The story of the coinage of the United States covers a nearly 400 year period, from 1620 to today. Since the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and the country was “official” in 1787, what did the original settlers and later colonists use for money?
The first settlers traded with the Native Americans for furs and commodities that could be traded with Europe. The first immigrants had little use for money originally, but when merchandise arrived from Europe, coins were usually demanded in payment for goods.
Nearly all foreign coins were accepted for payment. The most popular were the French Louis, English guineas, German thalers (we get “dollar” from this word), Dutch ducats, and various Spanish coins, the most notable being the Spanish milled dollar, or piece of eight. In fact, this coin continued to be a standard money unit through the entire colonial period. The United States ended this practice in 1859. If you find a piece of eight, or a half, quarter, or one-eighth piece, in a family heirloom desk, it doesn’t mean your great-great-great grandpa was a conquistador. Instead, he probably obtained the coin in everyday commerce.
Since these 13 colonies were all subject to the British, you would assume British coinage would be provided for the colonists. Instead, the British ignored this problem and made no effort to provide coins in any form. As a result, a wide variety of foreign coins and tokens were pressed into use.
Generally speaking, there are two variables that go into calculating the value of a coin. One of these is rarity. A particular date and mintmark of a coin that is known by only four or five examples is extremely rare and therefore quite valuable. For example, there are only 5 known 1913 Liberty V nickels. These sell for $4,000,000 or more! Any of these coins will be worth a great deal because of their rarity, and if one was found but in a less-than-ideal condition, would still be worth big bucks. However, the other variable is condition. For example, there were 278,000,000 of the Philadelphia mint Texas quarters produced. These will never be rare. To have much value above face value, one of these coins must exhibit a near perfect strike, beautiful mint luster, and no contact marks. This would result in a very high grade, making it a “condition rarity.” Even then, that coin might be worth only a few hundred dollars, if you found just the right buyer.
Condition refers to how a coin appears to the eye. Generally, new coins have great eye appeal, being undamaged and having a lustrous finish. To find a coin from a hundred years ago that looks like it just came from the mint is exciting. Part of that reason is because of its condition; the newer an older coin looks, the more it is worth. Finding a rare coin in a looks-brand-new shape is a thrill to any coin collector. However, NEVER clean your collectible coins. Natural surfaces are important, and cleaning a coin harms that original surface. (Cleaning the crusty clad coins you dig up with your metal detector is fine; they’re not worth more than face value anyway, and a cleaning helps you spend them.)
Coin collectors hear this question fairly often from newbie collectors.
The U.S. Mint cranks out two types of coins, business strikes and proof coins. Business strikes are what are used in everyday commerce and what you receive in change from the coffee shop or the Mega Mart. Currently, each year every denomination has hundreds of millions and even billions of coins struck for general circulation.
Proof coins, on the other hand, are coins specially made for collectors. The banks don’t receive these to hand them out in change. They are originally obtained, by someone, from the U.S. Mint. You might purchase proof coins from the mint website when they are first offered, or older proof coins can be bought on eBay and from dealers. Generally, they are sold in sets from the mint, although a dealer may break up a set and sell the individual coins one by one. Many times, a proof set will have one coin that by itself is worth more than the proof set! For example, a 1970 proof set can be bought for $8-10, but the 40% silver Kennedy half is worth that by itself.
What makes a coin a proof coin? Proof coins are made from specially prepared dies. These have extra care taken in their production. For one, they are highly polished which imparts a really reflective surface to the coin, a mirror type of finish. Also, as the dies wear, they are replaced more frequently to keep the mirror effect.
To my mother-in-law? Almost, but not quite! Instead, one of the most beloved coins of all times was introduced 100 years ago—the buffalo nickel! (No connection implied between a buffalo and my mother-in-law! Any resemblance is purely coincidental, I swear.)
Designed by James Earl Fraser, these coins were introduced in 1913 and were produced through 1938. While worn examples are fairly attractive, those examples that are “mint fresh” are absolutely beautiful!
His initial design, though, was quickly changed. Underneath the buffalo, “Five Cents” sat too high on the coin and was quickly worn off. These original 1913 coins are called “type 1” or “bison standing on mound.” The corrected coin was the “bison standing on plain.” The “five cents” was cut into, or incused, so that it wouldn’t wear away so quickly. When you run across dateless buffalo nickels, you can tell which are the 1913 version by the ground the buffalo is standing on! The 1913 Type 2 coins have more value than the Type 1s.
Fraser admitted using three real Native Americans as models. Two of them were on the winning side at the Little Big Horn! These two were Iron Tail, an Oglala chief, and Two Moons, a Cheyenne chief. The third was Big Tree, a Kiowa. These men had been in Washington DC to visit Teddy Roosevelt when Fraser had the opportunity to study and photograph them.
Have you just finished your complete collection of Mercury dimes or Indian Head cents and are wondering what to do next? I have a suggestion for a collection that is not too extensive and is not too expensive—the Franklin half dollar.
Franklin halves were introduced in 1948 and were minted through 1963. They had a relatively short run as a coin because of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The half dollar introduced in 1964 to honor him cut short old Ben’s run on the half dollar coin.
Why would this set be fairly easy to put together?
First, it only ran for 16 years. A complete set of all dates and mint marks runs only 35 coins. Proof coins would add only 14 more coins to your set. Circulated Franklins can be had at just about the silver melt price. That means many of these can be found for only ten to twelve dollars or so.
Second, there were many of these minted. Even of the rarest date, there were still over three million minted. Many dates and mintmarks had 5 to 25 million made. Only in 1962 and 1963 were there mintage numbers of 10 to 67 million. (1963’s production was dwarfed by the 1964 Kennedy half, with over 400 million minted!)
Third, for a little more challenge to your endeavor, to collect these in “mint state” grades is not super expensive. Many of these can be found in top-tier grading services holders for as little as $30 to $40 for Mint State 64 coins. Very few would top $100 in that grade. The proof coins are the same way. Except for the 1950-1953 proof coins, which would totalabout $750 plus, the other ten would average $20 to $40.
One of the funniest lines I remember from “Cheers” was from Norm. He walked into the club and someone asked him how he was doing. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and I’m wearing Milk-Bone underwear.”
If you are a coin collector or someone who likes to invest in precious metals, there are less-than-ethical, even dishonest, sellers of coins and precious metals out there. My goal in this article is to make sure you’re not wearing Milk-Bone underwear while you’re enjoying your hobby or spending bucks on gold and silver.
In national publications, and the Sunday newspaper Parade
supplement is a perfect example of this, there are often some of these types of ads. One of them features “mint” bags of perhaps walking liberty half dollars or buffalo nickels. I haven’t seen one of these personally, but my first red flag is that these look awfully small to me! A mint bag of half dollars small enough to hold only ten is not nearly as valuable as one that will hold a thousand! These coins are readily obtainable from many dealers for $9 to $12 all day long, with no shipping charges; so watch what the quantity inside these bags actually is. Be careful of contents listed in pounds or ounces—this just confuses the issue! Buffalo nickels are also available for $25-$40 per roll of 40. The same logic applies to these coins and mint bags, too.
Imagine finding three grams of treasure in your pocket worth $40,000. Would this be platinum? Weapons-grade plutonium? An invisibility serum?
How about a copper penny, found in change? Impossible, right? Wrong! A couple of years ago, collectors from the Brown County Coin Club were in Ft. Worth at the American Numismatic Association’s national coin show, an event that rarely comes to Texas. While there, a couple of the guys overheard the following true tale.
A fellow brings up a 1969 S (S for San Francisco mint) cent, with doubling, to the ANACS representative who takes in coins for authentication. He immediately takes the coins to one of his graders, for a quick opinion on what was presented to them. “Yes,” the grader said, “This is an authentic 1969 S Lincoln cent with doubling, in a grade of Mint State 65.” From there, the ANACS rep took the penny and its owner, to a dealer whom he knew dealt in these kinds of coins. The dealer offered the owner $40,000 for it, but was turned down because the book value on it was $85,000! Can you believe a value of $85,000 for a penny found in pocket change!
As my readers may know, I have opened a coin shop and metal detector store in Early. In some respects, this seems to be an odd pairing of unrelated ventures. However, let me explain the solid connection between the two hobbies.
First of all, this area of Texas has two kinds of treasure tales that one hears fairly often.
The earliest treasures are those that were “lost” by the Spaniards that explored much of the Southwest. If you’ll remember, the Spanish’s main goal, after converting the natives to Christianity, was to find all the gold they could find. There are stories of old Spanish mines, old Spanish smelters for melting gold and silver, and reports of both gold and silver bars, all found if not in Brown County, then within the surrounding counties. For example, the legendary lost San Saba mine, near Menard, is not more than a hundred miles from here. The legend of Jim Bowie’s mine says that hismine wasn’t very far from Brown County.
These Spanish treasure caches, supposedly, were caused when the Comanche Indians got too close to the Spanish expeditions. They were hidden to prevent them from being stolen. Then, the caches were lost or forgotten to be searched for centuries later.Nearly a hundred years ago, Texas historian J. Frank Dobie wrote Legends of Texas in two short volumes that record many of these stories.