Blagg: Shortchanging dollar coin
What the heck is wrong with the idea of a one dollar coin?
Why do Americans persist in disdaining those pretty little gold-colored representations of Sacagewea and her baby, or the 11-sided Susan B. Anthony version, with its depiction of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon?
Just about every other country in the world uses a coin for its basic currency, having long ago decided that paper bills simply don’t last long enough and are an unnecessary drain on the treasury.
That’s the fact here, as well, but we insist on clinging to our George Washingtons while spurning Saccie and Susie.
What’s going on?
Is it some sort of perverse sexism ... is it because both portray women?
Would we act differently if, as is the case in Canada, we had a diving bird on one side?
After all, Canadians seem to love their “loonies” and “toonies” (two-dollar coins) and have no trouble carrying them around, sticking them in vending machine slots or keeping track of them in cash register drawers.
And the Europeans handle their one Euro coins with little difficulty.
Why are we different?
It’s not like we have no affection for coins. After all, we treasure our pennies, despite the fact that they have so little value that many stores keep a jar of them on the counter and use them to help pay our bill for us.
And, those dollar coins are available. The U.S. Mint has produced millions of them. There are 890 million Susie B’s minted, 1.25 billion Sacageweas, and, confusingly, millions of coins of the “presidential series,” which few people except coin collectors have ever seen.
One reason for the resistance, I suppose, is their close resemblance to quarters.
Even though they are thicker, the Sacageweas are gold-washed, and the Susie B. has those 11 sides printed around its perimeter, you can (and I have!) mistake one for two bits.
But what if the government simply stopped printing paper dollars, as Canada did? We would save about $150 million a year — the cost of printing all those bills to replace the ones that wear out.
The Dollar Coin Alliance, a group that includes vending and snack food associations, mining interests — and, oddly, a car wash association — would love that. They lobby Congress furiously to stop paper bills. But the Treasury Department — which stopped minting dollars back in 2011, aside from a limited number of $1 presidential coins for collectors — has not been not swayed.
“Minting $1 coins that ultimately end up sitting in Federal Reserve Bank vaults — and serve no useful purpose for businesses, financial institutions and consumers — is simply not a prudent use of taxpayer resources,” Treasury Department officials have pronounced.
And they have a point. At present, there are about $1.4 billion in $1 coins — enough to meet the demand for the next 40 years — sitting in government vaults. That’s far more than half of all $1 coins ever minted.
The government has made some fairly feeble efforts to increase the dollar coins’ usage. They used to be given as change by United States Postal Service stamp vending machines, for example, but the USPS eliminated all those machines by 2010. They were also used in certain subway and public transit systems, like the “T” in Boston. And there are a surprising number of vending machines that will take them — but they usually don’t make that clear, so most people never think of using them.
I like them and I’d gladly use them if dollar bills were discontinued.
I particularly like the gold Sacageweas. Did you know that the little baby on her back is only the second child ever portrayed on U.S. currency? The first was printed in 1896 and was a $1 silver certificate which featured a woman instructing a boy about the U.S. Constitution.
The baby is Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, her son, who was born on the Lewis & Clark expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase. He was provided with an education by Capt. William Clark after the mission was completed, and he went on to a varied and exciting career.
He spoke several languages, spent some time in Europe, was a scout during the Mexican War and was elected alcalde (mayor) of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, which is now known as Oceanside, California. Pompeys Pillar on the Yellowstone River in Montana (he was called “Pompey” by members of the expedition) and the community of Charbonneau, Oregon, are named for him.
We don’t really know what Sacagawea looked like, so the artist that designed the coin, Glenna Goodacre, used Randy’L He-dow Teton, a Shoshone who was a student at the University of New Mexico, as a model.
I don’t know if the government will ever bite the bullet and stop printing dollar bills, but frankly I wouldn’t miss them — and I’d enjoy using coins in their place.
Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.