Chapter 19: Eisenhower Dollars, Historical Background Table of Contents


Historical Background


by R.W. Julian

Background of the Coin

For some curious reason the Eisenhower dollar of 1971-1978 is considered something of an historical accident. The story goes that it was the intention of the Treasury Department to honor the moon landing of July 1969 with a coin, and the dollar denomination was chosen. In this way, should the coinage be hoarded as was the case in the Kennedy half dollar, there would be no interference with the circulating coinage used in daily affairs by the public.

It is far more likely that the idea was to honor Dwight David Eisenhower and that the moon landing was an afterthought to make the idea more palatable to all concerned. Eisenhower, the distinguished five-star general and retired president, had died in 1969 and had no specific relationship with the reverse design although he did strongly promote the space effort which was to eventually lead to the moon landing. The design did not require congressional authorization as the normal 25 years between designs had expired for the Peace dollar (first coined in 1921) in 1946, an event that was singularly ignored at the time.

The Design

The use of Eisenhower on a coin was just as political as the Kennedy half dollar of 1964 or the Roosevelt dime of 1946, though in 1970 the matter was handled in a far better manner. The choice of a moon landing, an event which captured the public's mind in 1969, was a stroke of genius but so was the denomination. Little used in daily affairs, the dollar served as an ideal commemorative for both Eisenhower and Apollo XI.

The head of Eisenhower was well modeled by Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro, who was to later explain that his memories of seeing the general in person in 1945 shaped the way in which the artwork was carried out. However, the engraver was also ordered to use the same general proportions of the outline of the Washington quarter for the obverse inscription.

Gasparro's reverse is based on the Apollo XI insignia originally developed by Michael Collins and others for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) when that flight was being readied for its historic mission. The eagle landing on the surface of the moon is quite well done, and the fact that the bird holds only olive branches (the symbol of peace) rather than arrows as well, meant that the public would like the design.

There was an alternate reverse design prepared, in which a more formal eagle was used. It was reminiscent of something that might have been found on a pattern of the 1870s and shows that the Apollo reverse was not exactly the motivating feature of the coinage. One of the two reverses (it is uncertain which) was objected to by the professional worriers at the State Department who thought that the eagle's expression might accidentally offend somebody somewhere. The expression just had to appear friendly if we were to be liked around the world, an attitude which explains why the opposite is sometimes true.

The Apollo design was actually kept secret for some time until it was leaked to Congress. Their demand resulted in the moon landing reverse being used instead of the alternate eagle. On December 31, 1970,President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the Bank Holding Company Act, which had provisions concerning the Eisenhower dollar with an Apollo reverse. The composition was specified to coincide with the dimes and quarters struck after 1964 as well as Kennedy halves after 1970. The dollars were first coined in 1971 under the provisions of the 1964 Coinage Act mandating a copper-nickel composition.

The December 1970 law did permit the coinage of up to 150 million silver clad dollars(400/1000 fine overall, the same general form as for the Kennedy half dollars of 1965-1970) for sale to collectors. Up to 130 million could be Uncirculated pieces (business strikes) with the remainder (20 million) as Proofs for sale at a premium to collectors.

Release of the Dollars

Eisenhower dollars were released by the banks on November 1,1971, and were quickly snapped up by collectors, though a few of the coins actually circulated, The 1971 issues frequently carne covered with a film of light oil, but collectors wiped this off. Many of the 1971 coins were not well struck, and most numismatists took the opportunity to hunt through rolls to find the best specimens. Unlike earlier dollar coinages which were completely fabricated in house, after 1970 the mints purchased clad strip from private contractors.

Most of the criticism that was heard concerned the shape of the earth on the reverse; The critics did not realize that Gasparro had faithfully copied the NASA badge, but later the Mint Bureau asked that the earth be made more recognizable to those with little else to do except peer at the reverse with a magnifying glass. Gasparro did refine the dies from time to time and thatproblem was soon cleared up.

Both Philadelphia and Denver struck the cupro-nickel issues in great quantity (more than 100 million) while the San Francisco Mint specialized in both Uncirculated and Proof examples of the silver clad version; more than 10 million were made. The mass mintages of all kinds means that collectors may easily obtain high-quality specimens for a reasonable sum.

For 1971-1972 the copper-nickel dollar was not placed in the regular Proof set, but this omission was rectified in 1973 and the Eisenhower dollar was a regular part of this set through the end of the coinagein 1978. The San Francisco Mint also continued its series' of Uncirculated and Proof 40% silver clad dollars from 1971 to 1974.

Perhaps the most interesting coin of the 1971-1974 series is the 1974-D struck on silver clad blanks. Walter H. Breen reports that about 30 of these are known. The strikingresulted from an accidental shipment of rejected 40 percent silver blanks from San Francisco to Denver in 1974. These blanks were supposed to be melted but somehow wound up in the wrong bin. Most of the special coins were found in the Nevada area in the autumn of 1974.

Congress, in 1974, mandated that a certain part of the profits from the sale of Proof Eisenhower dollars was to go a college named after the president and located in Seneca Falls, New York. About $9 million wound up in the coffers of the college, over the protests of virtually every collector, who saw a very bad precedent being set. It was also a poor method of honoring the late president. Unfortunately, this process of using collector dollars for other purposes will probably continue.

The Bicentennial celebration meant a different reverse for the dollar. A special contest, announced in October 1973, was held to design the back of the Eisenhower dollar just for this event and Dennis R. Williams won with his rendition, superbly executed, of. the Liberty Bell superimposed over the moon. The design was well, accepted by the public but not so well by the numismatic community because the Liberty Bell had been used before. The plasters were executedby the Mint engraving staff under the direction of Frank Gasparro.

To show the quality of some of the designs submitted, there was a special display arranged in the 1970s. The submissions ranged from the sublime to the bizarre, and one wonders how some of them could be sent through the mails. Those chosen were of a very high quality, despite numismatic carping; it is the public that counts. The three Bicentennial coin designs were unusual in that standard practice for circulating coins of the quarter, half, and dollar designs had been to include an eagle as part of the reverse motif.

The Bicentennial coinage was marked by a dual date, 1776-1976. (The date 1975 did not appear on dollars, half dollars, or quarters, because regular coinage of the Bicentennial issues began in 1975. There was a special trial coinage in August 1974;) Midway in the coinage the lettering was redesigned to be thinner and easier to read. The heavier lettering is usually called Variety I while the thinner and more graceful forms are termed Variety II.

Chapter 19: Eisenhower Dollars, Historical Background Table of Contents