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Pocket Change ! The History of American Coins

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

Do you like History? Fun Facts? STARZ Hit Show Outlander? I don’t know why I thru that in there but most likely as I was binge watching this Season while working on this post and Vlog. I kept wondering “what coins or currency forms Jamie was using…” Now that I’ve alienated 2/3rds of my readers, tis post is going to be a lot of Historical Geek Facts, an “all-about US Coins” guide and really a “how to” on coin collecting…and, you may not have anything better to do today during your quarantine. So why not learn something new to you !

We will begin our journey with the origin of American Coins in the colonial period. Then…I’ll guide you thru the latter half of 18th Century, all the changes in the 19th and 20th Century, and we will wrap it up in today’s modern era. You will learn how to identify, find values and much more. You might just come out of this, a coin expert, or…a little geekier than yesterday.

Sound good? Read On….To begin our journey thru the Numismatic History of the United States we must briefly visit America’s COLONIAL PERIOD…first off, the word Numismatic, that just mean the study, or collection of currency…. coins, tokens, paper money and related objects….

So, lets back to our early origins…I am talking pre-Revolutionary War and the Colonial Period in the Americas. There was some Colonial Currency at the time, but it was non-Standardized to say the least. Most of your English colonists had simply continued their use of the common British currency of the period. The Pound, Shilling, and Pence….but, as the colonies began to break away commerce from England, these radical colonists began to print their more of their own currency. This proved to be a much better way to support the growth of their new colonies, and give the proverbial “Ye Old Finger,” to the Crown.

It’s also noteworthy, that very few actual coins were ever minted in the original thirteen colonies… however, foreign coins like the Spanish Dollar were widely circulated. Also common at the time, coins from Portugal, France, German, Denmark, etc.… Early America was truly an international marketplace. And, Colonists were very resourceful… almost anything and everything was used as currency. You had the locally printed paper money and notes, wampum, one of my favorites and basically Native American trade beads comprised of shells… & of course, the good old fashion barter system. Also, let’s not forget other “trade-able” commodities…. such as corn, wheat, tobacco, & fur…. whatever the local economy accepted as legal tender and I am sure you can see how issues would arise when traveling. What had value in Connecticut may not have any in Georgia, and so on. It remained this way, well after the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783.

The fact is, it was not until The Coinage Act of 1792, 9 years later, that the United States Mint was Established. And the rest is history…

Oh wait….I am just getting started.

If you don't feel like can always watch and listen here...

The FIRST AMERICAN COINS the Congressional Act Created were in the denominations of the Half Cent, Cent, Half Dime (don’t call me a nickel), the Dime, the Quarter, the Half Dollar, Dollar, the Quarter Eagle, which was a $2.50 gold coin…a Half Eagle a $5 gold coin, and the Eagle or a $10 gold piece…

However, the first coin to actually be minted or produced, was The 1792 Half Dime. And there is a legend that the silver in these 1st half dimes actually came from Martha Washington's silverware.

Here’s the rest of the coins minted in 1790s….

The Half Cent (1793-1857)

Large Cent (1793-1857)

Early Dollar (1794-1804)

Early Half Dollar (1794-1807)

Half Dime (1794-1873)

$5 Gold Piece (1795-1908)

$10 Gold Piece (1795-1907)

The Bust Quarter (1796-1838)

The Bust Dime (1796-1837)

And $2½ Gold Piece (1796-1907)

This period of coinage 1792 thru 1837 features several designs variations. The Draped Bust design was featured on all copper and silver coins minted between 1796-1807. But by 1807 the Capped Bust began to appear on the Silver Coins, the exception of the the dollar…have a look at the 1807 Capped Bust Half Dollar…

Bust Half (1807-1839)

See the variation….and remember, in these early days, years could go by without a certain denomination being minted at all. The dime half dimes are a great example of this. Several years, would just be skipped. If you don’t need it, don’t mint it, I guess.

It was not until 1829 that the Capped Bust Version of the Half Dime was even released…

Capped Bust Half Dime (1829-1837)

The late 1830s saw American Coinage begin to have more standardization….

This is known as the Seated Liberty Era. And you will see why.

Seated Liberty Dollar (1836-1873)

Seated Liberty Dime (1837-1891)

Seated Liberty Half Dime (1837-1873)

Still got these babies, I haven’t mentioned a nickel yet, have I ?

Seated Liberty Quarters (1838-1891)

Seated Liberty Half Dollar (1839-1891)

The end of the 1840s was an exciting time…. The Gold Rush was in full swing so the US Mint Introduced the $1 Gold Liberty Head & The Double Eagle $20 Gold Piece.

$1 Gold (1849-1889)

$20 Gold (1849-1907)

This is also when things got a little crazy in the American Coin minting world….

The rest of the 19th Century, starting in 1851, saw the release of some odd denominations…

The Three Cents Silver (1851-1872)

A $3 Gold Piece known as “The Indian Princess” (1854-1889)

The short lived Flying Eagle Cent, only minted from (1856-1858)

I just want to mention ,whenever I come across these, I immediately look for the date 1856….its is one of those killer key dates. There were only 2,000 of these pennies minted that year) and they can be worth north of $10,000 or so….that’s quite a lot of pennies and they are out there.

Next was the release of the classic Indian Cents of Indian Head Penny (1859-1909)

….always a favorite of collectors, as there are several key dates to look for. 1864, 69, 73 and so on. If you have a stack of these…make sure you visit the price guide link I have on my websites FREE RESOURCE SECTION….

Now, let me give you my….Two Cents (1864-1872) and yes….that’s a US Coin a lot of people didn’t know had existed….

How about the Three Cent Nickel (1865-1889) & yes….I said nickel….but three cents ?

But here’s something crazy…. a year later the Shield Nickel was released and it was……

5 cents and hence, what we know think of…as a nickel.

Shield Nickel (1866-1883)

The end of the 1870s saw the release of the US Trade Dollar.

It was produced to compete with other country’s large silver trade coins that popular in East Asia at the time. Today, they are quite collectible, however I have seen a lot of forgeries.

In 1878 the Classic Morgan Silver Dollar was released and remained relatively unchanged until the end of WWI.

The Morgan Dollar (1878-1921)

I love Morgan Silver Dollars as there are a lot of them out there and there are a lot of Key Dates and Mint Marks to look for…

And you know what…. here’s a great time veer off here, ADHD Style. Let’s cover Mint Marks. A mint mark is a just a letter or symbol that identifies the location at which the coin was made or minted.

Philadelphia, PA (The 1st and Oldest Mint) was founded in 1793 and still rockin’….coins with this mark will have a P or Nothing…as no mint mark means, Philly.

New Orleans, Louisiana operational from 1838 – 1909 will have an O

Dahlonega, Georgia operational from 1838 - 1861 will have a D

Charlotte, NC operational from 1837 - 1861 will rock a C

San Francisco, CA opened in 1854 and still going… will have an S

Carson City, Nevada operational from 1870 – 1893 the classic CC

Denver, Colorado opened in 1906 and still going…. will bear a D

West Point, New York opened for business in 1984 it’s coins have a W

Did you take note how that Civil War thing, might have had something to do with some Southern Mints closing? Actually, they did not “close,” but became under control of the Confederacy and were no longer printing legal tender.

And here, indulge me for a second. I want to share a few interesting things about Carson City Mint in Nevada. It opened in 1870 and operated until 1893. (There was a three-year break in production from 1886 to 1888.) And you might be curious, if you know this region on the US…Carson City would seem like an odd place for a mint. Not a major metropolis, that is for sure, however, it was opened to take advantage of the local precious metal deposits. Really it was the large vein of silver.

For more on that, Read about the Comstock Lode and the Silver Rush of 1859. Not as popular as the gold rush, but just as cool.

In its 23-year run, this mint did produce some gold coins but never and of the base metal coins or those denominations….silver was really there thing.

So now that you get Mint Marks…let me talk about the term…Key Date or Dates. I have mentioned them earlier….but so you know, if you don’t….when coin collecting or hunting, you are always looking for the Key Dates, vs “the Commons.” What this means typically is a date of low mintage or production. In other words, “not a lot of those babies made.” It is why knowing your dates and mint marks becomes so important. I know a lot of them off the top of my head, but I often refer back to the blue book (that’s an old term from when it was actually a book) now… a few great websites have all the numbers and are constantly updated. And yes, I have links on my website as well.

Here’s a great page to print out and stick in your pocket too….

So, before I get back to the new group of coins, one more thing. When you find Morgan Silver Dollars, remember any Carson City is a find and a generally a Key Date. The fact is, they just didn’t produce the sheer numbers of the other mints. They were a small mint in a small town. And now, the CC Silver Dollars are some of the most sought-after by collectors, as a group.

So let’s get back to the coins if the late 19th Century and a few strange and rare birds, to start.

The Twenty Cent Piece of (1875-1878)

It proved to be a failure due to confusion with the quarter, as they are very similar. A lesson later repeated by the US Mint with some other coins we will cover. All though officially minted until 1878, they were only minted for the general circulation the first 2 years. 1875 & 1876….no one wanted them.

Now for a super rare bird, a one of the rarest US coins is the 1879 $4 Gold Stella (1879-1880)

Less than 500 are known to have ever been minted. I have never seen one in person. Today these can range in value from $75,000 to $250,000. That would be a very nice find. But why we made a $4 gold coin is so interesting to historians. Some congress members were tossing around the idea of having the US join the LMU or the Latin Monetary Union. The would be like the Euro of the Americas. One monetary System for North and South America. The coin and the prospect of the US joining the LMU were rejected by Congress, but not before several had been produced and offered to Congressmen, at the cost. These coins later became scandalized when several of the $4 Stella’s ended up in the possession of the proprietors of Washington's most infamous brothels !

Now to 1883 and the release of the Liberty Nickel (1883-1913)

Oh the nickel, that 5 cent wonder. This version is often just called the “V” nickel by collectors. It was released to solve the production problems of the Shield nickel. There are a couple of key dates with these babies, but they are a very common coin due to its commercial demand. You have to remember this is the time in history when coin-operated machines hit their stride. Also, a fun fact, the fixed price of Coca-Cola in 1886 was….5c ! It stayed that way until the late 1950s…

Another key date, okay….key date is not strong enough. Potential find of the century would be the 1913 V Nickel.

Only 5 are known to exist. But, should you find one, expect a cool $2,000,0000 plus at auction !

Now on to the 1890s, and the Barbers. Named after Charles E Barber & oh yeah, the guy who designed that nickel, was the chief engraver at United States Mint from 1879 until his death in 1917. So, 38 years…. now that’s commitment. During his time in charge, he designed most of the coins produced at the mint. A rare feat. And further, he also designed about 30 medals during his life. Quite prolific.

The Barber Quarter (1892-1916)

Barber Dime (1892-1916)

Barber Half Dollar (1892-1915)

Then, for about the next 15 years, nothing really new in the mint designs until 7 years after the turn of the Century….

First in the Gold Coin World, a $10 Indian as its known…(1907-1933)

$20 St. Gaudens (1907-1932)

$2½ Gold Indian (1908-1929)

$5 Gold Indian (1908-1929)

Now a Big Change in Change….

In 1909 the Lincoln Cent was introduced…this version also known as The Wheat Penny…due to the design on the reverse…

These are another “Scratch off lottery ticket” in coins. A collector favorite, as there are some very valuable “needles in that haystack.” Often, you’ll see estates or auctions, selling a large lot of these “wheat pennies” and stating “unsearched” in the description. That is supposed to mean, they didn’t look for the Goodies.

And just for example…

The 1909-S Lincoln Penny is about an $80 penny.

A 1909-S VDB Lincoln Penny an $800 penny, depending on condition.

1914-D is averaging $200 these days. The 1922 Plain has a few variants that can be $1000 plus…and so on.

See how it could be fun going thru a stack at the kitchen table….just grab a good price guide book or have your lap top nearby.

Let’s keep moving thru the early 20th Century. Designed by James Earle Fraser, a well-known artist and sculptor, designed the now classic, Buffalo Nickel. These were minted from (1913-1938) Another favorite of coin hunters as there are a few popular a “errors” to look for. The 1936 and 37 Three Legged Buffalo, being most famous. About a $500 nickel if you find one….not bad.

Also, just to note, James Fraser is the guy that designed “The End of the Trail” iconic bronze sculpture.

Okay….so now, just prior to the US Entering The Great War, The US Mint released,

The Mercury Dime (1916-1945)

Walking Liberty Half Dollar (1916-1947)

And the Standing Liberty Quarter (1916-1930)

These were all part of a major redesign that had been in the works for some time. Next was the Silver Dollar. It had been the Morgan now for quite some time, but by December 1921, the Peace Dollar was released. Commemorating the End of the War to End all Wars…

It was actually the winning design by Anthony De Francisci. Kind of cool that "eight prominent sculptors” of the day, competed to see who could create the most” emblematic design of Peace” on a coin. Today, I think it would have been a reality show….PEACE OFF…or LAST SCULPTOR STANDING…

The Peace Dollar was minted from (1921-1935) and when looking thru these, the 1921 and 1928 Philadelphia, specifically are the key dates…about $100 and $200 respectively. Not bad for a buck and they are out there.

Okay…let’s keep moving on. Deep in the heart of the Great Depression, the Washington Quarter first appeared. Released in 1932, it has not changed much, with the exception of some commemoratives, but note; 1964 is the last year that composition of the coin was 90% Silver 10% copper….when hunting thru a pile of questers….always look for pre 1965. I usually just think, for every dollar’s worth of silver Washington quarters or Roosevelt dimes I find, I got $15 per dollar. That changes with the price of silver but that has never steered me wrong.

During WWII, due to a shortage of copper, the 1943 Lincoln Wheat Penny was struck in zinc coated Steel. This continued until 1946. Another fun fact is from 1944-46 they are made from the spent cartridge cases from the war, itself.

Here’s another “Holy Grail” to look for; The 1943 Bronze Penny. As you now know, all 1943 Lincoln cents were supposed to be struck in steel, but legend tells us a small number of 1943 cents were struck on a few left over bronze coin blanks. A few years back, one sold for $1.7 Million….so then guess what happened….lots of forgeries…so be on the lookout.

Okay, lets jump back a little to 1938 & the release of The Jefferson Nickel. This one has not changed much in design since. But again, note, during WW2 the metal composition was 56% Copper - 35% Silver - 9% Manganese….whereas pre and post war are 75% copper, 25% nickel. Again, to save a little copper for the war effort. The silver in these war nickel makes them worth $1 or $2 but also be on the lookout a few errors in this period….1942-45.

Alright, the Second World War was now over and Nellie Tayloe Ross, the director of the mint, wanted to see Benjamin Franklin on a coin, and in 1948 she got what she wanted….

The Franklin Half Dollar (1948-1963)

Here’s a great historical foot note…Nellie Tayloe Ross was not only the first Female Director of the US Mint, a post she held for 20 years, but prior to that, the first female Gov of Wyoming. Completely a head of her time. Read more about her !

Not to skip over another post war design from 2 years earlier, in 1946, the

Roosevelt Dime was released. Just a year after the presidents death and like the Quarter…it was 90% Silver - 10% Copper until 1964… (Since 1965 its been composed or 91.67% Copper to 8.33% Nickel)

I am big on the historical foot notes now. The designer of the last two coins, John R Sinnock had his initials on both coins. Typical for a sculptor and an engraver, however, this was during the Red Scare. Some believed this JRS secretly stood for Joseph Stalin. Of course, they did not but, they had some “real” fake news back then too. A lot easier to pull off, like the 1938 radio broadcast of the War of the Worlds….look that up.

Now let’s talk Pennies, again. The Wheat Penny is done, and the Lincoln Memorial Cent appears in 1959 (1959-2010)

Basically, looks the same except for the Lincoln Memorial being on reverse or back.

Then all was quite with nothing new to show you until 1964. A month after the assignation of JFK, congress authorized The Kennedy Half Dollar. Released in 1964, it was Composted of 90% Silver 10% copper in its first year….from 1965 to 1970 the look was the same but it’s composition changed to 40% Silver, 60% Copper….by 1971 they were composed of the same metal percentage of the Roosevelt dime, 91.67% Copper - 8.33% Nickel.

Another Presidents death brings us another new release. This was kind of a pattern here in the latter half of the 20th Century. The Eisenhower Dollar was released. Most are a Copper & Nickel alloy like the Roosevelt Dime and Kennedy half but a few dates and mints did produce in a 40% Silver - 60% Copper Clad to be offered as collectible. Never really popular in general circulation, but note, the collector's pieces sold well as keep sakes and the Nevada casinos loved them for slots, but that was about it…

So, what replaced it ? In 1979, finally a woman graced our currency. Welcome the

Susan B. Anthony Dollar (1979-1999) but it was a bit of a disaster. Just as the 20c piece from about one hundred years earlier, it was often confused with a quarter, due to its size and color, plus…the vending machine lobby hated it.

Here’s a crazy tidbit. One and a half Billion of these were minted and the government was stuck with stockpiles of them. Many remain in uncirculated condition to this day. Maybe that’s where the stimulus checks are coming from?

Anyway, they learned their lesson, sort of. The next two coins are known as Golden Dollars. Still on the smaller side, and quarter-like, but the vibrant gold in color, solved the issue.

The Sacajawea Dollar was released in 2000 (2000-current)

And the Presidential Dollars in 2007 (2007-current)

In 2010….The Lincoln Penny got a little “face lift,” or new Shield Back.

Lincoln Shield Penny (2010-present)

And that’s pretty much all of the US Coins, in a nut shell…and for the bored Numismatist that’s reading this….I know I didn’t talk about commemoratives. I did skip over the State Quarters, The Silver & Gold Commemoratives….Mint & Proof Sets but they are out there and in the online guides.

My personal favorite site is NUMISMEDIA.COM and their Collector FMV Guide….its’ free and always updated. The link is in my free resource section too. Also, check out….USACOINBOOK.COM….it’s just as good, I just know my way around the other site better….

I do want to briefly explain the Grading System. It’s very important in coin valuation when it comes to resale, especially with those the key dates. The key is knowing when it’s worth paying the fees to the Coin Grading Services. It can be quite valuable to have them certify and place an independent and unbiased grade upon your coin. What I mean by that is; if a higher grade is going to prove your coin worth more than the cost of the grading service, it’s worth it.

Remember, a collector will generally not go by your opinion of grade, it’s like that with coins, comics, baseball cards, stamps now action figures…everyone as an opinion and no to “good” opinions are the same) enter this standardized system…..the independent 3rd party takes the personal opinion out of it.

Again, it’s got to be worth it first. If the difference between Fine and Extremely Fine will make you $100+, then do it….if its $10, I wouldn’t. Ask an expert if you are not sure. Most coin shops will give you their opinion for free in a lot of cases. PCGS has a grading chart with amazing visuals to try to do it yourself before you pay for it…NGC is the other big grading company.

Here’s are the standard grades….

(P-1) Poor

You can just make out what it is and it’s possibly damaged…etc.

(FR-2) Fair

Worn almost smooth but lacking the damage a “poor coin” poor…there is enough detail to identify

(G-4) Good

Heavily worn, the inscriptions merge into the rims in places; major features are mostly gone…I call them typical.

(VG-8) Very Good

Again worn, but all major design elements can be made out…

(F-12) Fine

Worn, but wear is even, and generally the design elements stand out

(VF-20) Very Fine

Moderately worn, with a few of the fine detail showing. Look for readable letters, such as LIBERTY or the motto.

(EF-40) Extremely Fine

Lightly worn; all elements & details are clear & bold but may show some evidence of light wear.

(AU-50) About Uncirculated

Slight traces of wear on high points of the coin's design, they may have contact marks (dings, scrapes, marks, and ticks)

Here’s were we get in to, you got to be an expert. I had a customer once with a rare $20 gold piece I thought was an AU58 and would have been a $250,000 but returned graded as an AU50 and therefor $32,000…. big difference…and we couldn’t argue.

(AU-58) Very Choice About Uncirculated

Slightest hints of wear marks, no significant contact marks, almost full mint luster (also known as mint bloom and frost) the sheen

(MS-60) Mint State

Strictly uncirculated; no evidence of wear on the highest points of the coin but, lacking the luster, but can have noticeable contact marks, hairlines, etc.

The differences are so detailed at this point….

(MS-63) Mint State Acceptable

Uncirculated, but with contact marks and nicks, slightly faded luster. The strike is average to weak.

(MS-65) Mint State Choice

Uncirculated with strong mint luster, very few contact marks, excellent eye appeal. Strike is above average.

(MS-68) Mint State Premium Quality

Uncirculated with perfect luster. The strike is sharp and attractive.

(MS-69) Mint State Almost Perfect

A perfect coin except for tiny flaws that are only visible under 8x magnification…

(MS-70) Mint State Perfect

The perfect coin. There are no microscopic flaws visible under 8x magnification; the strike is sharp, and the coin is perfectly centered…

That’s Grades, but I am going to finish today’s post with a brief explanation of Errors.

An error is a coin that was produced incorrectly by the mint itself, and there are collectors, that just specialize in Error Coins.

Errors come in all shapes, sizes and types. Probably what makes it fun. Here’s a look at the variations and this is not all of them.

My personal favorites are the Double & Triple Strikes Errors and the Off Centers….check out this Penny and this Quarter…

Errors and values of errors can be quite broad. Also there are a lot of fakes or just plain old damaged coins out there. The quarters I used to stick on the train tracks…

The degree of the Error plays a factor as well. And don’t forget there are the “known” mint errors too. Like the 3-legged buffalo we talked about…die stamps, over stamped dates. And when I say known, I mean the one’s referenced in all the price guides. These are the issues (errors) that happened over a certain year or at a certain mint and got thru quality control. I know, this all might seem like a lot to know, but if you have any interest at all, and you must if you read this far, there’s so much available online today. If you read this or watch the YouTube version I posted a few times, I am thinking you’ll know more than about 95% of the antique collector population.

I want this like my last two videos and their blog posts….I LOVE FURNITURE, PERIOD and THE HISTORY OF SILVER, ITS FORKING INTERESTING….a “mini-deep dive, yet quick, overview introduction to the genres.”

Just arming you with enough knowledge to be dangerous and have a broad view. It’s how you will learn. Perhaps you want to be a coin collector, or just be able to look a collection you inherited competently. I really hope this helps. Maybe you want to be a personal property appraiser or an auctioneer….or you are dabbling in making a few extra bucks, buying and selling….then this and my other videos are definitely for you.

Make sure you check out more of, my past blogs, the free resources section, and more…. subscribe to my you tube channel, click like and please leave comments….good bad or ugly. It all helps…. until next video inspiration.


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