American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

The United States in the 20th Century


U.S. coinage in the 20th century was greatly affected by governmental concerns about reserves of metal and production costs. Responding to the pressures of the Great Depression (1929-1939), in 1934 the Federal Government made it illegal for private citizens to own monetary gold and centralized the country's gold reserves at Fort Knox. The ban on gold ownership was not lifted until 1975. In 1965, the silver traditionally used for most U.S. denominations was replaced by a copper-nickel composition, thereby making it a truly fiduciary currency.

One of the most important trends in American coin design in the 20th century had been the gradual shift away from the personification of Liberty that dominated the coinage of the previous century to the portraits of the deceased presidents. This process began in 1908 with the production of cents bearing the portrait of Abraham Lincoln and was completed in 1971 when Dwight D. Eisenhower was placed on the dollar, the last U.S. denomination to be redesigned with a presidential portrait. However, the introductions of the Susan B. Anthony dollar in 1979 and the Sacagawea dollar in 2000 represent new departures from the presidential program.

In addition to the usual circulating coinage, the U.S. Mint also produced commemorative coinages (mostly half dollars) to celebrate special events and to help pay for the cost of special projects. The current State Quarters program is an outgrowth of this interest in producing commemorative coins.