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10 Lesser-Known U.S. Coins

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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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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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