Numismatics provides the 'Midas Touch' for history teachers

Published : 09/14/12
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With the amount of numismatic materials out there, choices are abundant for teachers. Until I learned enough about both history and numismatics, it was a challenge for me to comprehend how I might use history and numismatics in conjunction with each other in a classroom setting. Now I see that they are deeply connected and numismatics is reflective of social, political and economic occurrences in America.

Here are some ideas that I use in my United States History classes.

One great activity is to use mintage numbers from Whitman’s A Guide Book of United States Coins (“Red Book”) for a particular coin type as an analytical study on what was going on economically. A class could explore why so many, so few or no coins at all were minted in a particular year. For examples: Why were so many coins issued between 1964 and 1967? Why were so few Morgan dollars minted in 1895? Why were no quarter dollars, half dollars or dollars issued in 1931? Connecting a lesson about mintage numbers to when and why Branch Mints opened in Dahlonega, Charlotte, New Orleans, Denver, Carson City and San Francisco is an excellent national and regional examination.

Composition of coins and composition changes are also good subjects for class discussions, especially for wartime issues. Take as examples the copper to steel switch and the nickel to silver switch during World War II. The public had its scrap metal drives; the government essentially did the same, cutting back on using in coinage the metals that were required to fight the war. What were the saved metals used for — sure they were used for the war, but what specifically? All are excellent and relevant questions for students to the answer.

While mintages and compositions are often times economically influenced, the devices on the coins often have social and political significance.

Social-political class discussions could consider why a new coin design was released into circulation — for example, students could learn that in ancient times a new coin was meant to make a statement. A class could discuss how a national pride movement inspired an artistic overhaul of coinage like that of Theodore Roosevelt with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, or it could discuss the Peace dollar and the commemoration for the ending of the Great War.

Even before the whole modern explosion of commemorative dollars, quarter dollars, 5-cent coins and cents started in 1999, the original designs of those and the other denominations had historical values. Classes could examine the coins that were issued to mark birthdays like that of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; deaths like that of Franklin D. Roosevelt; assassinations like that of John F. Kennedy; and national programs like Dwight D. Eisenhower’s NASA. A class could relate the official closing of the West and the completion of the 48 continental United States in 1912 to the Mint’s celebration of the West through the use of a bison and a Native American on a new 5-cent coin in 1913 — a bit of nostalgia for the Western spirit and an ironic celebration of those from whom we took the West in the years before.

Now, sharing items in a classroom in a safe manner is essential. Many numismatic items can be valuable, and the risk of allowing all students to handle such items could be devastating, which I learned the hard way. Technology now allows you to share items with students in a safe way. If you own the item and want to bring it in, you can use a document projector. Or you can scan the item onto your computer for a digital presentation. If the item is beyond your budget, you can always use someone else’s pictures from the Internet. Just know the copyright laws before you do so.

Nathan Zang teaches 11th grade U.S. History in Chesterfield, Va.

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