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Changing Coins Is An Old Tradition

Sat., Oct. 4, 1997, midnight

Coins used to get face lifts more often.

Until the United States began engraving dead presidents onto its metal money in 1909, most coins were regularly reincarnated with such images as Indian princesses, buffalo, six-pointed stars, wreaths, shields and a mythical woman known as Miss Liberty.

Statesmen were not honored because it was considered undemocratic. George Washington, for instance, rejected efforts to stamp his likeness on coins.

“Monarchies put kings and the like on coins, but it was felt a democracy shouldn’t focus on one person,” said Alan M. Stahl, a museum curator at the American Numismatic Society in New York.

That unwritten policy shifted dramatically this century. After the Lincoln penny debuted in 1909, Thomas Jefferson and Monticello replaced the nickel’s Indian head and buffalo, FDR supplanted the Mercury dime’s Miss Liberty and Benjamin Franklin assumed the starring role on half dollars. Franklin later got bumped by John F. Kennedy and, in 1971, the silver dollar took on Dwight Eisenhower’s visage.

Then came the Susan B. Anthony dollar debacle of 1979. The widespread unpopularity of the odd-shaped, quarter-sized coin was “traumatic for the Mint and caused things to freeze up (in new coin design),” said John Kleeberg, curator of modern coins for the American Numismatic Society.


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