Who designed the faces on your pocket change?

 

Grab a handful of coins from your purse or wallet, and look at it. Did you ever think about who designed the portraits on those coins? Each one was created by a talented artist. Here are the artists for the coins currently in circulation.

 

Cent

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The cent is one of only two denominations of coin that have been in continuous production since the earliest days of the US Mint (the other is the half-dollar.) The cent has gone through many designs, but the current Lincoln portrait on the obverse of the coin is the longest-running design in US Mint history. The portrait was created by Lithuanian immigrant Victor David Brenner, who came to the United States in 1890 at the age of 19. He arrived in the country with little more than skill in the trade his father had taught him: engraving. He went on to study in France, winning awards at the Paris Exposition of 1900.

 

 

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President Theodore Roosevelt ordered a penny to be created for Lincoln’s 100th birthday, and insisted that it be based on a bas-relief made by Brenner several years before. When Brenner submitted his design, he originally included his entire name on the coin, as was the custom with coin designers in Europe. The Director of the Mint decided to use Brenner’s initials, instead. (This inadvertently led to the “VDB Penny” scandal, which you can read about here.)

 

Nickel

Felix Schlaf was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1891; he served in the German army during World War 1, and won awards for his art in Europe. He and his wife moved to the United States in 1929. In 1938, he submitted a design for the new nickel; his design was chosen by Nellie Tayloe Ross, who was serving as the Director of the US Mint. Schlag won $1500 for the design; he used the money for a funeral for his wife.

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He gave the government permission to put his initials on the nickel starting in 1966, and passed away in Owosso, Michigan, in 1974. The Michigan State Numismatic Society placed a memorial in his honor in 2008. His initials can be seen on the classic Jefferson nickel (the newer nickels have a design by Joe Fitzgerald) between the bust and the edge of the coin.

 

 

Dime

Dime_Obverse_13.pngJohn R. Sinnock, 8th chief Engraver of the United States Mint (1925-1947), created the designs for both the Roosevelt Dime and the Franklin half-dollar (minted from 1948-1963), as well as sculpting the Purple Heart medal (which he did not design.) An odd rumor regarding the design arose in 1946 when the dime was originally minted. As is custom, Sinnock’s initials had been added to the design, and it was rumored that the “JS” on the coin stood not for “John Sinnock,” but for “Joseph Stalin.” The rumor made waves again with the release of Sinnock’s 1948 design for the Franklin half-dollar. You can see his initials on Roosevelt dimes today, just between the date and the lowest point of Roosevelt’s bust.

 

Quarter

1024px-2006_Quarter_Proof.pngJohn Flanagan was a well-known portrait sculptor who created the iconic bust of Washington for the quarter coin. He designed both sides of the initial Washington quarter, which was issued in 1932. Though the reverse of the coin changed in 1998 for the State Quarters series, the obverse design was only modified slightly, and still bears Flanagan’s initials (look on Washington’s neck just left of his ponytail.) Flanagan also designed the medal commemorating the Battle of Verdun, which was given to France to commemorate the World War I battle. He also served as assistant to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, designer of the legendary Saint-Gaudens double eagle coin.

 

Half-dollar

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The design for the obverse of the Kennedy half-dollar was created by Gilroy Roberts, the ninth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, following the service of John Sinnock. He was a talented gemstone carver and sculptor. You can find his initial on the lower side of Kennedy’s neck, just above the words “we trust.”

 

One Small Step: When the Moon Landing Changed the World

 

 

47 years ago today, 2 men set foot on the moon for the first time in human history. This event captured the attention of the entire world; it is estimated that 500 million people (about 14% of total world population in 1969) watched the moon landing coverage live on television; it was the largest audience for a live broadcast at the time.  It’s no surprise that an event of that magnitude has been commemorated on coins and stamps as well.

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As with many historic events, the space program was celebrated with commemorative tokens. These were struck for all the missions, from the initial Mercury project up through the Apollo program. NASA and its astronauts were national heroes, and many space-themed collectibles were created during the 1960’s.

 

 

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The Apollo 11 mission, naturally, received special focus. By the time of the Apollo missions, the United States had pulled ahead in the space race, after coming in second to the USSR in nearly every milestone until the Gemini 3 mission. For Gemini 3, Gus Grissom (who died in the Apollo 1 disaster) and John Young (who went on to several Apollo missions as well as the Shuttle program) demonstrated the ability to change the orbit of their craft. Each Gemini mission had a special focus in order to build the knowledge and experience that was needed to safely reach the moon. The Apollo program took the information from the Gemini missions and set forth a daring but achievable plan to reach the lunar surface.

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On January 27, 1967, a fire broke out in the Apollo 1 capsule during a routine test. The combination of an oxygen-rich environment and the design of the escape hatch resulted in the death of the Apollo 1 crew: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. NASA took time after the accident to reassess the module design and the cost of the space program. Flight Director Gene Kranz (most famous for his leadership during the Apollo 13 crisis) told the Mission Control team, “We were too ‘gung-ho’ about the schedule and we blocked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work.” New safety measures and procedures were put into place, and the Apollo missions continued. The Apollo 1 mission name was retired in honor of the lost astronauts, and Apollos 2 and 3 never flew. Apollo 4 lifted off in November of 1967, and the race for the moon continued.

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Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin

 

After successful trips around the moon with Apollos 8 and 10 (Apollo 9 was a test of all modules in low earth orbit), Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins were aboard; only Armstrong and Aldrin would land on the lunar surface, as Collins stayed behind with the spacecraft.

 

 

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On July 20, 1969, after a harrowing descent in which the “Eagle” lander ended up short on fuel and kilometers off course, Armstrong and Aldrin landed safely on the surface. Several hours later, the two astronauts descended onto the lunar surface, making history for their nation and for all of humanity.

 

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Apollo 11 mission emblem

Since the first moment when Armstrong’s boots touched the surface of the moon, the image of the first moon landing have become iconic. They have been featured in movies, videos, songs, and on everything from t-shirts to jewelry. The eagle and moon motif on the reverse of the Eisenhower and Susan B. Anthony dollars was based on the emblem for Apollo 11, since NASA was established during Eisenhower’s administration (the design was re-used for the Anthony dollar, though she had no connection to the program.)

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On the 47th anniversary of the first moon landing, we remember the sacrifices made to further the cause of peaceful exploration and scientific inquiry, and look hopefully to the future.

Ghosts and Lost Treasures: Spooky Stories of Cursed Coins

 

With the new Ghostbusters film coming to theaters this weekend, everyone is trading ghost stories and tales of the supernatural. Coin collectors should be listening. After all, stories of lost treasures and paranormal activity go back centuries. Almost every legend of buried coins comes with the requisite guardian specter or curse, put in place to prevent any upstart from stealing the wealth. Here are a few of our favorites.

 

Captain Kidd’s treasure on Charles Island, Connecticut
1280px-CharlesislandCharles Island is a small spot of land just off the shore of Connecticut, near the town of Milford. It’s been said to have been “thrice-cursed.” The first curse was set by the local Paugussett nation who believed it to be the home of sacred spirits; when European settlers defeated them, the chief proclaimed that any shelter built on the island would crumble (and indeed, no building has lasted long on its soil.) The legendary pirate, Captain Kidd, also cursed the spot during his final voyage in 1699 when he reportedly buried treasure there, insisting that anyone who disturbed the gold would die. The final curse is supposed to be from the Mexican Emperor Guatmozin, whose treasure was allegedly hidden on the island by sailors in 1721.
skull-476740_960_720Officially, no treasure has been found on Charles Island to date. But there are stories that say otherwise. Local tales recount the story of two treasure hunters who found an iron chest buried on the island in 1850. When they began to open the chest, a screaming, fiery skeleton descended from the sky, and a shower of blue flames erupted from the treasure pit. Naturally, the treasure hunters fled in terror; when they returned to the spot by day, their tools and the treasure pit had vanished. In some versions of the story, the two men spend their final days in an insane asylum; in others, they are beheaded by the spirits of the Paugussett nation. Whether any of it is true is a matter for conjecture, but even in the present day, visitors to the island report sightings of ghosts in the trees and disembodied voices.

 

 

The Treasure of Jean Lafitte
Anonymous_portrait_of_Jean_Lafitte,_early_19th_century,_Rosenberg_Library,_Galveston,_Texas.JPGPirate legends are a treasure trove of stories of headless ghosts and spectral ships; it’s hard to tell which stories are original and which have simply borrowed these common motifs. But one of the most common stories is the ghost of corsair captain Jean Lafitte. Lafitte was legendary for his exploits, and was condemned, pardoned, and condemned again by the United States government. He and his fleet helped save the city of New Orleans from British troops during the War of 1812, and though Lafitte operated as a man without a country, he had great respect for the new country. Lafitte’s ghost is a fairly common sight at his old blacksmith shop, which is now a bar. In many legends, ghosts are fine mists or shadowy shapes, and pirate ghosts are often said to be headless, but Lafitte has always been a full apparition, according to all accounts. He is always seen on the first floor, usually in the shadows, and never interacts with any visitor. When spotted, he looks like a normal human dressed in old sailor’s clothes, until he simply fades into the shadows.
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Also unlike most pirate ghosts, Lafitte has only been seen in his place of business, never near any of his treasure sites. One of the sites commonly thought to hold some of his riches is Fowler’s Bluff, Florida. Lafitte and other pirates were known to frequent the area, especially to bring their ships onto land and clean to hulls. No treasure of Lafitte’s has been recorded here, but stories persist of a man who left the Bluff in 1888 with unexplained riches. Some attempts at using ground-penetrating radar have revealed shapes that could be chests of gold doubloons. Perhaps some treasure chests remain to be found by future treasure hunters.

 

The Cahuenga Pass Treasure

1922_Cahuenga_Pass_HollywoodA large hoard of coins is reportedly buried near the Hollywood Bowl in southern California. This complex story starts in 1864, when four Mexican soldiers were sent to San Francisco with a load of coins and jewels to purchase munitions for the Mexican war (at the time, Mexican silver pesos were one of the most valued trade coins in the world.) One of the soldiers died during the voyage under suspicious circumstances, and his comrades buried their fortune for safe-keeping while they kept a watch for foreign agents.

 

However, the soldiers had been watched not by spies, but by a man named Diego Morena, who took the coins and made his way south to the mountains near Los Angeles, through the Cahuenga Pass. That night, he dreamed that he would die if he took the treasure into the city, so he buried it in the Pass. He went into town the next day, where he fell violently ill. He told a friend, Jesus Martinez, where the treasure was buried, before dying of his illness that night. Martinez and his stepson went to find the coins, but Martinez died of a heart attack as soon as they began to dig. The stepson died in a shootout 10 years later.
Hoard_of_ancient_gold_coinsPart of the treasure was uncovered by a Basque shepherd in 1885. The shepherd sewed the coins into his clothing for safekeeping and set off on a boat for Spain. As he stood looking towards the approaching country, he fell overboard and the weight of the gold in his clothes sunk him to the bottom of the sea.
The legend (and curse?) of the coin hoard continued into the twentieth century. Henry Jones, an oil expert, dug for the treasure in November of 1939, while a film crew documented the dig. Nothing but dirt was ever found, and Jones committed suicide over his failure. The coins have never been recovered.

 

The Folly Island Treasure

 

The ghost of Blackbeard the pirate has been seen out at Folly Island, South Carolina, many times, possibly connected with this spine-tingling tale regarding treasure on the island.

 

Civil_War_Battle_Scene_1887_William_T_Trego.pngDuring the Civil War, Union troops landed on Folly Island while preparing an assault on the nearby town of Charleston. Soldiers were sent around the island to ensure that all civilian residents had vacated the island; one young officer, reportedly named Yokum, came across an old black woman and a child living in a run-down shack. The woman refused to leave the house, as she had grown up in it, and began telling Yokum stories about the area. He wasn’t interested until the old woman mentioned treasure buried nearby.

 

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According to the old woman, pirates had buried six chests full of gold and silver coins (likely doubloons and pieces of eight) between two oak trees. After the chests were lowered into the hole, the pirate captain stabbed one of his crew and tossed the body into the hole. The pirates covered the pit and sailed away. The old woman insisted that the treasure was guarded by the ghost of the pirate buried with the gold.

 

 

moon-1275694_960_720.jpgYokum helped the old woman and the child off the island, then returned with his friend Hatcher to look for the treasure that night. As they dug, the tops of the trees began swaying as if in a high wind; the deeper the dug, the higher the wind rose, until the wind-blown sand began scratching their faces. Flashes of light began to appear, with greater frequency as the hole grew deeper. Finally there came a long flash, that made the night “bright as noon,” and Yokum and Hatcher saw that they were not alone. The dark form of a pirate stood behind them; the two men dropped their tools and escaped across the dunes, swearing never to tell anyone what had happened. The coins have never been found.

 

 

 

 

The Eagles on Our Coins

 

Happy 4th of July from the Stamp and Coin Place! In honor of the holiday, here’s a quick look at some of the different forms the bald eagle, our country’s national symbol, has taken on our coins over the years.

 

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The eagle on the reverse of an 1877 trade dollar. (Have you read our story about the silver trade dollars?)

 

 

 

 

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Very large eagle design on the reverse of a 1925 silver Peace Dollar.

 

 

 

 

 

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Reverse of an 1835 silver Capped Bust half-dollar

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Most eagle designs are on the reverse of our coins, but this 1858 Flying Eagle cent features the eagle on the obverse.

 

 

 

 

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This 1946 Walking Liberty half-dollar features a very large and dynamic eagle on the reverse.

 

 

 

 

 

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This very stylized eagle is on the reverse of a 2011 Walking Liberty silver dollar bullion coin.

 

 

 

 

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This 1889 Morgan Dollar features one of the best known eagle designs in American coins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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While the eagle is usually shown in a static position, this 1927 Standing Liberty quarter shows a flying eagle on the reverse.

 

 

 

 

 

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The eagle on the reverse of this 1935 silver Washington quarter is probably the most familiar to the vast majority of Americans.

 

When Coin Collecting Was Almost Illegal

 

“There are too many coin collectors for the comfort of the U.S. Treasury.”

 

6502-01__75507.1401925344.410.410.jpgIt’s the 1960’s. The country is on edge during a time of social upheaval, President Kennedy has been assassinated, and the war in Vietnam is still rolling on. To add to the mess, the government is running short on silver, there is a massive coin shortage, and things are looking bleak. While the government scrambles to find a solution, some officials are looking to place blame. Their target? Coin collectors.

 

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Lee_Warren_METCALF.jpgIn 1964, Senator Lee Metcalf (D, Montana) put forward a bill to eliminate the use of dates and mintmarks on coins. This would make the coins undesirable to collectors, and would therefore ensure that they stayed in circulation. To make things worse, the Treasurer of the United States, Kathryn O’Hay Granahan, dropped the quote at the beginning of the story: “There are too many coin collectors for the comfort of the U.S. Treasury.” Though the dates and mintmarks were allowed to remain on the coins, a date freeze was proposed: coins would be marked for 1964 until the shortage was alleviated.

 

Eva_Adams_medal.jpegCoin collectors were incensed by the accusation that they were the source of the nation’s coin shortage; many wrote letters to coin publications and congressmen, protesting the claim. Some threw the blame at the feet of speculators and investors, others blamed the popularity of vending machines where coins piled up for months before returning to circulation. (In reality, many Americans had begun holding on to the silver coins, as the value of the silver rose over the face value of the coins.) The director of the Mint, Eva Adams, pleaded with “true and honest” collectors to stop collecting by roll and bag (a popular way to collect at the time) and return the majority of coins to circulation.

 

Casual collectors and numismatists alike went into action to save their hobby. Walter Breen, renowned numismatist, pointed out the sheer number of coins used in laundromats, pay phones, tolls, and buses, all of which took a great deal of time to return to circulation. He insisted that blaming collectors for the shortage was “a triumph of stupidity.” The editor of Coin World magazine, Margo Russell, was called to testify before the Senate Banking Committee, where she passionately defended coin collectors and urged against the use of a date freeze.
It didn’t work. President Johnson signed the freeze into law on September 3, 1964; on September 8, the Treasury announced that coins minted after January 1, 1965, would be dated 1964.

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Alan_Harvey_BibleBut the news got worse for coin collectors. Senator Alan Bible (D-Nevada) put forward a bill on May 21, 1965, that would have criminalized coin collecting itself, except for designated “bona fide collectors’ items.” The bill would have made the export, selling, or purchase of coins illegal, which would have severely limited most collectors and coin shops. Bible proposed that the Treasury Department publish a list of coins that were “numismatically desirable,” which would be legal to hold. Common coins could not be legally collected. Those who collected modern coins were particularly disturbed by this proposal, as it would have required the dissolution of their collections and the inability to rebuild them. Others pointed out that this bill would also criminalize any child with a simple piggy bank full of coins.

 

Collectors and dealers banded together to form the United Coin Collectors Alliance in June of 1965, solely for the purpose of defeating Bible’s bill. Chet Krause of Numismatic News was at the forefront of the effort, and served as the executive director of communications.

 

The government, after detailed study, decided that the best way to alleviate the coin shortage was to move to clad coins instead of the more precious silver coinage. The Mint worked overtime to put the new clad coins into circulation for the 1965 holiday season, and it worked, even if the coins were considered less attractive than the earlier silver pieces.

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1965-washington-quarter1966 brought an end to the time of silver coins in the United States, with the last quarters struck in January, the last dimes in February, and the last half-dollars in April. The first 1965-dated coins were struck on December 29, 1965; the 1965 date was used until July 31, 1966, when it was updated to 1966. Normal dating resumed on January 1, 1967.

 

While coin collecting had escaped being criminalized, many collectors felt that it had changed forever with the loss of silver coinage. Many sets remained incomplete, as a lack of accurate dates prevented a collector from knowing when a coin had been minted.

 

However, coin collecting has proven to be one of the most resilient pursuits, and over the years, it began to revive. The silver coins proved highly collectible after the introduction of the clad coins, and clad coins themselves began to be collected by some hobbyists. Coin collecting may change, sometimes dramatically, but it always returns for new generations.

 

Why were the State Quarters wildly successful?

 

The State Quarter series is easily the most successful numismatic program of all time. It generated over $3.8 billion in seigniorage for the government, and nearly half of all Americans collected the coins to some extent. Over 30 billion of the coins were minted, more than double quarter production in previous decades. However, other coin series aimed at the general public have not had the same success. After initial interest, the public largely stopped using or collecting the Sacajawea dollars, as well as the earlier Susan B. Anthony dollars (1979-1981) and Bicentennial series.

 

So what made the State Quarters stick around? These quarters differed from other collectible series in five key areas:

 
Accessibility

1024px-2003_AL_Proof.pngThose interested in the coins didn’t have to go to coin shops or dealers to get the coins. They could find them in their change at any store, often at a local bank or retail outlet. It wasn’t uncommon for people to ask retail clerks if they could get the new quarters in their change. Even people who had no intention of collecting the coins as a series often tended to hang on to the new designs when they found them.

 
Affordability

2002_MS_ProofEach coin could be acquired for face value, making the state quarters one of the most affordable collectible coin sets in modern history. Anyone could collect a whole set for under $15. It was perfect for kids and casual collectors, and many Americans with no interest in numismatics not only collected all 50 designs, but bought special holders to display their collections.

 

Novelty

2002_OH_Proof.pngWith five new designs released every year for a decade, there was always a new design to get excited about. Every handful of change became an adventure: is this a new quarter? Do I already have this one? The designs were unlike any of the designs on currently circulating coins, and the idea that each state had a chance to present a design to represent its culture and history was endlessly fascinating. Why did Ohio’s coin have an astronaut on it? Why did West Virginia feel that the New River Gorge bridge was the best imagery for their state?

 
Personal meaning

800px-2008_HI_Proof.pngPeople love stuff that’s about them. During the State Quarters run, everyone wanted a quarter with their own state design on it. Those living in states that had joined the country more recently waited patiently for years to get their state’s coins. Some states held design contests for their quarters. This was no grand, classic, federal coin: these coins were personal.

 

Connecticut_quarter,_reverse_side,_1999Many of the coins feature images from national and state folklore. The Charter Oak on the Connecticut quarter is said to have been used as a hiding place for the Royal Charter, when the governor-general tried to revoke it. Local tradition also holds that the tree was first planted by English settlers and Native Americans as a symbol of peace between the two peoples.

 

 

Fun and Social

800px-2006_nv_proof (1)Never underestimate the simple value of fun. It was fun to poke through change to see if there was a new design. It was fun to compare coins with friends and coworkers, to examine each new design, try to figure out what it was and why it was chosen. It was fun to discuss what sort of design you would have created to represent your state. It was a starting point for many conversations, at offices, businesses, and schools. These coins brought people together in a way most large coin series haven’t. People wanted to talk about them, to show them off, to share and trade them with each other.
While other coin series have been carefully planned and designed, any series that doesn’t take into account the human factor is doomed to be relegated only to collectors and historians.

 

To see all the coin sets we currently have for sale, click here! 

What Happened When Hamilton Lost the Mint

 

A unique painting hangs in the US Mint in Philadelphia; an intimate group scene, painted by John Dunsmore, shows several Founding Fathers and other figures gathered around a seated Martha Washington. Mrs. Washington is examining the first coins minted by the new United States, made with silver from her own personal housewares (about 1,200 half dismes and a smaller number of dismes, the predecessor of the modern dime. One such disme coin sold for $998,750 in May 2016, while a half disme sold for $176,250, according to Heritage Auctions). In the group behind her, you can see Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, while Thomas Jefferson stands on Washington’s other side, waiting to inspect the new coins.

 

If you’re familiar with the “Hamilton” musical, or just know your American history, you know that Jefferson and Hamilton butted heads during their time on Washington’s Cabinet, and the founding of the Mint became another source of conflict.

 

After having a great deal of difficulty producing money that held its value during the war, America was slow to adopt new currency. Many areas relied on stable foreign currency, like the Spanish silver peso, for trade; in some places, businessmen valued foreign coins differently than in others. Many gold and silver coins had been mixed with base metals, causing merchants to fear using them lest they be cheated. In fact, though the dollar had been established by Congress as the standard currency unit, President Washington’s daily expense reports still used British denominations.

 

Naturally, Hamilton approached this issue in his usual manner: reading everything he could on the subject of coinage and minting. He studied the notes that Sir Isaac Newton had created during his post as master of the mint; these notes included details on the exact value of specific coins. Hamilton insisted on special assays of coins from other nations, trying to determine the metals used in each.

 

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In the interest of improving the economy, as well as making common necessities more available to those with lower income, Hamilton recommended the creation of a range of coins, from dollars minted with precious metals down to half-cents made from copper. He believed this would help the less fortunate “by enabling them to purchase in small portions and at a more reasonable rate the necessaries of which they stand in need.” He also championed the use of beautifully-crafted and intricate designs on the coins, both to inspire patriotism and to deter counterfeiters: “It is a just observation that ‘The perfection of the coins is a great safeguard against counterfeits.’”

 

When Hamilton first began studying and reporting on the need for a mint, he and Jefferson were still civil, if not close friends. Politics and rivalry soon divided them, which was only made worse when Washington decided that his Secretary of the Treasury was too busy for another undertaking, and put the US Mint under Jefferson’s much-smaller State department.

 

Ron Chernow, Hamilton biographer, writes, “Hamilton long regretted that when the U.S. Mint was finally established by Congress in spring 1792 and began to produce the first federal coins, Washington lodged it under Jefferson’s jurisdiction at State. […] Unfortunately, Jefferson ran the mint poorly. Hamilton later tried, in vain, to arrange a swap whereby the post office would go to State in exchange for the mint coming under Treasury control, where it belonged.”

 

Hamilton stepped down from the Treasury in 1795, but kept in contact with President Washington (later writing the bulk of Washington’s farewell address) and gave advice to Oliver Wolcott, who succeeded Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. The Mint became an independent agency in 1799, and turned precious metals into coins for anyone, without charging for seigniorage. It finally joined the Treasury department with the Coinage Act of 1873, nearly 70 years after Hamilton’s death.

 

(Unless otherwise stated and linked, the information in this story is sourced from Ron Chernow’s excellent book Alexander Hamilton, pages 354-356 of the Kindle edition.)

The Sensational Coins of Treasure Legends

Even though we don’t cut our coins up any more, the practice made an indelible cultural mark. Most of us still know the cost of a shave and a haircut is two bits (occasionally increased to six), and the piratical legend of “pieces of eight” still sounds like treasure. Pieces of eight, bits, and “cob” coins all have one thing in common: they could be subdivided when necessary by simply cutting them into pieces.

 

Pieces of Eight

7264793792_fd2a04aae4_oThe original silver peso could be cut into eight equal pieces each worth a single real. This made giving change easier in times of low circulation or when the coins were used in remote locations. Silver pesos (commonly called “Spanish dollars”) were one of the most widely-used coins international trade for centuries, due to their superior uniformity and milling standards. Some nations even countersigned the coin, legalizing it for use as local currency. Many coin denominations in Latin America used the silver peso as a base for their own currency, and the modern peso is still a common denomination in many of them. Over 20 nations still have a peso denomination, though the value has decreased over the centuries.

 

The pieces of eight of pirate legends refer more typically to the coins minted in the Americas and shipped to the Philippines aboard the Spanish treasure fleet. In the Philippines, these coins could be exchanged for Chinese goods, since Spanish silver was the only foreign currency accepted by the Chinese at the time. These coins, upon acceptance by Chinese merchants, would often be stamped with chop marks to indicate the coin had been valued correctly. (The later American trade dollars often ended up with chop marks, too. Read more here!)

 

A chest of these and other coins are rumored to lie buried under a quiet neighborhood in Philadelphia; a mysterious letter dated May 14, 1716 (verified as authentic) tells the recipient how to find a buried chest of “doubloons, pistoles, reales and pieces of eight.” Since the neighborhood has been built up over the centuries, it is impossible to access to spot where the chest is supposed to be buried. It might still wait to be discovered.

 

Doubloons

DoubloonAfter Austria introduced the Guldengroschen coin in 1486, other countries began creating their own specie (high purity) coins. The Spanish 8-real coin, the peso, was created in 1497; 40 years later, they began producing the gold escudo, worth 16 reales, or 2 pesos. A later coin, the legendary doubloon, was worth 2 escudos (or 4 pesos, or 32 reales). Since it is also divisible by 8, the doubloon is also a “pieces of eight” coin.

 

Spanish-American mints also produced gold escudos in denominations of one, two, four, and eight. The two escudo coins were known as “pistoles,” with the eight escudo piece being a “quadruple pistole” or sometimes a “double doubloon.” In time, it became known simply as the Spanish doubloon. Doubloons were currency in Spain as late as the mid-19th century. In 1849, Spain minted its last doubloons; however, several former colonies, such as Mexico and Peru, continued to mint them.

 

Cob Coins and Creating Currency

17th_Century_Spanish_Treasure_Silver_8_Reales_Cob_CoinIn the British colonies, the word “cob” often referred to Spanish-American coins in either gold or silver, which were crudely shaped during the early years of exploration in the New World (in contrast to the coins minted in Spain, which were much more uniform.) The first mint in the Americas was established in Mexico City in 1535. A royal decree authorized Herman Cortes to “melt, cast, mark, and put aside the royal-fifth”  of the precious metals taken from the Aztecsl; he set up the foundry in the palace of Axayacatl. The Casa de Moneda was officially established when the Queen of Spain signed the Viceroyalty of New Spain into existence on May 11, 1535. The mint began operations in April of 1536.

 

continental third dollarBritish colonists were usually prohibited by law from minting coins (with a few exceptions), and colonists often found themselves using Spanish coins. During the Revolutionary War, the new nation tried to implement paper currency, which quickly collapsed. (For fans of the musical “Hamilton,” this is referenced when the young aide-de-camp sings, “Local merchants deny us equipment, assistance, they only take British money, so sing a song of sixpence.”) Spanish dollars continued to be used as reliable currency; when cut into eight pieces, each 1-real piece was referred to as a “bit.” The United States established its own currency in 1792, with the creation of the US Mint, but the terms “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar” have remained in our vocabulary for over 200 years.
600px-Holey_dollar_coinage_NSW_1813_a128577_01Shortly after its founding in 1788, the New South Wales colony in Australia faced a shortage of coins. Not only was the colony remote from Europe, but most coins left the colony aboard trading ships, in exchange for their valuable cargo. Governor Lachlan Macquarie found an innovative solution: he had the centers punched out of thousands of Spanish dollars which the British government had sent. The inner piece (also called the “dump”) was valued at 15 pence, while the outer circle (colloquially known as the “holey dollar,”) was valued at 5 shillings. Each 614px-Holey_dollar_coinage_NSW_1813_a128577_03section was overstamped with the name of the colony, the date, and the new value of the coin. This not only doubled the number of coins in circulation, but made it almost impossible for them to be taken out of the colonies, since other colonies and countries would not accept the “damaged” coins. The relief was short-lived; the Sterling Silver Money Act passed by Parliament in 1825 ended the use of this uniquely Aussie currency.

 

Cob coinage faded into obscurity as minting technology and security measures have improved, but these unique coins and pieces of coins form an indelible part of our history.

FAQs: “How can I know what my coin is worth?”

 

It’s difficult to have a single, simple answer to this question, as there are multiple variables for thousands of coins. However, there are some general principles that will help you find the information you’re looking for.

 

Condition of the coin

scratched half dollar

1833 Silver Capped Bust Dime with fine scratches

One of the biggest variables with any coin is the condition. If the coin is mint or near mint condition, it will bring a much higher value than a damaged coin. To a coin grader or collector, damage can be very minor to the eye and still drastically affect the value of the coin. This is why most collectors do not clean coins that they find; even the most gentle wash is capable of scratching thin lines onto the surface of the coin. Coins are usually damaged from the rigors of circulation, where no special care is taken to protect them.

 

Rarity and Date

Another major factor is the rarity of a coin. A coin that was only minted in the thousands will often have a higher value than coins with mintages in the millions.

The date of a given coin can also be an indicator of rarity, and therefore of value. More coins may have been minted in one year than another, or the coins in a particular year are made of a different metal (for instance, the 1943 steel pennies).

 

Mint Mark

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San Francisco mint mark on 1908 Indian Head penny

 

The final major factor is the mint mark. This is a small mark on the coin, usually a single letter, that indicates which mint the coin originated at. United States mint marks are: Charlotte, North Carolina (C, gold coins only, 1838-1861); Carson City, Nevada (CC, 1870-1893); Dahlonega, Georgia (D, Gold coins only, 1838-1861); Denver, Colorado (D, 1906 to date); New Orleans, Louisiana (O, 1838-1909); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (P, 1793 to date); San Francisco, California (S, 1854 to date); and West Point (W, 1984 to date.)

 

 

Denominations

NNC-US-1792-10C-Pattern_Disme_Copper_(J-10)

US disme, the original name of the dime

One thing to note is that denominations of coins have changed over the course of history; be sure you know the face value of the coin, when possible, to get more accurate information about the value of the coin.

 

Valuation, Grading, and Identification

Your best bet for getting a good valuation on your coin is to have it professionally graded: PCGS is an excellent resource, as is NGC. Once the coin is graded, it will be much easier to find a value for it. If you don’t wish to take your coin to a professional, there are a few forums and Facebook groups that may be able to help you. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. If you have a digital camera, use that to take the picture. If you don’t, a decent smartphone will work, if you are careful.
  2. Light the coin well, making sure to light from several angles to eliminate shadows and glare.
  3. Position the coin on a blank background, preferably either black or white.
  4. Use a tripod, if you have one. The more fine detail you can capture, the better. If you don’t have a tripod, try to brace the camera or phone against something solid while taking the photo.
  5. Get as much information about the coin as you can. If you know the country, denomination, etc, include that information with the photo. If the coin doesn’t come with that information, a Google Image search may be helpful.

 

Once you have the photo and information, share it with the group. You are likely to get some conflicting answers, and will still need to do your own research, but this can give you a good place to start. Once you know what kind of coin you have, you can look it up in the Red Book or other guide to get a more precise valuation.

 

The information from a group or forum should never be considered as a professional evaluation, but if you just want more information about a coin you happened across, it can be a great resource.

All About the Hamiltons

One of the most popular names in America today was overlooked for decades until an unlikely pop culture sensation revived his legacy: Alexander Hamilton. In fact, our first Secretary of the Treasury was due to be removed from the $10 bill until his resurgence in popularity following the 2015 debut of the eponymous Broadway hit. The faces on United States bills have remained the same since 1929 (see a bill from that year here), when it was decided that faces of “permanent familiarity” should be the ones depicted. But that is about to change.

On Wednesday, April 20, 2016, the Treasury announced their intention to keep Hamilton on the $10, and replace Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 instead. How did a Secretary of the Treasury become so popular, and how has Hamilton’s life shaped America’s money?

As anyone familiar with the hit musical and Grammy-winning cast album can tell you, Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock “in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean,” only to leave his humble beginnings behind to pursue education on the mainland. Finding himself caught up in the revolutionary whirl of 1770’s New York, Hamilton soon distinguished himself through military strategy and oratory, eventually becoming Washington’s trusted aide-de-camp. During the war, Hamilton also devoted himself to the study of finance, developing a wealth of knowledge that quickly made him the forerunner for the new office of Secretary of the Treasury in the up-and-coming United States. Hamilton’s daring plan to have the new Federal government assume the states’ war debts put him at odds with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and several other Founding Fathers, though his ideas won out in the end. Hamilton did not live to see the long-term effects of his financial plan; on July 12, 1804, the 49-year-old Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. While strongly opinionated and prone to argument, Hamilton was nonetheless beloved by many Americans; his death was widely mourned.

Not mentioned in the musical is the fact that Hamilton also founded the U.S. Mint, and oversaw the first coins made for the new country after the acceptance of the Constitution. He is one of only two non-Presidents on American currency (the other being Franklin, on the $100 bill), and the only person depicted on American currency who was not born in the United States. He has been depicted on 8 types of US currency, in 7 different denominations: the 1862 $2 Note; the 1861 $5 Demand Note and $5 1862 United States Note; the $10 Federal Reserve Note, Gold Certificate, and Silver Certificate since 1928; the $20 US Note beginning in 1869; the $50 denomination of 1862-69 US Notes, 1862-64 Interest-Bearing Notes, 1907 Certificates of Indebtedness, and 1863-63 Compound Interest Treasury Notes; the 1864 $500 Interest Bearing Note, and the 1918 Series $1000 Federal Reserve Note.

Hamilton has been a part of American finance and currency from the very beginning; he has been a constant presence in our wallets, even if not in our minds. It’s fitting that the bombastic first Secretary of the Treasury should retain his place due to an uproarious musical that speaks to the heart of his beloved America.
Did you know? Women, including Martha Washington, Pocahontas, and Lady Liberty, have been on American currency before. You can read all about that history hereThis isn’t the first time a woman on currency has sparked intense debate, either! Do you know the story of the 1891 Silver Certificate scandal?