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10 Lesser-Known U.S. Coins

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President Obama recently suggested the retirement of the penny as a way of reducing the federal budget, since it costs nearly two and a half times its face value to mint. While that may not happen any time soon, it’s still interesting to look at some other coins in U.S. history that were retired, were exceptionally rare, or never even made it off the drawing board...

1. Bullion coins

While most of America’s coinage is made up of a variety of materials, bullion coins are made up entirely of precious metals. Currently, there are four kinds: Silver Eagles, Gold Eagles, Platinum Eagles, and Gold Buffalos.

Each are legal tender and have their own face value: Silver Eagles are $1, Gold Eagles are $5, $10, $25, or $50 (depending on weight), Platinum Eagles are $100, and Gold Buffalos are $50. However, it would be a really horrible idea to spend them—the coins are intended to be bought and sold at the current market value of the metal from which they were created (which is far, far higher than the face value).

Bullion coins aren’t circulated and can’t be purchased from the U.S. Mint directly. Instead, a network of authorized sellers can hook you up ... to the tune of the market value of the metal, plus a little extra for the convenience of having it in coin form.

2. Unions

After the gold rush of 1849, Californians had a bit of a money problem. Previously, the region had solely used its own specially-minted coins for currency. Once California reached statehood, however, this became troublesome, because the U.S. Mint didn’t issue higher-value coins and paper currency was still very slow to circulate out west.

To combat this, Congress considered creating two new coins: the $100 Union and $50 Half-Union. The proposal failed, however, and neither coin saw circulation.  But in 1910, a private collector came forward with two gold Half-Unions, both marked with an 1877 date (nearly twenty years after they were rejected).

The coins are kind of a mystery. No one knows exactly why they were created (or when, since the 1877 date is possibly incorrect), but several other collectors have since found copper Half-Unions made using the same die. The two original Half-Unions are now in the Smithsonian.

3. Eagle Coins

From 1792 to 1933, America issued gold coins known as eagles (not to be confused with the bullion coins mentioned previously). The longest-lived obsolete coin in U.S. history, eagles were actually a series of related denominations. The eagle itself was worth $10, but the Mint also produced the double-eagle ($20), half-eagle ($5), and quarter-eagle ($2.50).

In 1933, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who believed that people hoarding gold might prolong the Great Depression, signed Executive Order 6102, which made it illegal for individuals to possess more than $100 worth of gold. Any amounts in excess were turned over to the government for a cash equivalent. This effectively ended production of the eagle coins, as the Mint started melting down its own supplies to assist.

4. Stella

In the 1860s, several European countries banded together to create a universal currency, sort of like an early attempt at the Euro. This group called itself the Latin Monetary Union (or LMU) and created standards for gold and silver coins that could be minted by the individual countries but were also easily exchanged on a one-for-one basis.

The U.S. briefly considered joining the LMU and produced a concept coin called the Stella. Valued at $4 US, the Stella would have been America’s version of the LMU gold coin. However, Congress rejected both the Stella and the LMU (which disbanded after World War I), so the coin went unused.

5. Three-Dollar Piece

From 1854 to 1889, the U.S. Mint produced a gold coin worth $3, which is a bit surprising, since they already had the aforementioned quarter-eagle worth $2.50. Why did they feel the need to create a separate coin for the extra 50 cents? The answer is stamps.

More specifically, for buying a whole lot of stamps. In the mid-1800s, the U.S. Postal Service actually lowered the price of stamps from five cents to three. Thus, it was widely assumed (though never directly stated) that, essentially, the sole purpose of $3 coins was for businesses to conveniently buy 100 stamps in a single transaction. Obviously, they weren’t much use for anything else. Since stamps couldn’t stay the same price forever, the coin was retired within a few decades.

(For the record, a three-dollar piece would buy six and a half stamps today.)

6. Twenty-Cent Piece

The shortest-lived circulated coin in U.S. history, the twenty-cent piece only lasted from 1875 to 1878. Once again, this was America attempting to keep parity with Europe—France, in particular. Their twenty-franc piece was approximately the same size and material as the twenty-cent piece, and so the two could, in theory, be exchanged equally.

In reality, this was almost never done. Though francs were a popular reserve currency at the time, the average citizen didn’t have much of a need for a twenty cent coin, especially since quarters were already well-established.

7. Half-Dime

Long before nickels were ever a thing, the U.S. Mint produced an entirely different five cent coin known as the half-dime. They were, in fact, about half the size of a dime as well as being half the value. From 1792 to 1873, silver half-dimes were produced to fill the gap between pennies and dimes, because no one likes a pocket full of pennies.

Trouble for the half-dime started in 1866, though, when nickel lobbyists convinced the government to authorize the creation of new five-cent pieces made out of, of course, nickel alloy. The half-dime lasted less than a decade afterward. The new so-called “nickel” quickly edged it out.

8. Three-Cent Piece

Tying back into the previously-mentioned three-dollar piece and the half-dime, the three-cent piece was a short-lived (but fairly popular) coin that was minted between 1851 and 1889. The original three-cent coin was made of silver and was introduced in response to the cheap stamps that also led to the creation of the three-dollar piece. One coin was equal to one stamp, which was simple and convenient. (You would need sixteen of them to buy a single stamp today.)

But silver hoarding became common during the Civil War, which caused circulation problems. Luckily, the same nickel lobbyists who pressured for the half-dime replacement had also gotten Congress to introduce an alternative: the three-cent nickel. For the first few years of its life, the “nickel” actually came in both three-cent and five-cent varieties.

However, since the three-cent nickel was about the same size as a dime, the two often got confused. In addition, the price of stamps changed once again, leading to the three-cent coin becoming largely unnecessary, and so it was phased out in 1889.

9. Two-Cent Piece

Another experimental coin, the two-cent piece was mostly just a stopgap piece to be used to combat coin shortages until the Civil War ended. When the war did end, the U.S. Mint just decided to keep making them and see if anyone used them. They didn’t, and between the initial 1864 run and the final 1873 series, production dropped from 20 million coins to just 600. As in 600 total.

Ironically, they might have been very popular in 1883, when the Postal Service once again performed a now-unthinkable act and dropped the cost of stamps down to two cents (where they stayed, except for a short time during WWI, until 1932).

10. Half-Cent

 

Although Americans now only see fractions of a cent at gas stations, they used to be much more common. From 1793 to 1857, the U.S. Mint produced a half-cent—the smallest value coin in American history. Fractions of a cent, which are technically called mills, were actually very useful when small denominations of currency actually had some value to them.

In fact, some states even produced one mill tokens, worth 1/10 of a cent, at various points in history. These tokens, which were not official U.S. coinage (hence the word token instead of coin), were most often used for paying sales tax on purchases.

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
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The Elements
9 Essential Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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