“There are too many coin collectors for the comfort of the U.S. Treasury.”
It’s the 1960’s. The country is on edge during a time of social upheaval, President Kennedy has been assassinated, and the war in Vietnam is still rolling on. To add to the mess, the government is running short on silver, there is a massive coin shortage, and things are looking bleak. While the government scrambles to find a solution, some officials are looking to place blame. Their target? Coin collectors.
In 1964, Senator Lee Metcalf (D, Montana) put forward a bill to eliminate the use of dates and mintmarks on coins. This would make the coins undesirable to collectors, and would therefore ensure that they stayed in circulation. To make things worse, the Treasurer of the United States, Kathryn O’Hay Granahan, dropped the quote at the beginning of the story: “There are too many coin collectors for the comfort of the U.S. Treasury.” Though the dates and mintmarks were allowed to remain on the coins, a date freeze was proposed: coins would be marked for 1964 until the shortage was alleviated.
Coin collectors were incensed by the accusation that they were the source of the nation’s coin shortage; many wrote letters to coin publications and congressmen, protesting the claim. Some threw the blame at the feet of speculators and investors, others blamed the popularity of vending machines where coins piled up for months before returning to circulation. (In reality, many Americans had begun holding on to the silver coins, as the value of the silver rose over the face value of the coins.) The director of the Mint, Eva Adams, pleaded with “true and honest” collectors to stop collecting by roll and bag (a popular way to collect at the time) and return the majority of coins to circulation.
Casual collectors and numismatists alike went into action to save their hobby. Walter Breen, renowned numismatist, pointed out the sheer number of coins used in laundromats, pay phones, tolls, and buses, all of which took a great deal of time to return to circulation. He insisted that blaming collectors for the shortage was “a triumph of stupidity.” The editor of Coin World magazine, Margo Russell, was called to testify before the Senate Banking Committee, where she passionately defended coin collectors and urged against the use of a date freeze.
It didn’t work. President Johnson signed the freeze into law on September 3, 1964; on September 8, the Treasury announced that coins minted after January 1, 1965, would be dated 1964.
But the news got worse for coin collectors. Senator Alan Bible (D-Nevada) put forward a bill on May 21, 1965, that would have criminalized coin collecting itself, except for designated “bona fide collectors’ items.” The bill would have made the export, selling, or purchase of coins illegal, which would have severely limited most collectors and coin shops. Bible proposed that the Treasury Department publish a list of coins that were “numismatically desirable,” which would be legal to hold. Common coins could not be legally collected. Those who collected modern coins were particularly disturbed by this proposal, as it would have required the dissolution of their collections and the inability to rebuild them. Others pointed out that this bill would also criminalize any child with a simple piggy bank full of coins.
Collectors and dealers banded together to form the United Coin Collectors Alliance in June of 1965, solely for the purpose of defeating Bible’s bill. Chet Krause of Numismatic News was at the forefront of the effort, and served as the executive director of communications.
The government, after detailed study, decided that the best way to alleviate the coin shortage was to move to clad coins instead of the more precious silver coinage. The Mint worked overtime to put the new clad coins into circulation for the 1965 holiday season, and it worked, even if the coins were considered less attractive than the earlier silver pieces.
1966 brought an end to the time of silver coins in the United States, with the last quarters struck in January, the last dimes in February, and the last half-dollars in April. The first 1965-dated coins were struck on December 29, 1965; the 1965 date was used until July 31, 1966, when it was updated to 1966. Normal dating resumed on January 1, 1967.
While coin collecting had escaped being criminalized, many collectors felt that it had changed forever with the loss of silver coinage. Many sets remained incomplete, as a lack of accurate dates prevented a collector from knowing when a coin had been minted.
However, coin collecting has proven to be one of the most resilient pursuits, and over the years, it began to revive. The silver coins proved highly collectible after the introduction of the clad coins, and clad coins themselves began to be collected by some hobbyists. Coin collecting may change, sometimes dramatically, but it always returns for new generations.