5. Eisenhower Dollar
Americans may have liked Ike, but they did not like the bulky dollar coin minted in honor of President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1971-1978. There seemed to be no demand for the coin, either among the general public or even from coin collectors, but the gaming industry lobbied to get the coin minted, on the theory that gamblers would rather have slot machines spit out real money rather than tokens. On an artistic note, collectors widely regard the coin as having one of the worst designs in U.S. history. So the public didn’t use it, merchants hated it, collectors shunned it, and the dollar faded away after a troubled eight-year run.
4. $2 Bill
Many people are incredulous to learn that the $2 bill is still in circulation in the United States, and still being printed. The first $2 bills were printed in 1862, but were discontinued in 1966, because they were unpopular and rarely used. In April 1976, the bills were reintroduced as a supposed cost-saving measure, and the bills have subsequently become … unpopular and rarely used. They are so rarely used, in fact, that in one bizarre case, a national chain store contacted police and a man was arrested, cuffed and put in leg irons for paying his tab with $2 bills. The bill does enjoy some use as a novelty. For example, fans of the Clemson University Tigers routinely spend $2 bills at away games to demonstrate the fans’ economic impact on the local economy.
3. 1804 Silver Dollar
This coin’s history is the stuff of legend, a tale that includes pirates, counterfeiting, a daring armed robbery and foreign kings. This convoluted tale begins, not surprisingly, in early 1804, when the Philadelphia mint struck almost 20,000 silver dollars. Because the mint used year-old dies, the coins were dated 1803. The ultimate fate of most of these coins remains a mystery, although a late 19th century book claims most were sent as payment to U.S. sailors and soldiers fighting the war against the Barbary pirates. The mint stopped production of silver dollars that year. Flash forward 30 years, when President Andrew Jackson wanted to present gifts of each example of U.S. coinage to the King of Siam and the Sultan of Muscat. When someone pointed out no silver dollars had been minted in 30 years, a U.S. mint official decided to produce a small number of dollar coins in 1834. For some unknown reason, the decision was made to stamp them with the date 1804. Thus, the first dollars bearing that date were actually struck in 1834. Today, eight of these coins, regarded by collectors as Class I 1804 dollars, are known to exist, including one at the Smithsonian Institution. Even in the mid-19th century, it was understood the limited number of those coins made them extremely valuable. So between 1858 and 1860, an unscrupulous U.S. mint employee took existing dollar-sized coins and restruck about a dozen with the 1804 date and design. Government officials located and destroyed these so-called Class II dollars — all but one, which is also at the Smithsonian.
That’s not the end of the story. According to the Smithsonian, another half dozen 1804 dollars were struck as late as the 1870s, and are known as Class III types. Yes, the Smithsonian has that coin as well, a coin with a history of its own; in a daring home invasion in Miami in 1967, armed thieves stole that dollar and thousands of other rare coins from Willis DuPont’s collection. An FBI sting operation recovered the coin in 1982.
2. Susan B. Anthony Dollar
Susan B. Anthony played a critical role in the women’s rights movement in the 19th century, and her efforts ultimately led to passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. By all means, she should be honored … but not with the numismatic failure of the Susan B. Anthony dollar. The U.S. began minting Susan B. Anthony dollars in 1979, to replace the unpopular Eisenhower Dollar. Whereas people did not want to carry the bulky Eisenhower Dollars around, U.S. officials felt the smaller Susan B. Anthony — nicknamed the “Susie” — would be more consumer-friendly. They were wrong. Consumers continued to prefer carrying paper dollars instead of coins, and the Susan B. Anthony dollar proved even more problematic than the Eisenhower, as its size and color made it prone to confusion with the U.S. quarter. After a three-year run from 1979-81, the government halted production, only to resume one year of production in 1999.
1. The Penny
Yes, pennies were an integral part of commerce back in the days when we had penny candy, and 5 cents bought a soda. And they’re a part of American lore. Who hasn’t heard the expressions, “A penny for your thoughts,” “Lucky penny,” or “Penny pincher”? Putting sentiment aside, these days, the penny is a financial sinkhole for the U.S. government. As of 2012, it cost approximately 2.4 cents in raw materials and labor to mint a penny. One economist, Robert Whaples of Wake Forest University, estimates the production of pennies causes an annual net loss of some $300 million in the U.S. (although the government puts the figure at closer to $50 million). As noted earlier, Canadian officials have seen the absurdity of a similar situation in their country and halted production of pennies in early 2012. Yet two proposals in Congress to kill the penny in the U.S. failed in recent years, and polls have shown that the public has an affinity for the coin. A 2006 Gallup/USA Today poll found 55 percent of respondents considered the penny “useful.” Even more surprisingly, more than three-quarters of those surveyed said they’d pick up a penny they saw on the ground. So the penny doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon: the U.S. mint struck 4.3 billion pennies in 2011, roughly half of all coins minted for circulation.