Calling the Susan B. Anthony dollar “controversial” is putting it mildly. Even in 2013, the vending machines in the main break-room here at Heritage can’t agree about them. The bottled-drinks vendor takes them, along with their Sacagawea and Presidential dollar cousins, while the snack machine won’t. When the drink machine gave me an SBA dollar in change – and yes, even a coin geek like me has to double-check to tell an SBA dollar from a quarter – it got me to thinking about the seldom-seen coins and an anecdote about their history.
When the Susan B. Anthony dollars were released to commerce, they wound up failing hard – the quarter-sized dollars got confused with the existing coins (much as the short-lived twenty cent pieces did back in 1875) and led to unfortunate political jibes such as the “Carter dollar,” after the one-term president under whom they made their debut. Even the Mint sometimes mixed up the blanks on which quarters and SBA dollars were struck!
When the American public by-and-large rejected the Susan B. Anthony dollars, many were sent overseas to be used in paying military personnel. Can you imagine getting a bunch of two-dollar bills and SBA dollars in your pay packet? That was reality for many troops stationed in West Germany at the time.
It was even worse for them than you might think: the West German businesses didn’t want Susan B. Anthony dollars either! Many establishments refused them outright, and even the banks, which maintained an exchange ratio of roughly 1.75 deutschemarks for each paper dollar, would take SBA dollars only one-for-one…a nasty pay cut of more than 40% on the portion paid out in SBAs.
After I received my Susan B. Anthony dollar, I showed it to Dave Stone, one of my co-workers in the cataloging department. Dave’s a great guy, really easy-going and smart with lots of worldly experience. He listened with a patient smile as I rattled off the West German payment factoid, and when he was done, he just said:
“I know. I was there.”
It’s funny. From a few of the stories he’d told me — and the good ones are not mine to tell, alas — I knew he’d been a sergeant in the U.S. Army (where he’d picked up the punning nickname “Sgt. Rock”), that he’d been stationed in West Germany, and the years were right, but I’d never once thought about him being there, trying to spend these funny tiny dollars the bars wouldn’t take, living what I knew only as a tale from history.
Already many Heritage interns don’t remember a world without the commercial Internet; as the generations of young numismatists roll on, there will be up-and-comers who won’t remember the excitement of Statehood quarters debuting, to say nothing of the many small milestones in U.S. coinage since.
All too soon it’ll be my turn to say Dave’s words and get a whippersnapper thinking.