The Twenty Cent Piece is counted amongst the short lived, odd denominations of the American monetary system. Produced for circulation for only two years, along with an additional two years of proof only strikings, the denomination was quickly rejected by the public. Although a twenty cent piece may have made logical sense, the public confusion about the similarity of the twenty cent piece to the quarter dollar resulted in limited use within commerce and a quick demise for the denomination.
The Twenty Cent Piece traces its origins to lobbying efforts from the silver states, in particular Senator Jones from Nevada. The Comstock Lode was still yielding huge amounts of silver, but the only large denomination silver coins being minted from Nevada silver were the half dollar and the trade dollar, which at the time was used for export only and carried no legal tender status in the United States. A new silver denomination would potentially use more Nevada silver. Additionally, it was hoped that the new denomination would be on par with the French Franc, a popular coin for international trade. Finally, there was a problem that was described by Mark Twain in Roughing It, where he said that with the nickel not circulating in the west, there was a shortage of change when goods were priced at less than a quarter. This caused increased prices for no apparent reason other than a shortage of coin. Twain was not the only one describing the problem, as Mint Director Linderman also mentioned this in his annual Mint report of 1874.
In 1874 and 1875 a large number of patterns were created for the twenty cent denomination. Many were struck in a combination of different metals, usually silver, copper and aluminum. The most famous of these patterns is the “Liberty by the Seashore” design by Charles Barber. The obverse carries an image of Seated Liberty on the seashore with an ocean and a ship visible in the background.
The final design chosen for the denomination would be a modification of Christian Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty design, which had been introduced in the late 1830’s and was still found on most silver coins in circulation. For the new twenty cent piece, the design was slightly modified by Chief Engraver William Barber. The obverse still featured the common image of a seated Liberty surrounded by thirteen stars, but with some of the details re-engraved. The reverse would feature the new eagle design that had first appeared on the trade dollar in 1873. The American Eagle was pictured with its wings spread, holding an olive branch and arrows. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appeared above, with the denomination TWENTY CENTS below. Interestingly enough, the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM” does not appear on the coins, despite having been mandated by a modification of the law in 1873.
Besides the different reverse design, the United States Mint tried to differentiate the twenty cent piece from the quarter dollar with a few other aspects. The coins were struck with a plain edge, rather than the reeded edge found on other circulating silver coinage. Additionally, the inscription LIBERTY on the obverse shield was raised rather than incused. Unfortunately, these differences were not prominent enough and the denomination quickly failed. Circulation of the pieces was extremely limited in the east, and most well circulated pieces from the Philadelphia Mint presently in existence were most likely carried as pocket pieces for some time, more as a curiosity than as something that was actually used in commerce. Because of the scarcity of coin in some of the western states, it appears that the coins struck in San Francisco and Carson City circulated a little bit longer, but even there they were soon withdrawn from circulation.