By Dennis Hetzel
You probably have never heard of Susan B. Anthony. I’ll provide a little insight and then let you know what caused me to bring up her name.
In 1820, Anthony was born into a very strict, religious (Quaker) family living in the US state of Massachusetts. Early in life, she developed a very strong sense of justice and through her moral zeal became a very opinionated and out-spoken woman. Remember that two hundred years ago, the US and the world were very different than they are today. For example, as a young woman Anthony vigorously opposed slavery which didn’t end until after the US Civil War (1861 to 1865). She was also very active in the suffrage movement, campaigning for women to be allowed to vote. At the time the US Constitution allowed the States to make many of their own rules and most States restricted voting to white, male, property owners. Based on her Quaker upbringing, she believed drinking liquor was sinful so became very active in the Temperance Movement which led to Prohibition, a nationwide ban of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. Suffice it to say, Anthony was a very active, aggressive, visible, courageous and compassionate woman in the 1800’s; during a time when females were supposed to be stay-at-home moms or maybe school teachers.
So why discuss Susan B Anthony? In 1979, the United States decided to create a “silver dollar” coin made from copper and nickel, not silver. There were many reasons to transition from the paper one-dollar bill to a coin, not the least of which was durability. Even today paper bills remain very popular, everyone carries a few in their wallet. But they get folded, crushed, laundered and hung out to dry. They wear out quickly. Coins last almost forever. Over time, coins would save the Treasury billions of dollars. But, before the new one-dollar coin could be released, the US Treasury Department had to solve dozens of problems one of which was vending machines. Increased cost of vending machine items had already caused manufacturers to convert machines to accept dollar bills, paper money. Now manufacturers were asked to modify machines to accept the new dollar coins. In stores, cash registers didn’t have a slot for the new coins. Banks’ coin counting machines had to be converted. With these and other problems solved, the Treasury needed to select a design for the new coin. They honored a popular suffragette from the 1800s … and in 1979, Susan B Anthony became the face of the new silver dollar. Despite all the planning and million-dollar media campaigns to educate the public, the new Suzy B didn’t fair well. The public simply didn’t like and refused to use the new coins.
One of the biggest issues, the new coin was too much like the quarter-dollar: the same color, shape, and almost the same size. The Treasury Department pushed the coins strongly from 1979 to 1981, and then again in 1999. Still, most dollar coins remained uncirculated in Treasury vaults. People didn’t like them. But, was the failure of the Suzy B due only to its similarity to the quarter? In the year 2000, the US released the first of the “golden” dollar coins that supposedly fixed all the problems with the Suzy B. This gold-colored coin featured Sacagawea, a female Native American who in the early 1800s served as a guide and translator for Lewis and Clark as they explored vast areas of North Western wilderness that eventually became the Dakotas, Idaho, Wyoming and several other US States. Sacagawea was especially effective because she was multilingual and could communicate with the many Indian tribes that the expedition encountered. However, her success as a tour guide didn’t guarantee success of her golden dollar coin. One evaluator expressed his negative feelings, “Ten one-dollar bills in my wallet weigh virtually nothing. Ten one-dollar coins in my pocket are heavy, jingle (make noise), and distort the line of my trousers.” Another said, “Most tailored women’s clothing does not include pockets. It’s much more difficult for women to carry coins.”
So, I guess we’ve come full circle. Except for a few special locations like Las Vegas casinos, dollar coins remain unpopular. Americans still use the dollar bill.