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20-Cent Piece an Ill-Fated Experiment
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
August 28, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The 20-cent piece seemed like a good idea, especially in the West, where small change was scarce and Spanish bit pricing still prevailed. But the so-called double dime’s similarity to the quarter dollar killed it off after just four years of production, from 1875-1878.

The 20-cent piece sprang from the Spanish silver coin called a pistareen, which circulated in the United States in the 18th and early 19th centuries and worked its way into American culture. In a manual published in 1842, Jacob Eckfeldt wrote that in the silver coins of Spanish America, the peseta or pistareen represented “one-fifth of the dollar.”

In The Child’s Arithmetick, published in 1826, William Bentley Fowle posed the following word problem:

“If you buy of a man 16 cents worth of silk, and give him a 20-cent piece or a pistareen, how many cents must you have back?”

In 1835, Joseph Gardner of New Jersey was charged with making 100 counterfeit pistareens. The indictment stated the pistareen was a silver Spanish coin, “made current by law in the United States.”

A New Jersey circuit court found Gardner guilty. The jury explained:

“Genuine coin of the description ‘pistareen’ has for many years past been in common circulation in the country. The same has commonly passed at the rate of 20 cents each. Few of them are now in circulation, but they are still received and paid at the said rate of 20 cents each.”

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict in The United States v. Joseph Gardner. The opinion held that the pistareen was not “a coin made current by law,” and was not protected by anti-counterfeiting statutes.

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The United States did not yet have a 20-cent piece of its own. Thomas Jefferson proposed the denomination in 1783, a decade before the U.S. Mint opened. But the Mint Act of 1792 authorized a quarter dollar and said nothing about a 20-cent piece.

Advocates of the 20-cent piece kept trying. In March 1806, Sen. Uriah Tracy introduced a bill for a 20-cent piece. Nearly a year later, the Senate passed an amended version, but the bill failed to make it through the House of Representatives.

U.S. Mint officials showed more than a passing interest in the Canadian 20-cent piece introduced in 1858. In a letter dated Feb. 17, 1859, J.R. Eckfeldt and William D. DuBois of the Assay Office informed Mint Director James R. Snowden:

“If it is to be asked, what is the intrinsic value, as compared with our coins, then the 20-cent piece falls below two of our dimes by three-fourths of a cent, nearly.

“If it be asked, what will their 20-cent piece, full weight, produce at our Mint, at bullion price, then it is worth 18 3/4 cents, nearly. It is therefore not interchangeable with our currency.

“But, by a calculation based upon the intrinsic relations of the British coinage to our own, so as to be able to turn pence into cents, we find the 20-cent piece is regulated in its weight by the silver shilling, and is in due proportion thereto.

“What effect it will have upon the currency of the two countries, especially along the boundary line, to have two kinds of dimes, it is not easy to foresee.”

Sen. John Percival Jones helped make the U.S. 20-cent piece a reality. Born in Wales in 1830, he came to the United States with his parents and attended Cleveland schools. Jones headed for California during the gold rush days. In 1867 he moved to Nevada and made his fortune as a miner.

In 1873, Jones, a millionaire, defeated William Sharon to win a senate seat. Both candidates bribed lawmakers. Some of them sold their votes more than once.

Jones served five terms from 1873 to 1893, and was the founding father of Santa Monica, Calif. Jones was a lifelong friend of the silver interests, which explains his support for the 20-cent piece. The Coinage Act of 1873 struck a blow to the silver industry by eliminating the standard silver dollar. Production of 20-cent pieces was expected to ease the pain.

There was another reason for striking 20-cent pieces. Jones claimed they would relieve the small change problem in the West.

Like Jones, Mint Director Henry Linderman was in the silver interests’ pocket and supported the 20-cent piece. Comments from his Annual Report for 1874 were reprinted in the American Journal of Numismatics:

“A bill authorizing the coinage of a 20-cent silver piece passed the Senate at the last session of Congress, but was not considered in the House of Representatives for want of time.

“The issue of a coin of that denomination will not only be in accordance with our decimal system of money, but will remove a difficulty in making change which now exists upon the Pacific coast and in Texas, where the five-cent copper-nickel coins do not circulate, and were it was formerly the practice to apply the term ‘bit,’ ‘two bits,’ and ‘four bits,’ respectively, to the fractions of the Spanish dollar which circulated there.

“The custom appears to continue, notwithstanding those coins have disappeared from circulation. “Accordingly, if a payment of one bit is to be made, and a 25-cent coin be used for the purpose, a 10-cent coin (one ‘short’ bit) is returned as the proper change, five cents being lost in the transaction by the purchaser.

“The issue of a 20-cent coin will no doubt remove this difficulty. It may be added that, although this ‘bit’ system appears to be quite an unimportant matter, few visitors to the Pacific coast fail to suffer some vexation at least from its existence.”

As envisioned by Linderman and Jones, the 20-cent piece would be legal tender in limited sums. The Feb. 11, 1874, issue of The Pittsburgh Commercial Advertiser said:

“Mr. Jones introduced a bill authorizing the coinage of 20-cent pieces. It proposes to make them a legal tender at their nominal value for amounts not exceeding five dollars in any one payment, and applies to new coin.”

The bill was referred to committee, but its supporters were optimistic it would pass. The Mint began working on pattern 20-cent pieces in order to be ready when the big moment arrived. Linderman suggested that Trade dollar designs be adapted for the new coin.

An 1874-dated pattern by Alexis Bailly depicts Liberty seated on a globe. The design was based on an earlier Trade dollar proposal.

An 1875-dated pattern, known as “Liberty by the Seashore,” has an early steamship in the background. Another 1875 pattern was based on Barber’s “Sailor’s Head” design for a $5 gold pattern.

The act authorizing the 20-cent piece passed on March 3, 1875. Linderman approved a design by Charles Barber on April 15. The Seated Liberty obverse was the same as on other silver coins from the dime through the dollar. The eagle on the reverse was copied from the Trade dollar.

The Republic gave a detailed description of the new coin:

“The designs of the 20-cent silver piece authorized by act of Congress of March 3, 1875, have been selected and approved by Hon. H.R. Linderman, Director of the Mint. The obverse design contains a sitting figure of Liberty, with the word ‘Liberty’ inscribed in the shield, the whole surrounded by 13 stars. Beneath the figure is the date ‘1875.’

“On the reverse is the figure of an eagle surrounded by the inscription ‘United States of America, ‘and beneath the eagle are the words ‘Twenty Cents.’

“At Dr. Linderman’s suggestion, the edge or periphery of the coin will be perfectly smooth, in order to distinguish it from the 25-cent coin, which bears a reeded or fluted edge. “As the piece is too small to admit the legend ‘E Pluribus Unum’ or the motto ‘In God We Trust,’ both have been omitted.

“The new coin is mainly intended for circulation in the Pacific coast states, where the want of such coin has long been felt in making change, and where the lowest coin in circulation is the dime or 10-cent silver piece.”

The March 31, 1875, issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported that dies for the 20-cent piece would “soon be completed.”

Production began at the Philadelphia Mint on May 19. A newspaper item with a May 20 dateline said, “Dies were sent to the Mints at Carson City and San Francisco, coinage there to start at once.”

The 1875-S proved to be the only 20-cent piece with an “S” mintmark. Production began in early June and continued until September. No 1875-S 20-cent pieces were struck in the last quarter of the year.

In the 1930s, Fort Worth rare coin dealer B. Max Mehl discovered a proof 1875-S 20-cent piece. Total production of 20-cent pieces in 1875 consisted of 39,700 from the Philadelphia Mint, more than 1.5 million from San Francisco and 133,290 from Carson City.

The low mintage at Carson City was revealing in light of Jones ties with Nevada and the Mint’s proximity to the Comstock Lode. It may be seen as evidence that 20-cent pieces were not needed or wanted in the West. Most of the 1876-CC 20-cent pieces went into storage and were later melted.

Although the 20-cent piece and Trade dollar had similar reverse designs, 20-cent planchets were prepared differently. The 1880 edition of Johnson’s New Univeral Cyclopedia, by Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard and Arnold Guyot, explained:

“The blanks for the Trade dollar, which is a full-valued coin, are adjusted by hand, while those for the subsidiary or overvalued silver coin, the half dollar, quarter dollar, 20-cent piece and dime, are not so adjusted, the drawbench being relied on to ensure the necessary uniformity as to thickness and correspondence of the blanks to their respective legal weights.”

A surprising fact concerning the 20-cent piece is that it weighs exactly the same as the Shield nickel, five grams.

“Three of either of these pieces of money weighs 15 grams, or one letter-weight,” John Pickering Putnam wrote in The Metric System of Weights and Measures (1877). “The convenience of this will at once be seen. Each man carries his own letter-weights in his pocket.”

But the Mint was not in the business of striking coins to be used as letter-weights. They were meant for everyday transactions. To this end, schools across the country taught lessons in “United States Money” that included the 20-cent piece.

Emerson Elbridge White’s A Manual of Arithmetic (1876) advised:

“The teacher should be supplied with the small pieces of money, coin and paper, in common use, including the cent, two-cent, three-cent, five-cent, 10-cent, 20-cent, quarter dollar, half dollar and dollar.”

In 1876, Philadelphia hosted the Centennial Exposition. Despite an influx of visitors, the Philadelphia Mint struck only 15,900 20-cent pieces that year.

The Carson City Mint struck 10,000 20-cent pieces in 1876. In March 1877, Linderman instructed Carson City Mint officials to “melt down all 20-cent pieces you have on hand.” Nearly the entire mintage of 1876-CCs went to the melting pot.

In 1893, A.G. Heaton described the 1876-CC 20-cent piece as “excessively rare in any condition.” Three examples turned up in 1894. One of them was acquired by Massachusetts rare coin dealer Elmer Sears. The March 1911 issue of The Numismatist said:

“Mr. Elmer S. Sears is exhibiting one of the greatest prizes of the mint mark field, an uncirculated specimen of the extremely rare 20-cent piece of 1876, of the Carson City Mint.

“This piece is remarkable for the fact that although 10,000 are said to have been struck at the Nevada Mint in that year, still not more than four pieces can now be located. One of these is owned by Mr. John H. Clapp of Washington, another by Mr. Virgil Brand of Chicago, and the third by Mr. H.O. Granberg of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.”

In 1916, an item in the American Journal of Numismatics said of the American Numismatic Society Collection, “In 20-cent pieces, the 1876-CC is lacking.”

Four 1876-CC 20-cent pieces were discovered in a Baltimore safety-deposit box in 1957. Today, an estimated 14 to 18 examples are known.

A list of “Old U.S. Coins and Premium Values Thereon,” compiled by J. Lehrenkrauss & Sons, appeared in the 1922 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac. It stated in part, “Twenty-cent pieces — 1876, CC mint mark only, 50 cents to $1.”

A classified ad for a coin value guide, in the December 1913 issue of Popular Mechanics, noted that an 1876-CC 20-cent piece had sold for $250.

An article in the October 1932 issue of Popular Mechanics said that an 1876-CC 20-cent piece was worth as much as a used Ford.

At the 1999 Heritage ANA Sale, a Mint State-63 1876-CC 20-cent piece realized $86,500.

When Linderman ordered Carson City to melt its stockpile of 20-cent pieces, legislation had already been introduced to eliminate the denomination. The 20-cent piece wasn’t needed, and its similarity in size and design to the quarter hurried its demise.

The July 1879 issue of Scribner’s Monthly said, “The United States 20-cent coin was unsatisfactory for the simple reason it was made so much like a 25-cent piece as to be frequently mistaken for it.”

Production of 20-cent pieces for circulation ended in 1876, but the Philadelphia Mint struck small quantities of proofs in 1877 and 1878. Their primary interest was as oddities or souvenirs. “Twenty-Cent Pieces Doomed,” said a headline in the Jan. 30, 1878, issue of the St. Joseph (Mich.) Gazette. The newspaper reported, “The House Committee on Banking and Currency agreed to recommend the passage of a bill discontinuing the coinage of 20-cent pieces.”

The legislation was a formality. The April 15, 1878, issue of the Bismarck Weekly Tribune said, “Coinage of 20-cent pieces has been stopped.”

The “act to prohibit the coinage of the 20-cent piece of silver” was passed on May 2, 1878.

“Double-dimes” were a nuisance for years afterward. Counterfeit U.S. 20-cent pieces circulated extensively in the West Indies. In 1880, they also flooded New York City.

A St. Louis bank cashier claimed he had found an easy way to distinguish a 20-cent piece from a quarter. On the quarter, he said, the eagle is looking over its right wing. On the 20-cent piece, the eagle is looking over its left wing.

But the method was too little, too late to save the 20-cent piece. Straggling “double-dimes” circulated into the 20th century, relics of a failed experiment that might have turned out differently if the 20-cent piece had been given a distinct identity.

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On February 11, 2015 Munze said
The failure of the 20? piece represented a lost opportunity for the US to have a truly decimal coinage system. The quarter was created solely to maintain compatibility with "bit"-denominated Spanish reales, which were far more common than pistareens.

The story of the double dime echoes in failure of the SBA dollar (looked too much like a quarter!) and in the current debate over eliminating the dollar bill (JUST DO IT!). If the US had taken advantage of the coinage reforms of either 1857 or 1873 to replace the quarter and oddly-denominated $2.50 gold piece with double dimes and double dollars, our current system would match the practical 1-2-5-10 ratios adopted by nearly every country that uses decimal currency.

In addition, the use of a truly decimal coinage system would simplify future removal of the nickel from circulation if that becomes necessary. So long as we have a denomination amounting to an odd multiple of 5, eliminating the 5-cent piece will create extra complexity when making change.

But given this country's unwillingness to modernize, I guess we'll be maintaining compatibility with Spanish milled dollars for decades to come.

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