VOL. XIX, NO.3
This Ain’t Your Grandfather’s Peace Dollar (or Maybe It Is!)
By Jeff Oxman
Looking back, the 20th Century was time of relentless change. Try wrapping your mind around the fact that in the span of one century Americans went from trying to get airborne in a newfangled invention called an “airplane” to actually landing a couple of astronauts on the moon! But sometimes such head-spinning progress can also be something of a hard pill to swallow. A possible cure, at least for those who’ve been bitten by the “collecting bug” can be found in numismatics, where coins serve as miniature “time-capsules” connecting us to the past.
Circulating coins do have stories to tell us about a particular moment in history. Try sitting at your desk and rummaging through a roll of circulated silver dollars. Many of us find ourselves instantly transported to another time and place. Take the circulated 1921 U.S. Peace dollar I’m holding in my hand. I could easily imagine my grandfather getting paid this at the plant where he worked and then spending it in a much different world.
Peace dollars, as surviving artifacts of the “Roaring Twenties,” ushered in a new era. America had successfully flexed her muscles in World War I, and the entire world had taken note! Now, it seemed like a time when all things were possible. And it was in this environment that a young sculptor named Anthony DeFrancisci made his incredible mark on the coinage of the United States.
Having immigrated to America from his native Italy, DeFrancisci studied under one of this country’s most preeminent artist, James Earle Fraser. Fraser, you’ll recall, had earlier been the creator of the enormously popular five-cent Buffalo nickel design. Then, in November 1921, a competition representing eight of America’s best artists was held to select a final design for the upcoming U.S. Peace dollar. How tough was the competition? The list of renowned artists submitting designs, to name only two, included both Victor D. Brenner, designer of the Lincoln cent, and Herman Neil, designer or the Standing Liberty quarter!
A Cutting Edge Design
Anthony DeFrancisci’s design stood out in the competition, and it was his thoroughly modern depiction of Liberty that was selected to grace the obverse of this country’s first “Peace dollar.” Using his young wife, Teresa, as his model for Liberty, DeFrancisci departed artistically from the classic Seated Liberty motifs used in the 19th Century or Morgan’s staid Liberty Head design which had preceded it. Here was a cutting-edge depiction of Liberty with swept-back hair and a mouth slightly open, gasping for air. Indeed, this was an exciting new age, and it seemed the whole world was gasping for air!
True, the coin’s critics called this the “Flapper Dollar,” but DeFrancisci’s obverse design deliberately portrayed a youthful America, where Liberty exuded a sense of vitality and confidence, as well as outward beauty. On the reverse, the motif had as its focus, a majestic eagle, perched on a craggy rocked inscribed “PEACE.” Clearly representing America, the eagle appears to dominate the world around it. And finally, radiating up from the bottom of the design are numerous rays of light, spelling out in unmistakable terms that this is truly the dawn of a new day.
Peace Dollar Production
Earlier in 1921, large numbers of silver dollars with George Morgan’s design were produced at all three Mints. Then, production switched in the final days of the year to the so-called Peace dollar, with its breathtaking, innovative design. The relief of the new design was lowered in 1922, and production continued through 1935, with the exception of a five year hiatus from 1929 to 1933.
From the beginning in 1921 until the end in 1935, three Mints were assigned the task of striking U.S. Peace dollars. The Philadelphia Mint produced silver dollars every year Peace dollars were struck. The San Francisco Mint also struck silver dollars each year, except for 1921, which was the exclusive domain of the Philadelphia Mint. And lastly, the Denver Mint filled in when necessary, producing silver dollars only in 1922-1923, 1926-1927 and 1934.
But the story doesn’t end there, as the same Peace dollar design was actually resurrected in the 1960’s by President Lyndon Johnson. The crisis was a national coin shortage, and government officials concluded that it would make sense to once again strike silver dollars. So, in 1964 legislation authorizing the minting of 45 million silver dollars was passed.
The Denver Mint immediately began production and several hundred thousand 1964-D Peace dollars were reportedly struck before Treasury Department officials had a change of heart and “pulled the plug.” Official word was that all were melted under tight security, but even so, rumors have persisted to this day that one or more of these 1964-D Peace dollars escaped them melting pot. In fact, like Elvis Presley sightings, reports of a ’64-D Peace dollar still surface with some regularity. In any case, this brief episode brought down the final curtain on U.S. Peace dollars.
The Road Less Traveled
The foreword to a newly released book, entitled, “The Top 50 Peace Dollar Varieties,” speaks of the U.S. Peace dollar in terms of the “The Road Less Traveled.” And indeed it is. Compared to its much more popular Morgan dollar counterpart, the Peace dollar is represented by a fork in the road that few collectors have ventured down. Simply put, the Peace dollar has long been considered by many in the hobby as the “ugly step-sister” in the U.S. silver dollar family.
But what about the future? Discovering exciting die varieties in the Peace dollar series has sparked a new enthusiasm among silver dollar collectors. Spectacular die breaks, doubled dies and other varieties abound. And now, Peace dollars are finally gaining the attention that many of us believe they deserve. Yes, in the magical world of numismatics, it takes only a little imagination to visualize a story-book ending in which the much maligned Peace dollar, like Cinderella, is ultimately recognized as the stunning beauty she is!