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10 Lesser-Known U.S. Coins

President Obama recently suggested the retirement of the penny as a way of reducing the federal budget, since it costs nearly two and a half times its face value to mint. While that may not happen any time soon, it’s still interesting to look at some other coins in U.S. history that were retired, were exceptionally rare, or never even made it off the drawing board...

1. Bullion coins

While most of America’s coinage is made up of a variety of materials, bullion coins are made up entirely of precious metals. Currently, there are four kinds: Silver Eagles, Gold Eagles, Platinum Eagles, and Gold Buffalos.

Each are legal tender and have their own face value: Silver Eagles are $1, Gold Eagles are $5, $10, $25, or $50 (depending on weight), Platinum Eagles are $100, and Gold Buffalos are $50. However, it would be a really horrible idea to spend them—the coins are intended to be bought and sold at the current market value of the metal from which they were created (which is far, far higher than the face value).

Bullion coins aren’t circulated and can’t be purchased from the U.S. Mint directly. Instead, a network of authorized sellers can hook you up ... to the tune of the market value of the metal, plus a little extra for the convenience of having it in coin form.

2. Unions

After the gold rush of 1849, Californians had a bit of a money problem. Previously, the region had solely used its own specially-minted coins for currency. Once California reached statehood, however, this became troublesome, because the U.S. Mint didn’t issue higher-value coins and paper currency was still very slow to circulate out west.

To combat this, Congress considered creating two new coins: the $100 Union and $50 Half-Union. The proposal failed, however, and neither coin saw circulation.  But in 1910, a private collector came forward with two gold Half-Unions, both marked with an 1877 date (nearly twenty years after they were rejected).

The coins are kind of a mystery. No one knows exactly why they were created (or when, since the 1877 date is possibly incorrect), but several other collectors have since found copper Half-Unions made using the same die. The two original Half-Unions are now in the Smithsonian.

3. Eagle Coins

From 1792 to 1933, America issued gold coins known as eagles (not to be confused with the bullion coins mentioned previously). The longest-lived obsolete coin in U.S. history, eagles were actually a series of related denominations. The eagle itself was worth $10, but the Mint also produced the double-eagle ($20), half-eagle ($5), and quarter-eagle ($2.50).

In 1933, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who believed that people hoarding gold might prolong the Great Depression, signed Executive Order 6102, which made it illegal for individuals to possess more than $100 worth of gold. Any amounts in excess were turned over to the government for a cash equivalent. This effectively ended production of the eagle coins, as the Mint started melting down its own supplies to assist.

4. Stella

In the 1860s, several European countries banded together to create a universal currency, sort of like an early attempt at the Euro. This group called itself the Latin Monetary Union (or LMU) and created standards for gold and silver coins that could be minted by the individual countries but were also easily exchanged on a one-for-one basis.

The U.S. briefly considered joining the LMU and produced a concept coin called the Stella. Valued at $4 US, the Stella would have been America’s version of the LMU gold coin. However, Congress rejected both the Stella and the LMU (which disbanded after World War I), so the coin went unused.

5. Three-Dollar Piece

From 1854 to 1889, the U.S. Mint produced a gold coin worth $3, which is a bit surprising, since they already had the aforementioned quarter-eagle worth $2.50. Why did they feel the need to create a separate coin for the extra 50 cents? The answer is stamps.

More specifically, for buying a whole lot of stamps. In the mid-1800s, the U.S. Postal Service actually lowered the price of stamps from five cents to three. Thus, it was widely assumed (though never directly stated) that, essentially, the sole purpose of $3 coins was for businesses to conveniently buy 100 stamps in a single transaction. Obviously, they weren’t much use for anything else. Since stamps couldn’t stay the same price forever, the coin was retired within a few decades.

(For the record, a three-dollar piece would buy six and a half stamps today.)

6. Twenty-Cent Piece

The shortest-lived circulated coin in U.S. history, the twenty-cent piece only lasted from 1875 to 1878. Once again, this was America attempting to keep parity with Europe—France, in particular. Their twenty-franc piece was approximately the same size and material as the twenty-cent piece, and so the two could, in theory, be exchanged equally.

In reality, this was almost never done. Though francs were a popular reserve currency at the time, the average citizen didn’t have much of a need for a twenty cent coin, especially since quarters were already well-established.

7. Half-Dime

Long before nickels were ever a thing, the U.S. Mint produced an entirely different five cent coin known as the half-dime. They were, in fact, about half the size of a dime as well as being half the value. From 1792 to 1873, silver half-dimes were produced to fill the gap between pennies and dimes, because no one likes a pocket full of pennies.

Trouble for the half-dime started in 1866, though, when nickel lobbyists convinced the government to authorize the creation of new five-cent pieces made out of, of course, nickel alloy. The half-dime lasted less than a decade afterward. The new so-called “nickel” quickly edged it out.

8. Three-Cent Piece

Tying back into the previously-mentioned three-dollar piece and the half-dime, the three-cent piece was a short-lived (but fairly popular) coin that was minted between 1851 and 1889. The original three-cent coin was made of silver and was introduced in response to the cheap stamps that also led to the creation of the three-dollar piece. One coin was equal to one stamp, which was simple and convenient. (You would need sixteen of them to buy a single stamp today.)

But silver hoarding became common during the Civil War, which caused circulation problems. Luckily, the same nickel lobbyists who pressured for the half-dime replacement had also gotten Congress to introduce an alternative: the three-cent nickel. For the first few years of its life, the “nickel” actually came in both three-cent and five-cent varieties.

However, since the three-cent nickel was about the same size as a dime, the two often got confused. In addition, the price of stamps changed once again, leading to the three-cent coin becoming largely unnecessary, and so it was phased out in 1889.

9. Two-Cent Piece

Another experimental coin, the two-cent piece was mostly just a stopgap piece to be used to combat coin shortages until the Civil War ended. When the war did end, the U.S. Mint just decided to keep making them and see if anyone used them. They didn’t, and between the initial 1864 run and the final 1873 series, production dropped from 20 million coins to just 600. As in 600 total.

Ironically, they might have been very popular in 1883, when the Postal Service once again performed a now-unthinkable act and dropped the cost of stamps down to two cents (where they stayed, except for a short time during WWI, until 1932).

10. Half-Cent

 

Although Americans now only see fractions of a cent at gas stations, they used to be much more common. From 1793 to 1857, the U.S. Mint produced a half-cent—the smallest value coin in American history. Fractions of a cent, which are technically called mills, were actually very useful when small denominations of currency actually had some value to them.

In fact, some states even produced one mill tokens, worth 1/10 of a cent, at various points in history. These tokens, which were not official U.S. coinage (hence the word token instead of coin), were most often used for paying sales tax on purchases.

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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15 Fascinating Facts About the Brooklyn Bridge
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Don't agree to buy it, but you can never know too much about the most famous way to get across the East River—which officially opened 135 years ago, on May 24, 1883.

1. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE NEEDED A LITTLE BRIBERY TO GET STARTED.

In its initial conception, the Brooklyn Bridge had an honorable goal: Providing safe passage across the rough and frigid East River for Brooklyn residents who worked in Manhattan. In the 1850s, Prussian-born engineer John Augustus Roebling dreamed of a suspension bridge that would make the commute easier for these working class New Yorkers.

However, the methods employed to get the project rolling weren’t quite as honorable. After Roebling was hired by the New York Bridge Company to help span the river, infamous political kingpin William “Boss” Tweed funneled $65,000 in bribes to city aldermen to secure funding for the bridge.

2. THE BRIDGE HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.

“Brooklyn Bridge” seems like a natural handle for the hybrid suspension and cable-stayed bridge connecting lower Manhattan to its neighbor across the East River, but the name evolved over time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle first referred to the project as the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1867, but in its early days it was still referred to as the “Great East River Bridge” as well as the “Great East River Suspension Bridge." At its 1883 dedication, it took on the clunky official name the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge.” (Brooklyn wouldn’t become a part of New York City until 1898.) Brooklyn civic pride led to the name officially changing to the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1915.

3. ROEBLING PAID A HIGH PRICE FOR THE BRIDGE.

The Brooklyn Bridge was Roebling’s brainchild, but he wouldn’t live to see its completion. While making measurements for the future bridge in 1869, a ferry crushed Roebling’s foot. The engineer developed tetanus as a result of these wounds and passed away in July 1869.

4. ROEBLING’S SON TOOK HIS PLACE AND HAD EQUALLY BAD LUCK.

After Roebling’s death, his son Washington Augustus Roebling stepped in as the bridge project’s chief engineer. The younger Roebling soon developed a problem of his own. To build the structure’s massive foundation, workers labored in caissons, sealed chambers that kept the riverbed dry and allowed for digging. Breathing and working deep in the caissons required compressed air, which meant workers who came up from the depths were vulnerable to “caisson disease,” better known today as the bends. In 1872, Roebling came down with this decompression sickness and was confined to bed.

5. THE PROJECT BECAME AN EARLY FEMINIST VICTORY.

After Washington Roebling fell ill, a third Roebling stepped in as the de facto chief engineer of the bridge, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. Although Emily began her tenure running orders between her husband, who was laid up in a Brooklyn Heights apartment with a view of construction, and his workers, she soon took bona fide command of the project, overseeing the design, construction, and business management of the tremendous undertaking. Emily Warren Roebling is now widely recognized as a pioneering female engineer and a driving force behind the bridge. Following her work on the bridge, Emily went on to earn a degree in law from New York University and published essays in favor of gender equality.

6. A ROOSTER MADE THE FIRST TRIP ACROSS THE BRIDGE.

Technically, the rooster was tied for first. Emily Warren Roebling earned the honor of being the first human to make the trip across the historic bridge, riding proudly in a carriage a week before its official opening in front of an audience that included President Chester A. Arthur. Sitting in Emily’s lap all the while was a rooster, a symbol of good luck.

7. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST STEEL-WIRE SUSPENSION BRIDGE.

John Augustus Roebling himself is credited with introducing the steel-wire innovation into bridge design. The engineer proudly referred to steel as “the metal of the future.”

8. A SNEAKY CONTRACTOR INTRODUCED LOW-QUALITY WIRE INTO THE MIX.

Construction materials were accumulated under the watch of John Augustus Roebling, who failed to notice that he had been swindled on his cable wire. Contractor J. Lloyd Haigh snuck a substantial amount of inferior, even faulty, wire into the mix. The flaw went unrecognized until after the wires were incorporated into the standing bridge, at which point replacing them was impossible. Instead, the construction team doubled down on its security measures, introducing far more wire than calculations deemed necessary while working desperately to keep the discovery from reaching the public. For his part, Haigh escaped prosecution for this crime, but was arrested and convicted for forgery in an unrelated case. 

9. THE BRIDGE WAS THE SITE OF A STAMPEDE SOON AFTER OPENING.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883 and enjoyed a fairly harmonious first five days in operation. On May 30, however, disaster struck when either a woman tripping or a rumor of a pending collapse sparked a panic among the massive crowd of pedestrians crossing the bridge. The mob’s frantic race to escape the bridge resulted in the deaths of 12 people and serious injuries to 36 more.

10. TWENTY-ONE ELEPHANTS WALKED ACROSS THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN 1884.

How do you convince one of America’s busiest cities that its newest bridge can offer safe transport to its many commuters? Elephants. Since the most common haven for trained elephants in the 1880s was a circus tent, the city called upon entrepreneurial showman P.T. Barnum to march 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in May of 1884 to show just how sturdy the span was.

11. COMPARTMENTS IN THE BRIDGE WERE USED FOR STORING WINE.

If you think a nice glass of wine would be the perfect companion for a moonlit stroll across a river, this is the bridge for you. Engineers built sizeable vaults that were up to 50 feet tall into the bridge beneath its anchorages. Thanks to their cool temperatures, these granite-walled storage spaces made the perfect wine cellars, and they were rented out to the public until World War I. The company A. Smith & Co. Productions forked over $500 a month as rent for the Brooklyn-side vaults, while the liquor distributor Luyties Brothers paid a pretty $5000 for the prime real estate beneath the Manhattan anchorage.

12. ANOTHER COMPARTMENT WAS TURNED INTO A FALLOUT SHELTER.

At some point during the Cold War, one of the bridge’s compartments transformed into a survival shelter stocked with food and water rations and medical supplies. After fading into obscurity after the close of the Cold War, this fallout shelter was rediscovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection of the bridge.

13. NOBODY CAN FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHAT COLOR THE BRIDGE WAS.

Upon the announcement of a plan to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010, controversy erupted over the landmark’s original color. Some historians insisted that the young suspension bridge wore a proud buff color, renamed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” for the modern makeover. (The option of “Queensborough Tan” drew groans.) On the other side of the battle, old documents and hand-colored lithographs supported the argument that the icon’s original color was “Rawlins Red,” a hue derived from the iron-oxide from the eponymous mountain town of southern Wyoming. In the end, Brooklyn Bridge Tan won out.

14. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE STANDS WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT.

The Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge features a bronze plaque commemorating the land below as the former location of the country’s first presidential mansion. Known alternatively as the Samuel Osgood House and the Walter Franklin House, the Lower Manhattan mansion served as the home of George Washington during his first ten months as America’s Commander-in-Chief. The residence stood at the intersection of Cherry Street and Pearl Street for 85 years before its demolition in 1856.

15. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE LONGEST IN THE WORLD FOR 20 YEARS.

Just two years before starting work on his New York project, John Augustus Roebling made a bit of suspension bridge history with the humbly named John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spanned 1057 feet over the Ohio River between Covington, Ky. and Cincinnati. Roebling put that endeavor to shame with the Brooklyn Bridge, which bested its predecessor’s principal span by about 50 percent. Boasting a main span of 1595 feet and a total measurement of 5,989 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge held the superlative of longest suspension bridge in the world for two decades. When it finally lost the title in 1903, its successor was none other than its fellow East River crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. The latter’s main span bested the Brooklyn Bridge’s by only four and a half feet, though its total length reached 7308 feet.

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