For most of US history the easiest way to assemble it was two dimes. But in the mid-1870′s, a curious thing was happening in the West. The Treasury Department put the silver half-dime into retirement in 1873, just seven years after it had begun production of an alternative five-cent piece, now known as the nickel.
(Side note: even today, the nickel is mostly copper: 75 percent to 25% nickel. The same alloy is used in dimes, quarters, and halves (except for the pure copper core you can see on the rim). The cent is now 99% zinc; copper’s too expensive for use in the 1-cent denomination.)
Problem was for the westerners: the nickels were all made in Philadelphia, and the chief western mint in San Francisco was no longer making half-dimes. Some pardners were putting down a quarter for a dime purchase and getting only a dime in change. One might think the solution was to ship some cupro-nickel out west, but the feds had a better idea: make twenty-cent pieces with the silver on hand.
So here it is:
22 mm in diameter was slightly smaller than the 24.3 for the 19th century quarter. The city by the bay put out a million of these. Above, you’ll see one of the most sought-after mint marks in American coinage, the double “c” for Carson City. They made a bit more than a hundred thousand in Nevada.
But it was a failed experiment. 1876 saw drastically reduced production. Twenty-cent pieces were minted in ’77 and ’78, but just for collectors. I guess they decided to ship Philadelphia nickels out West by ’79. Or raise the price of a beer to 15 cents. Either way, it was the end of a short-lived series.
Canada, breaking with Britain and instituting decimal coinage, started with 20-cent coins before the establishment of the Dominion in 1857. US money also circulated north of the border, and these coins, like the western 20-cent piece, were too often confused with their slightly larger elder brother. By the 1870′s, Canada decided to pull the 20-centers from circulation and sent in their order with the Birmingham mint for full-fledged 25-cent pieces.
So if you run across a 20-cent piece from either nation, hold onto it. If it doesn’t have a mint mark (they did make small quantities in Philadelphia those four years) it’s especially worth keeping.