U.S. Coins and the Great Depression


Previously we’ve talked about the scarcity of U.S. coins minted during the years of the Civil War. Collectors looking for coins from another historic period – the Great Depression – will also have to search for some of them, particularly the ones struck during the earliest years of the 1930s. What was going on during this period, and why are coins from this era harder to come by?

The stock market crashed in October of 1929, and some of its effects were felt immediately. Fortunes were lost overnight, and millionaires jumped out of buildings rather than face financial ruin. For working class Americans who had not invested in the stock market, it took a little longer for this disaster to affect them, but in time the economic collapse brought them down too. Subsequent years saw unemployment at rates as high as 25 percent.

How did this affect the minting of coins? With the average worker trying his hardest just to feed his family and farmers and homeowners losing their land and homes, demand for new coins dwindled down to next to nothing. Supply was therefore sharply curtailed. In 1931, 24,742,000 Lincoln cents were minted, but in much smaller numbers (a 90% decrease) compared to 1929. A small number of Buffalo nickels were struck – only 1.2 million – and 6.21 million Mercury dimes were produced. Still, some coins were produced in 1931. Compare this to higher value coins: no half dollars appeared from 1930 to 1932 and no quarters were struck in 1931 and 1933. In 1932 and 1933 those same Buffalo nickels and Mercury dimes even disappeared.

In 1932 quarters reappeared to commemorate the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Half dollars were only struck in 1933 – the 1933-S Walking Liberty half dollars. A coin collector looking to find a numismatic piece of this period of history will have a difficult time now because the average American was having a terrible time keeping his head above water then. A lot less money flows through an economy slowed to a halt.

In the fall of 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected, and he took office in March, 1933 and immediately set about making changes he believed would stabilize and stimulate the economy. From a numismatic standpoint, the most drastic of these was Executive Order 6102 which stopped production of gold coins, prohibited the hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates, and resulted in the melting down of gold coins – 500 tons of them.

This executive order acted, in effect, as a bailout of the Federal Reserve which had issued more gold notes than it had gold on hand to redeem them. It was hugely unpopular with coin collectors and anyone who had gold as an investment. However, by 1934 the economy had stabilized enough that the U.S. Mint was striking coins again – a whole line up, this time from Mercury dimes to Peace dollars. Coins from the later years of the Great Depression can be scarce, but they are not rare like the ones minted from 1931 to 1933 or very rare like the few Saint-Gaudens Gold Double Eagle coins and Gold Indian Head coins that survived the meltdown.

If you’d like to discuss the value and availability of U.S. coins, gold coins, or Great Depression-era minted coins or printed currency, we at Grand Rapids Coins are only one phone call away.

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