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Behind the Scenes: First Spouse gold coins

The First Spouse gold coin issued for Barbara Bush in 2020. (Courtesy of the United States Mint.) Hover to zoom.

24-karat Golden Legacies for America’s First Spouses

In 1933 the United States was stuck several years deep in the mire of the Great Depression. The stock-market crash of 1929, and a crop-killing drought in the early 1930s, had brought a widespread collapse of the American economy. About half of the nation’s banks failed and 86,000 businesses closed. Industrial output slowed and commodity prices dropped. By 1933 one out of every four Americans was unemployed.

In April 1933, trying to strengthen the economy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102. This prohibited banks from paying out gold coins or Gold Certificates. The Treasury Department wanted to keep nervous depositors from withdrawing and hoarding all the hard money from banks that were still open. Few, if any, of those banks would have been able to pay out all their cash deposits with gold from their vaults.

The order also required citizens and corporations to deliver most of their gold coins, gold bullion, and gold certificates to the Federal Reserve or a member bank, to be exchanged for an equivalent amount of other coins or paper currency. This was meant to relieve the national banking emergency by keeping money circulating in the “recognized and customary channels of trade.” If cash were squirreled away as gold coins hidden under a mattress or hoarded in a company’s safe, it wasn’t being spent on goods and services. Paper money such as Federal Reserve Notes and Silver Certificates was more likely to be spent getting the economy back on track.

With a few notable exceptions, US citizens were prohibited from owning gold coins.

Roosevelt’s restrictions against gold hoarding stayed on the books after the Great Depression ended. In 1971 President Richard Nixon signed Executive Order 11615, which took the United States off a fixed gold rate for international obligations. Before long, gold prices were officially free-floating, and any illusion of a gold standard dissolved.

The First Spouse gold coins are connected to other coins and medals of the United States.

As of December 31, 1974, Public Law 93-373 removed restrictions on US citizens purchasing, holding, selling, or otherwise dealing with gold. President Gerald Ford then issued Executive Order 11825, which canceled President Roosevelt’s earlier orders.

A new era of private gold ownership was on its way.

In the early 1980s, Congress launched the American Arts Commemorative Series Gold Medallions program as a way to sell Treasury-held gold to everyday Americans. In 1986 it started a new, more successful bullion program—the American Eagle (which also included silver and, later, other precious metals).

By 2007 the United States was more than 20 years into its popular modern gold-bullion programs. Collectors and investors were buying hundreds of thousands of ounces of American Gold Eagles annually. The American Buffalo 24-carat coins had been introduced the year before and were off to a galloping start. Next in the lineup was a gold-coinage series designed as a companion to the Mint’s soon-to-roll-out Presidential dollars. The new program’s 24-karat coins would honor and commemorate the nation’s First Ladies.

In this column, which will launch next Wednesday and then be published every other week, I’ll explore each of the coins in the First Spouse gold program. I’ll also share behind-the-scenes insight from the coins’ designers, US Mint officials, members of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee and the US Commission of Fine Arts, historians, coin dealers and collectors, and others. I’ll show images of “what might have been”—proposed designs that didn’t make the final cut. And I’ll comment on various historical aspects of the First Spouse gold coin program, including related coins, medals, and other collectibles.

If you’d like to share your own insights and opinions on these coins, please join the conversation in the comments below, or drop me a line. I look forward to hearing from you!

Dennis Tucker is the publisher of Whitman Publishing, LLC. His column “Behind the Scenes: First Spouse Gold Coins” covers the United States Mint gold coin program that honors America’s presidential spouses. Whitman is the Official Supplier of the congressionally chartered American Numismatic Association. The firm produces many standard references relating to the art and science of numismatics (the study of coins and related objects). Numismatics is a field that touches on American financial and banking history, economics, artistry and design, technology, mining and metallurgy, political history, society, and culture. Other columns by Tucker include “Notes Published” (about books and publishing in general, with a special emphasis on antiques and collectibles) and “From the Colonel’s Desk” (about the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s position within American numismatics).

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