Susan B. Anthony coin (the one on the left). The coin quickly failed to catch on, and the bulk of the reasons for failure are obvious. The coin was almost the same size as the quarter, and it was the same color. This made it hard to pick out as separate in a handful of change. (In comparison, the old 50 cent piece was larger than this dollar coin, and the silver dollar had been larger still. [Here’s a Wikipedia page showing the sizes.]) The Susan B. Anthony dollar also had a nice 12-sided shape stamped into the coin, but the coin was (foolishly) left round rather than using the angular shape as the edge of the coin, which would have allowed it to be differentiated by feel. In fact, this dollar coin even had the same grooved edge as the quarter.
(Conspiracy-minded folks would say that these similarities were intentional, ensuring that the coin would fail. That the coin also had a woman on it, and not just any woman but a major feminist symbol, surely adds to the conspiracy “proof”. Less conspiracy-minded folks note that stores have a set layout for the coins and bills in their cash registers and thus don’t have an empty slot waiting to fill with dollar coins. Or $2 bills.)
In 2000, the US Mint gave another run at a dollar coin. This one, featuring Sacagawea, was the same size as the previous one, but with its smooth edge and gold tint, it was able to avoid much of the problems built into the previous coin: you could sort of tell it apart from the quarter by feel, and there was no problem by sight. It still failed, though. (And it still had a woman on it…)
Somehow, the Canadians have been successful with their dollar coin (the Loonie): it is slightly larger than our dollar coins, and it has a beveled edge. And their two dollar coin (the Toonie) has a gold circle embedded in the silver: you can tell it apart even in a dimly lit bar. (Of course, having a woman — the Queen — on their coins is not going to be a problem.)
With the Sacagawea coin, I am told that the intent was to have it replace the $1 bill, much like the Canadians did in 1989. One bar in Chicago was giving them out rather than bills for change when I was there in November 2000. (I winkingly accused them of doing it to boost bartender tips, since people often just dump their change into a jar without counting it closely.) The replacement effort failed or was abandoned, or perhaps never was more than a rumor; it’s hard to imagine it would actually succeed in this country.
Today, pretty much the only place you can get these coins is in post office vending machines, whenever your change would be more than a dollar. (When it’s less than a dollar, the change all seems to come in nickels: not even dimes, and certainly no quarters.)
Updated on July 9, 2004
Remixed into WeblogUpdated on September 8, 2010
Added links, made other revisions