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The Not-So-Golden Dollar

The Not-So-Golden Dollar

by Ed Reiter

In real life, we are told, the Shoshone Indian named Sacagawea died in her mid-20s, less than a decade after her key role as a translator and guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In her coinage incarnation on the Sacagawea dollar, she came close to dying at a much more tender age – entering a state of suspended animation after only two years in circulation.

Sacagawea’s coin gets a second chance at a normal life in 2009, as the U.S. Mint launches production of a new round of so-called “golden dollars” for everyday use – this time with Native American themes on the reverse. But prospects remain uncertain that the coin will win a place – this time or any time in the future – in Americans’ hearts and pockets.

The Mint halted production of Sacagawea dollars for circulation in 2002 and has struck the coins since then only for proof sets and uncirculated coin sets (better known as “mint sets”). It did so after ending fiscal year 2001 with about 324 million “Sackies” on hand and little or no demand from bankers, merchants or the general public.

“It’s not unusual to adjust production through the year,” Mint spokesman Michael White said at the time, noting that the Mint had scaled back production across the board because of reduced demand resulting from the recession then gripping the country. Ironically, the coin’s bid for a comeback this year coincides with an even more serious economic crisis – the worst since the Great Depression.

On the one hand, it seems plausible that economic swings would lead to peaks and valleys in the Mint’s production schedule. On the other hand, however, there has been little evidence that the Sacagawea dollar is ready to gain even a toehold – much less a foothold – in U.S. commerce.

Speaking from personal experience, I’ve yet to receive my first “Sackie” in change at a supermarket, drugstore, fast-food restaurant – or, for that matter, anywhere else. And it has now been nearly a decade since the Mint launched the coin with lots of loud bells and high-pitched whistles.

I have spent the new dollars on occasion, after picking up a roll at the bank – but the cashiers and clerks I handed them to were more puzzled than pleased, for the most part.

Sadly, it appears that history may be repeating itself. The Susan B. Anthony dollar also had been struck for just a short time – from 1979 through 1981 – when the Mint pulled the plug on its life-support system. (A fourth and final date was added to the series when the coin made a fleeting curtain call in 1999.)

It’s possible, of course, that in its new version, the coin may finally shift out of neutral gear into “drive.” But my gut feeling tells me that this is the beginning of the end, and the next gear we see will be “park” or “reverse.”

What went wrong?

For starters, those bells and whistles created the impression that the Sacagawea dollar was more than just a coin; it was an icon (a word that uses the same four letters as “coin” but has a much different meaning). Distributions at Wal-Mart stores … Cheerios promotions … frequent TV commercials – all of these gave the coin a special aura and predisposed the public to save it, rather than spend it.

The term “golden dollar” was one of the biggest mistakes. A study conducted soon after the coin’s release found that many of the people who saw commercials using this phrase – nearly 40 percent – were left with the false impression that the dollar is made of gold, or at least might contain some small amount of that precious metal. That, of course, makes it highly unlikely those people would spend the coin as just a dollar.

Another dubious move was the Mint’s inclusion of manganese in the new coin’s composition. Experience had shown that this brittle, unstable metal tends to separate and discolor when used in a coinage alloy, as it did in the Jefferson nickels issued by the Mint during World War II. The darkening and spotting already being observed on many Sacagawea coins almost certainly result, at least to some degree, from the presence of this most unsuitable metal.

Ironically, this problem hasn’t yet come to the fore because the coins have seen such limited circulation. If and when they do circulate more widely, the expression “golden dollar” will seem even more inappropriate.

The Mint took great pains to avoid making the same mistakes with the Sacagawea dollar that had doomed the hapless “Susie” two decades earlier. It used a different color (golden, if you must) to make the new coin readily distinguishable from the similarly sized quarter. It gave the coin a plain edge to make identification even easier. And it went out its way to make the design attractive, after hearing catcalls about the Anthony dollar’s dour appearance. The portrait of Sacagawea carrying her infant son is unquestionably appealing

Unfortunately, the Mint made a series of new mistakes the second time around. And, as many critics have argued, a dollar coin will never be successful in this country until the dollar bill is discontinued – a truism reinforced by the failure to date of the presidential dollar coins as well.

Perhaps the Mint and the rest of the federal government could use a good translator and guide – if they want the new dollar’s future to be golden.

Ed Reiter is senior editor of COINage and executive director of the Numismatic Literary Guild. Reiter wrote weekly numismatic columns in the Sunday New York Times for nearly a decade.