TO: The US Treasury Department
FROM: The American People
RE: Limited edition coins
MESSAGE: Enough already! No more! Have you ever heard of Hollywood and the Second Rate Sequel Syndrome? You know, when Hollywood comes out with a great movie that is a big hit? So they think they have found a winning formula, so they keep doing it over and over, as nearly the same as possible, thinking they can recreate the magic of the first time? Well, they never can, because part of what made the movie such a hit in the first place was its uniqueness – the sense that this was a one-time event that will never happen again. Making more of the same never measure up and they cheapen the original.
Well, you have a bad case of the same thing. You came out with state quarters, and they were a huge hit, so you keep trying to do the same thing, and it isn’t working. Washington DC and Territorial quarters, Lewis and Clark nickels, Presidential dollars, and now America the Beautiful quarters. Spare us!
Nonetheless, if you really want to reduplicate the success of state quarters, we should take a look at what made them such a hit. I think you have some of it right, but only some. You have recognized that part of what made them so cool was that they were a limited edition, and that people would want a collection with all of them in it. So you have sought to duplicate that with various other limited editions. You mostly seemed to realize that part of their secret was that they were different enough to have an exciting sense of novelty, but familiar enough not to offend people’s sense of tradition. You matched that in the quarters and nickels, but not so much with the Presidential dollars. The American people just don’t seem willing to accept dollar coins no matter what you do. But there are some other features that made state quarters uniquely cool might be easiest to duplicate with Presidential coins, or are simply not susceptible of duplication at all.
What made state quarters so cool?
The hype and publicity. There was a big announcement of state quarters that I saw to a much lesser extent with Presidential dollars and not at all with the nickels or national park quarters. You can’t very well expect people to get excited about what you are doing if you don’t tell them you are doing it, can you? But hype and publicity is the easiest of these things to duplicate; the others are more difficulty.
The appeal to our sense of ourselves as Americans. After all, as every coin says, E Pluribus unum. From many [states], one [nation]. Having many states, each with its own unique history and character is part of what we, as a country, are. Celebrating each state’s uniqueness while reminding us that we are still one country is very American and appeals to most people’s sense of ourselves as a nation. Washington DC is also part of the US, of course, and various Territories belong to us, but I don’t think most Americans have the same sense of kinship to them, or sense them as part of our identity as we do with states. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was certainly an important event, but not quite central to our identity in the way that being made up of 50 states is. And as for national parks and monuments – well, they are nice, I guess, and some make pretty pictures (others are not so well done), but no one keeps track of national parks the way they keep track of states. And they certainly are not central to our identity in the way that states are. National parks and landmarks are something we have. States are something we are. The one that might work here are Presidential coins. It is, after all, a central part of our national identity that we have Presidents, chosen by the people. We divide our history into Presidential administrations, just as people in monarchies divide their history into the reigns of kings. I think a limited edition of coins with all Presidents , if done right, could be made to work.
Anticipated, logical sequence. It was made clear what order state quarters would be issued in – the order in which states were admitted to the Union. It made sense. It was also educational – people learned in what order states were admitted. Since the sequence was given, we always knew which state was coming next. Is there any logic at all to the sequence of America the Beautiful quarters? If so, I certainly don’t know what it is. Also, we know what the 50 states are. Does anyone know what all our national parks are? Certainly this is not common knowledge. As for the Lewis and Clark nickels, they are nice, but there is no logical sequence to them. The only other coins with a logical sequence are (once again), the Presidential coins.
Education. The state quarters were educational. If nothing else, they let us know in what order the states were admitted, something most people presumably did not know before. And they showed unique traits about some states that inspired people to want to learn about them. Who outside of Delaware ever heard of Caesar Rodney? Who outside of Connecticut heard of the Charter Oak, or outside of New Hampshire heard of the Old Man on the Mountain? National Parks may teach people about national parks we may not have heard of, but they just aren’t as exciting. And the Lewis and Clark nickels are just pretty pictures. Presidential coins, now, could also be educational. They could teach us the sequence of Presidents, again, something most people do not know.
The suspense. A whole lot of the fun of state quarters was waiting to see what would be the emblem to represent the next state. It had some of the excitement of a new movie release. The Virginia quarter is out! It shows the three ships that started Jamestown! This would be easiest to duplicate with Presidential coins. Your current Presidential dollars just show the head of the Presidents on one side, and the Statute of Liberty on the other. Where is the excitement in that? Show the head of each successive President on one side and something he is famous for on the other. Granted, there would be some problems here. What is, say, Millard Fillmore famous for? Or Chester Arthur? Another problem is that some of our Presidents have been controversial. But so what? Many of our states have their share of controversy, too. I thought the Treasury did an excellent job of highlighting each state's unique character while steering clear of controversy.* Any President famous enough to be controversial must have done something famous but non-controversial as well. I think showing each President with some claim to fame (well, sort of fame) could duplicate some of the excitement that went with state quarters.**
Power to the people. State quarters were designed by the Treasury Department, but the people of the states were given a voice in deciding what they wanted to represent them. That's exciting! How often do you get to participate in designing a coin? I think this democratic nature of state quarters was also part of their appeal. And it is a part that I don't see being duplicated with Presidential coins, or any other limited edition either.
So, there is my advice. If you want to recapture the magic of state quarters, do it with Presidential coins of some sort. Hype the coins, announce that you will issue coins for each (dead) President, in chronological order, with his claim to fame on the back. Then let the suspense build as people wonder what made Rutherford B. Hays famous. And don't do dollar coins. They violate people's sense of tradition.
Alternately, you could just drop limited edition coins and go back to the standard.
*If anything, I would criticize them for being too bland in some cases. Louisiana, Texas, and New Mexico are some of our most colorful states. And the best they could do was the Louisiana Purchase, the Lone Star, and the Zia Sun?!? There must be something with more character! Also, I did not approve of putting Lincoln on the Illinois quarter. The man is already on the penny and the five dollar bill. That should be enough! Give us a scene from Chicago, or something indicating prairies and farming.
**We would have to stick to tradition and allow dead Presidents only. Living Presidents are just too controversial.