The United States has been embroiled in war for the past several decades, and yet most Americans live without knowing it experientially. We hear about it on the news, but we ignore it because we’ve adapted to hearing about it. These wars also exist outside our borders, so out of sight and out of mind. There was a time, however, when all Americans endured the sheer terror and heartbreaking loss of war, and took the news of it seriously. Their future was murky with the blood, sweat, and tears of the men and boys serving on both sides of the US Civil War. Known as the bloodiest conflict in US history, the Civil War claimed more American lives than both world wars, the Korean, and Vietnam wars combined. Two percent of the population perished terribly within four years from battles and disease. That’s around 620,000- 650,000 men and boys extinguished; or by comparison to today’s population, six million souls with all their dreams and potential, brutally wiped off the face of the earth.
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard and his men lit up Union forces at Fort Sumter with 4000 rounds of ammunition. It ended April 9, 1865, when General Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the last remaining Confederate army, agreed to surrender. The war itself cost a little over 6 billion dollars ($146 billion today). Since the South hosted the majority of battles, the financial toll was overwhelming at approximately 10 billion dollars in property damage; additionally, nearly half of all the livestock in the South was decimated. The war and its aftermath left the country’s populations devastated emotionally, and economically, ushering in the era of Reconstruction.
Reconstruction came with its own difficulties— particularly in the South. Southern whites struggled with the effects of Republican accomplishments in Congress that provided liberty for those once enslaved. Republicans had passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, abolishing involuntary servitude, while guaranteeing Freedmen rights of citizenship, equal protection under the law, and the right to vote. New labor systems were forming out of necessity, like sharecropping. Many in this system awakened to poverty daily, yet others looked to the opportunities of the Pacific Railroad and newer transcontinental railroads in the making.
From 1866 to 1873, roughly 35,000 miles of railway was constructed across the nation. The railroads boasted more employees than any other sector at the time, excluding agriculture. Railroad construction was roaring, but the economic depression still existed despite new businesses cropping up around the track-ways. Banks were heavily invested in the railroads, and one bank in particular, Jay Cooke and Company, actually held the majority of this risky industry on its shoulders. They even acted as a Federal Agent to facilitate the government finance of new railway projects across unsettled lands in the northern territories. The government was trying to regain stability across the country for the good of its people, and also for appearances abroad.
During this time, across the Pacific, China was set upon by imperialists from Europe and Japan. Both the Europeans and the Japanese were looking to break apart the eastern giant while selling their goods to the Chinese people. The USA, on the other hand, created an “open-door” policy with the Chinese allowing both parties to freely trade internationally in the absence of monolithic government controls. This policy kept China intact, independent, and created the possibility for economic growth. Across the Atlantic, Germany dropped the bimetallic standard and switched to the gold standard, which impacted currency values and trade globally. Silver had been mined in abundance, and once silver was removed from the German standard, it lost its value significantly here in the States. Silver was already hurting due to American hoarding of the precious metal during difficult times. This currency change forced many nations to reconsider the standard of their own currencies so they could remain relevant in the world market— this included the US, who shortly thereafter went on the gold standard.
What became known as the Panic of 1873, resulted from the combination of these events: the Civil War, the devaluation of silver, and the bankruptcy of the aforementioned bank, Jay Cooke and Company, who had overextended their resources attempting to build the Northern Pacific Railroad. Other banks followed suit. The monetary result of war, and the Panic, was the bankruptcy of 89 railroads and 18,000 related businesses. Unemployment in the US subsequently skyrocketed to a disastrous 14%.
For nearly a decade, the people were hurting and so was their money. In response to the
Panic, the US government passed the Coinage Act of 1873, stopping the production of several silver coins. The following coins were removed and replaced by what is known today as the Trade Dollar: Half Dimes, the Three Cent Silver, and the Seated Liberty Dollar. This Trade Dollar, like most Trade Dollars, was designed for international trade and not domestic commerce. This Trade Dollar was specifically intended for the Chinese market. The US hoped to compete more effectively with the Mexican Peso, which was favored by the Chinese. Despite this effort, The Chinese still favored the Peso for many reasons, and slowly the Trade Dollar seeped into US commerce.
The people of the US disliked the Trade Dollar. Its value was constantly under dispute. Many merchants discounted its value at the counter; some businesses and banks flat out refused it. The US government demonetized it in 1876, and halted production in 1878. This Trade Dollar and the former Seated Liberty, though retired from production, began to see some new ‘action’ from those who once wielded them in commerce.
This new action meant squadouche economically, but it had a significant cultural meaning and impact. This retirement of coins marks the beginning of a trend in numismatics known as ‘Hobo Nickels’, where artists would further carve down the obverse and reverse sides of coins to produce unique designs. The Hobo Nickel trend that took off during the Great Depression had its roots in the Potty Dollar of the post-Panic era decades before. Disgruntled citizens also bitten by the creative bug saw fit to bas relief the ever-living-excrement out of these dollar coins, figuratively speaking, of course. These ‘Potty Dollars’ humorously displayed lovely Lady Liberty occupied on a chamber pot— a portable toilet sans plumbing.
A person could argue that the ‘potty’ appeared on these coins because it was a logical step to carve away the stone on which Liberty sat, and turn it into a toilet. While that is true, there is another argument to be had: by 1878, all Americans had endured over fifteen years of total upheaval, pain, panic, and loss. They had lived through absolute hell, and all in the name of Liberty. Liberty is not to blame, as liberty is always a blessing; but when countries mobilize the masses to battle and destroy for whatever purpose, these efforts must be made in the name of something benevolent. People crave glory and honor, they desire a legacy, and so without fail, history always repeats itself.
The appearance of Potty Dollars doesn’t just speak to a brand of crass, perhaps juvenile, humor; it speaks more to the humor derived from tragedy— the humor that simultaneously encapsulates and relieves the pain of existence. It’s a symbolic message: Liberty had seemingly taken a proverbial ‘dump’ on the public, and all were suffering. Potty Dollars are a relic from a period of time riddled with woe and shock. They represent more than a folk art trend. They represent the results of one of the most turbulent times in American history, and a brand of humor that could only come from these United States.
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