When it comes to using new designs on American coins, the United States Mint is known for having a conservative approach.
The evidence is obvious: Most U.S. coin designs don't change with any frequency.
The Roosevelt dime, for instance, has remained unchanged since it first appeared in 1946. The Jefferson nickel (1938) and Washington quarter (1932) both debuted in the 1930s and saw very little variation until the 21st century. Although the Lincoln penny got a new reverse design in 1959 (and again in 2010), it has also been largely the same since it was introduced in 1909.
Before discussing the most recent news about potentially new U.S. coin designs, it's useful to look at the context of previous efforts to change American coinage this century.
Many will remember that the rather ambitious "State Quarters" series, which began in 1999, generated an upswell of enthusiasm for the new coin designs. The coins continued to be produced up through 2009. As the coins continue to circulate, complete collections of uncirculated examples will likely increase in collectible value.
Other countries, particularly the U.K. and some nations in Europe, have since issued similar "circulating commemorative coins." Here in the States, the quarter-dollar coin has continued to carry such a series centered around National Parks and other historic sites. It will run until 2021.
However, other new coin designs from the U.S. Mint at the turn of the 21st century were less popular with the public. The Sacagawea dollar failed to catch on (except for overseas in Ecuador) despite widespread marketing for the new golden-colored coin. The coin's obverse design lives on through the annual Native American $1 Coin series but rarely receives much attention.
In 2007, the mint attempted to revive interest in one-dollar coins with the Presidential $1 Coin series. Unfortunately, this too proved to be a flop. We're not just talking about collectors, either: Ask anyone if they frequently use these dollar coins in normal commerce, and the answer will be "no" 99% of the time.
The unpopular Presidential coins ended with the 40th president, Ronald Reagan, due to a law that prohibits a living person from being depicted on U.S. coins. (This rule is on very rare occasions ignored.) This also marked an end to the First Spouse series of gold coins that ran parallel to the Presidential dollars. Examples of both are shown below.
Thanks to their 24-karat gold content, the First Spouse coins were somewhat more popular with collectors. Nonetheless, $1 coins for commerce—of all designs—haven't really caught on since production of silver dollars stopped early in the 20th century.
It has been a longstanding struggle to get the American public to use $1 coins. They simply prefer the convenience of paper notes.
Yet CoinWeek reported this week that the U.S. Congress is willing to give it another shot with the American Innovation $1 Coin Act. The prospective legislation, which passed the House of Representatives, calls for a new series of dollar coins that celebrate the country's history of innovation and pioneering in their designs.
The measure must still be taken up by the Senate before it makes it to the president's desk for final approval. Like many proposals, it died in committee the first time it was brought up. The second time around, the bill succeeded in passing thanks to widespread sponsorship by members of both parties.
There is still room for improvement, though. If the mint and the Treasury Department want to increase the chances of the public using $1 coins more often, they ought to follow the model of other government mints that pair their equivalent of a $1 coin with a $2 coin denomination, as well.
The opinions and forecasts herein are provided solely for informational purposes, and should not be used or construed as an offer, solicitation, or recommendation to buy or sell any product.
Everett has been the head content writer and market analyst at Gainesville Coins since 2013. He has a background in History and is deeply interested in how gold and silver have historically fit into the financial system.