One of the most polarizing and short lived coins in our currency history was the Susan B Anthony Dollar. Plagued by unpopularity because of its size and a lackluster design, the SBA was almost doomed from the start.
Discussions of a new dollar coin began in 1976 with both vending machine companies and the public pushing back against the size of the then Dwight D. Eisenhower “Ike” Dollar coin. The Treasury Department and Congress wanted a smaller coin and began working on that design. Originally, the 26.5mm dollar was to depict Liberty as many coins in our history have done. However, Congress called on the Treasury to put a real woman on the coin, a first for our coinage. Several proposals of who that should be were submitted with social reformer Susan B Anthony selected. For the reverse, the coin would have the same design as the Eisenhower dollar, an adaptation of the Apollo 11 moon landing insignia. The coin, crucially, was also to have reeded edges. The inset of the edge would have 11 sides to it but with the reeding, it was hard to feel the difference between it and a Quarter.
Both the Obverse and Reverse of the coin were designed by chief engraver of the US Mint at the time, Frank Gasparro.
Minting of the new dollar coin began in December 1978 at the Philadelphia Mint with the Denver and San Francisco Mints starting production in January 1979. 500,000 of the coins were held by the Mint until their official release in July 1079 to the public. In all, 757,813,744 were struck in 1979 across all three mints.
Public pushback began almost immediately. At 26.5mm in size and 8.1 grams in weight, the new SBA was very close to the dimension of the Washington Quarter. That coin was 24.3mm in diameter and weighed 5.67 grams. The composition of the new dollar was the same as the Quarter and it had the same silvery look to it. Many people confused the two coins and many businesses would not accept the coin to avoid confusion themselves. Further, because of the reeded edge, it felt like a Quarter. This was particularly true for those with vision disabilities. Indeed, many historians have argued that if the SBA had a smooth edge, adoption of the coin would have been more widespread.
With so many Susan B Anthony Dollar coins on hand, the US Mint produced far less of the coins in 1980. Only 89,660,709 were produced across all three mints in 1980. The Treasury was now in a position of not knowing what to do with the coins. Melting wasn’t really an option because of the coins composition and any difference in cost from production to the melting would have been added to the national debt. So the government simply began hoarding the coins with the idea of releasing them as needed. Production fell even further in the last full year of production, 1981. Across all three mints, only 9,742,000 were produced.
With the public backlash and vending machine manufactures slow to adopt the SBA, some of which was based in technical difficulties because of its similar size to the Quarter, production of the dollar ceased. The Treasury had plenty in storage and as vending machine manufactures and public transportation companies adopted the coin size, they were trickled into the public for use. Eventually, and somewhat ironically, this lead to a shortage of dollar coins, so much so that in 1999, the SBA was given a one-off year of production to fill the gap before the new-for-2000 Sacagawea dollar was released. In 1999, 41,368,000 SBAs were produced but they were only minted at the Philadelphia and Denver Mints.
From a collectors perspective, the Susan B Anthony is somewhat maligned. Many were critical of the design of Anthony herself more for political reasons than aesthetics. Indeed, Gasparro considered the SBA as the most important design of his career. Numismatist didn’t like the design on artistic merit, feeling a female Liberty figure would have been more pleasing. Further, the reuse of the Ike dollar reverse was considered my most as a easily taking shortcut.
Regardless of perspectives, collecting Susan B Anthony Dollars can be done pretty easily. the 1979 issues are readily available with a cost of $5-10 for Mint State samples. Proof coins are a bit more at $5-10. The hardest SBAs to get are the 1981 issues given there were so few. A Mint State sample is going to be more in the $10-20 range while the Philadelphia minted Proof can be up to $50.