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The History of Americas Coinage


American coins have seen a great deal of change over the course of United States history. While some coins remain popular and widely circulated, others are now simply collectible historic relics. Since their initial introduction as official U.S. currency, the types of coins in circulation, their designs, and even their metal composition has changed to reflect historic and economic shifts. American coins are continuously updated in response to these factors and to best serve the needs of the public. Learn more about the history of coins in America:

Introduction of Coins to U.S. Currency

The United States had no official coinage until the Coinage Act of 1792. Instead, citizens relied on an assortment of foreign coins and traditional barter and trade systems. With the passage of this act, the U.S. mint was established and charged with minting official U.S. coins. The earliest coins minted in the U.S. ranged from $10 coins of pure gold to half pennies made of copper, and their value was tied to actual gold and silver standards and ratios. These coin compositions saw various changes over time because of changes in the value of precious metals. Similarly, the denomination of coins in circulation also changed over time as paper currency gained popularity due to changing standards in the regulation of precious metals.

Dollar Coin

Dollar coins have been minted since the earliest days of U.S. currency. While dollar coins are still in circulation and new coins are introduced with great fanfare, they have become increasingly unpopular over the years as people prefer to use dollar bills. The silver dollar was introduced in 1794 because citizens were already familiar with the popular Spanish silver dollar coin. These coins were produced through the early 20th century and most versions had images depicting various personifications of Liberty and Peace. Silver dollar coins are now generally considered collectables and not in circulation. Gold dollar coins were also issued for a short time in the late 1800's. Modern iterations of the dollar coin have featured Eisenhower and Susan B. Anthony. Both of these commemorative coins were composed of metal alloys and were unpopular with the public. While they no longer generally in circulation, they are still accepted as currency. Dollar coins still in circulation include the Sacagawea coin, the American Silver Eagle coin, and the Presidential Dollar Coin.

Sacagawea Coin

Sacagawea was a member of the Shoshone tribe of Native Americans who was integral to the exploration of the Western United States as Lewis and Clarke's guide. The US government honored her significant role in United States history with the issuance of the Sacagawea golden dollar coin in 2000. The coin shows a depiction of Sacagawea on the face and various designs on the back. The original release had an eagle design that has since been replaced with annually updated images reflecting Native American culture. The coin's gold hue comes from a copper core covered with manganese and brass. Like previous dollar coins, the Sacagawea coin has proven rather unpopular with the public despite strong marketing efforts led by the U.S Mint. While the coin is still in circulation, the U.S. Mint has drastically reduced production because of vast amounts of unused supplies.

The History of U.S. Coins

The denomination of U.S. coins in circulation has changed over the years. Paper bills replaced coinage as the preferred currency after 1933 and larger denomination coins fell out of favor, leaving us with the system of coins currently in circulation. The penny, nickel, dime, quarter, and half-dollar coins were all introduced into U.S. currency following the Coinage Act of 1792. They have all changed over the years, evolving into the coins we are familiar with today. Earlier versions of coins generally had images of liberty as the face of the design, but each major coin design was ultimately updated to that of a former U.S. President. Abraham Lincoln became the face of the penny in 1909 and George Washington's image was added to the quarter in 1932. Thomas Jefferson was added to the nickel in 1938 and his image updated in 2006, while the Franklin D. Roosevelt dime was first minted in 1946. The reverse sides of all coins have seen updates over the years, particularly the penny and quarter. John F. Kennedy has been commemorated on the half dollar since 1964, but unlike the rest of these coins which are still in circulation, the JFK half dollar is now primarily a collectible coin and rarely used.

The Evolution of Coins

Coins have changed over the years as the U.S. mint updates their composition and design elements. Pennies were originally made entirely of copper. The percent of copper decreased as copper prices fluctuated over the years, but remained mostly copper until 1982 when, due to inflation, the cost of copper made the actual value of the metal required for each penny exceed one cent. Since 1982, pennies have been composed of copper-plated zinc. Even with this change, it currently costs nearly 2 cents to mint a penny. The cost of production, combined with general opinions of the penny's lack of usefulness, has led to a contentious debate regarding the future of the penny. The half dollar, quarter, dime, and nickel all began as silver coins, but all were ultimately changed over to copper and nickel compositions due to the rising costs of silver.