not replaced by a 25-cent coin until 1870 and Newfoundland used 20-cent coins until 1917.

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For many years, the idea of a 20-cent piece was really not very practical, but with the discovery of silver in Nevada in 1859, a great deal changed. Suddenly, silver supplies were no long an issue. The problem actually became one of too much of the metal.

The silver problem was especially important in the West where the mines were located and some local economies really depended on silver and gold mining. The silver half dime was eliminated in 1873. That created an interesting situation in the West. Branch mints were not allowed to produce anything but gold and silver coins. For small sums that left the West and those who wanted to prevent branch mints from coining anything but gold and silver high and dry when it came to small change.

Philadelphia was producing cents, copper-nickel three-cent pieces and five-cent pieces. It had also struck two-cent pieces until this denomination was terminated in 1873. Philadelphia was a long way from Nevada and the rest of the West. If you happened to spend a quarter with a merchant and you needed 15 cents in change, there could be all sorts of problems arriving at that sum.

The problem of making change was one of the main points in the effort by Sn. John P. Jones in his attempt to get a 20-cent piece authorized. Jones also suggested that the new denomination would help to replace the Spanish silver coins from Mexico, which were still in circulation in the West.

It was probably not lost on the silver mining interests that a 20-cent piece would use silver. That in their minds was a compelling reason to authorize the denomination.

Lost in the rush to get the new denomination into the hands of the public was the fact that it would be awfully hard for a 20-cent piece to be very different in size from the quarter. Both were made of silver. The 20-cent piece weighed five grams and measured 22 millimeters in diameter while the quarter was 6.25 grams and 24.3mm in diameter.

Officials were not blind. They recognized that there might be a problem. The edge of the new coin was plain as opposed to reeded on the quarter. The Mint director originally suggested that the 20-cent piece be patterned after the Trade dollar in design. The reverse eagle in fact would evenually be an adaptation of the Trade dollar reverse.

There were other possible designs. A Seated Liberty on a globe harkened back to the Trade dollar patterns and a William Barber “Sailor Head” obverse emerged as a pattern.

Eventually, however, the design turned into a marriage of sorts between the Christian Gobrecht Seated Liberty obverse, which was still being used on the dime, quarter and half dollar, and William Barber’s Trade dollar reverse.

The 20-cent was probably doomed due to its similarity in size to the quarter, but the design decision was of no help. By being made to look virtually identical to the circulating quarter of the time, it made a bad situation worse. Moreover, this was 1875 so there could be no national media blitz explaining that if in doubt all you needed to do was feel the edge and if there was no reeding it was a 20-cent piece and not a quarter.

Initial mintages might well have reflected some uncertainty at least on the part of some regarding the 20-cent piece’s future. In Philadelphia, it was just 39,700. Quarter mintage there in that year was 4,293,500. The following year, the Philadelphia 20-cent piece mintage dropped to 15,900 while quarter production rose to a record for the time of 17,817,150.

But the 20-cent piece was to alleviate a change shortage in the West, right? The one place where there was a large mintage in 1875 was San Francisco, which produced 1,155,000 pieces, which actually was almost double the 1875 San Francisco quarter output.

From that point San Francisco never struck the 20-cent denomination again, which says a great deal about the public reception for the new coin when it reached the streets of the city. In Carson City, meanwhile, the 1875 20-cent piece and quarter mintages were almost identical with 133,290 of the smaller coins produced compared to 140,000 of the larger.

The failure of the 20-cent piece even in the heart of silver country is seen in the fact that the 1876-CC production is listed as 10,000 and almost none is known, probably suggesting very heavy melting. The 1876-CC quarter mintage was 4,944,000, which would ultimately be the single largest quarter production in the history of the Carson City Mint. There is no doubt when comparing the mintages that there was plenty of silver coin production in 1875 and 1876 but very little of it involved the 20-cent piece.

By 1876 the 20-cent piece was already the subject of repeal legislation. It would take until 1878 for it to make it into law. That explains why 1877 and 1878 20-cent mintages were very low and confined to proofs. The public had completely rejected it.

This is probably no surprise to collectors who experienced the Anthony dollar fiasco.

Just one 20-cent piece date had a mintage over 1 million pieces and that makes it a difficult type coin to obtain. Even in G-4, the 1875-S is $100. That might seem high considering the mintage, but many of these coins were retired and melted long before they wore down to G-4.

The two dates closest to the 1875-S in price are the 1875 at $165 in G-4 and the 1876 at $185 in G-4. The 1875-CC carries a premium as much due to the magic of the CC mintmark. One other factor is involved. For the 1875-CC a strong suspicion exists that because the 1876-CC had virtually its entire mintage melted, that perhaps significant numbers of the 1875-CC met a similar fate. That would help explain why its prices might be higher than a strict interpretation of the mintage would suggest.

Although issued only for four years and produced only as business strikes for two, there were a couple of interesting 20-cent piece errors. On a few 1875-S coins there is a double punched mintmark taht actually resembles a dollar sign. These is also doubling on some Philadelphia 1876 coins and the known 1876-CC coins have a doubled LIBERTY.

In terms of better grade examples of the four available dates in circulated grades are also possible to collect in uncirculated.

An MS-60 1875-S currently lists for $500 while an MS-65 is $4,900.It is the least expensive in these grades.

The 1875 is $835 in MS-60 and $5,500 in MS-65.

For the 1876, the MS-60 price is $800 and the Ms-65 price is $5,600.

And as is the case in the lower grades, the 1875-CC is the most expensive in the upper grades. An MS-60 is $1,650. An MS-65 is $10,000.

As a group, there hasn’t been a lot of price movement in recent years, suggesting that few collectors are attempting to acquire all four as you would if you were collecting 20-cent pieces by date and mintmark.

The 1876-CC coin is a story by itself. The official mintage report states 10,000 pieces were struck. What happend after that is anyone’s guess. Obviously with a mintage of 10,000 pieces, the 1876-CC was never going to be common.

We know the dies for striking the coins were destroyed Jan. 20, 1876, so clearly the 1876-CC was not produced for very long.

Over a year later on March 19, 1877, Mint Director Henry R. Linderman ordered any remaining 20-cent pieces at Carson City melted. The order may well explain why the 1875-CC is tougher than might be expected based on its mintage. It also explains why the 1876-CC hardly survived at all.

Back in 1876 there were not many collectors in the West based on the surviving number of uncirculated coins from both Carson City and San Francisco. Moreover, of the few collectors there were, many collected just by date and not by date and mintmark.

Almost immediately the 1876-CC was recognized as a significant rarity and the years have done nothing to change that belief. An MS-65 that sold in the 1997 Eliasberg sale brought $148,500. A current Coin Market price listing of $175,000 would seem to indicate that this rarity sells so infrequently that updating the price is difficult, or even coin collectors are about as excited about the rarities of this series as the public was about getting them in the 1870s.

Although the 20-cent piece was gone from regular production, it was struck in 1877 and 1878 as proofs. The audience was small. The 1877 saw 510 sold to collectors and 600 were taken by them in 1878.

Apparently there are enough impaired proofs that Coin Market lists them in circulated grades. A Fine-12 1877 is $2,700 and an 1878 in the same grade is $2,000.

A Proof-65 1877 is $10,000 while the 1878 in Proof-65 is $9,500.

These two proof coins conclude a very scarce and difficult set of just seven coins. Even a set of war nickels is larger. But where war nickels are fairly inexpensive, the 20-cent pieces are the opposite.

The 20-cent piece after 1878 with the exception of a periodic sale of an 1876-CC might well have drifted off into something close to numismatic obscurity until the Anthony dollar arrived in 1979. The mini-dollar’s problems invited comparisons and a new wave of interest occurred.

Both the 20-cent piece and the Anthony dollar coin barely made it into their second year as the refusals to use them in both cases was almost immediate.

The lack of acceptance at the time of issue has almost certainly played a role in its relative scarcity today. We know the 1876-CC was melted, but the sneaking suspicion is that it was not alone in terms of seeing a very quick retirement from use.

For collectors of the period to save coins that might be available for collectors today, they would have had to encounter them in the first place, and that was fairly hard to do when the public pretty much rejected their use from the start.

Simply put, the 20-cent piece has always been a problem for collectors. It is a tough set of coins to assemble and even tougher to afford.

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