Let’s say you were a manufacturer of widgets of some sort. You made literally millions of widgets each year — but could not sell the vast majority of them due to lack of demand. Within a year or two, you’d either change your product strategy or go out of business. And, therefore, you are probably not the United States Mint. Because for about six years, the Mint spent $50 million annually creating $1 coins bearing the likenesses of past U.S. presidents — and, finding no buyers for those coins, collected them in vaults. The total value of the uncirculated coins?
Roughly $1.4 billion.
At the close of 2005, Congress passed the Presidential $1 Coin Act (pdf here) which was aimed at popularizing the $1 coin in the United States. While some other nations use coins for their equivalent denomination, Americans typically prefer the $1 bill to coins of the same denomination. The Act required that the Mint create $1 coins bearing the image of past presidents, four per year until each deceased president was so honored. (Assuming that Jimmy Carter out-survives the program, it is unclear whether Ronald Reagan would be honored, as that would require skipping Carter.) The drafters of the Act believed that these images would spur interest in the coin, which last much longer than bills (dollar bills have a lifespan of about 18 months to two years) and therefore could save the government billions of dollars in the long term — although this is hotly debated.
Regardless, in 2007, the first of the coins came out. Featuring the likeness of George Washington (an example seen above), over 340 million of these coins were minted, with the first batch released on Presidents’ Day (February 15th) of that year. Another 224 million John Adams coins came out a few months later, then 200 million Thomas Jefferson ones, and so forth. On November 17, 2011, the 20th President of the United States, James A. Garfield, was so honored, and 74 million of his coins were minted. And almost no one wanted them.
According to NPR’s Planet Money, as of June 2011, there were a billion dollars worth of these coins sitting in Federal Reserve vaults across the country, stored until such time that the culture changes and dollar coins become en vogue. As seen here (via the afore-linked NPR article), the coins are literally sitting in bags, stacked one on top of another in large metal racks. Each bag is a mix of various dollar coins, including Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony coins. As there’s no demand for these coins, the Federal Reserve simply stores them, hoping that over time, demand will increase and this cache of cash will make its way into the pockets of everyday Americans.
In no small part due to the above-cited Planet Money piece, that is now more likely than it otherwise would have been. On December 13, 2011 — six months after the NPR article segment ran — the White House announced that the $1 coin program would end, and the Mint would only make enough coins to meet the demand of collectors. In February of 2012, the Mint issued just under six million Chester A. Arthur coins, less than ten percent of the number of the smallest run of Presidential $1 coins prior.
From the Archives: Almighty Currency: The edge of the $1 Presidential coins contains the slogan “In God We Trust.” Here’s where that comes from.
Related: A complete set — through Garfield, that is — of uncirculated $1 Presidential coins.