Getting started in numismatics

Young or old, affluent or not, all sorts of people find coin collecting an accessible hobby. Many famous collectors started as children or young adults, and this is also the kind of hobby and vocation that gets passed to generations within families and shared with friends. Because studying numismatics also involves learning about history, politics, art and much more, this hobby has educational value. Of course, coin collectors also find this hobby exciting and sometimes, profitable. The first step for novice coin collectors usually includes learning the language of coin collecting. Special terms describe a coin's condition, type and appearance. Mastery of basic terms opens the door to gaining more knowledge.


collectionStart Your Collection

Learning coin terminology and acquiring basic collecting knowledge are important first steps for those entering the numismatic hobby.




historyCoin History

From the U.S. Mint’s first facilities, to the discovery of the Saddle Ridge Hoard, read about the historical places, people and events that have shaped numismatics.




metalsPrecious Metals

Bullion investing and coin collecting go hand in hand. Learn all about the basics of investing and the many different bullion coins available.




coinsKnow Your U.S. Coins

What’s so special about the Morgan dollar? How many different types of Lincoln cents have there been? Get familiar with all U.S. coins, past and present.



Making coins come alive

The very first American colonists had little need for coins in the wilderness. They bartered with trade goods, Native American wampumand tobacco. As civilization grew, the British did not always give the Americans permission to mint their own coins, but the colonists found alternative sources of coins and on occasion, struck coins without royal authority. For example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony set up its own mint in Boston in 1652 during a period when England lacked a king and continued striking 1652-dated silver coins for decades. Thus, early examples of U.S. Colonial coins were born. In April of 1792, the U.S. Mint was established in Philadelphia, the nation's capital at the time.

Numismatics, the studying of coins, and the collecting of coins both stand apart from investing in coins for their bullion value. Still, the bullion value of most collectible coins still needs to get considered. Even today, the U.S. Mint and mints of other nations’ produce bullion coins that are different from regular coins intended for currency. Through much of history, coins derived most of their value from their metal content. While people used coins as currency for thousands of years, the practice might have been closer to trading small bits of copper, silver, gold and other precious metals. However, as gold and silver rose in value, the intrinsic worth of the precious metals in the coins began to exceed their face value. In the U.S., for example, the replacement of 90 percent silver coins with base metal coins began in 1965.

Learning about U.S. coins means learning about the history of the country. Very often, decisions about a coin's content, value and design were made because of political, economic or social events of the time that they were minted. In some cases, political figures or mint executives even made decisions because of favoritism, nepotism or personal competitions — and learning these details makes old coins come alive.


Know your U.S. coins: Early Quarter Dollars

Although the quarter dollar was authorized under the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, the denomination was not issued until four years later with the release of the Draped Bust, Small Eagle quarter dollar.

Mint Director Henry William DeSaussure persuaded renowned portraitist Gilbert Stuart to prepare a rendition of Liberty. Stuart chose Ann Bingham of Newport, R.I., to serve as his model. Sketches went to the Mint in August 1795.

The new design appeared on silver dollars later in the year, an appearance considered lackluster, to say the least. Stuart was not pleased with the engraving executed by Robert Scot, a bank note plate artist who, according to numismatic researcher Walter Breen, didn't have the vaguest idea how to sink a die or make a device punch. Scot's temporary assistant, John Eckstein, is credited with the reverse design of the small eagle on its cloud-shaped cushions within an oversized wreath of olive and palm branches.

Like the first half dimes, the first quarter dollars appeared without the denomination. Only 6,146 of the quarters were produced for circulation. The coins would have to be enough to last eight years, because that much time would pass before quarter dollar production was resumed.

There were two obverse and a single reverse die produced. Both obverse dies, however, contained just 15 stars, even though many of the coins produced from them were struck after June 1, 1796, the date of Tennessee's admission to the Union as the 16th state.

In 1804, the value 25 C. was included on the reverse below the eagle's tail feathers.

Numerals were employed until 1838 when the designation for the denomination was changed to QUAR DOL. on the Seated Liberty coins.

Production in 1804 was increased to only 6,738 coins. It would take another year, to 1805, before the production was pushed over the 100,000 mark, with 121,395 struck.

In 1804, Scot fabricated a reverse device punch for the Draped Bust quarter dollar using the Heraldic Eagle design he created eight years earlier based on the Great Seal of the United States.

A number of die varieties exist for the Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle coins, even though they were only produced between 1804 and 1807.

As early as 1801, German engraver John Reich sought to obtain full-time employment with the Philadelphia Mint. Reich had sold himself into indentured service to reach the United States during the Napoleonic Wars and would eventually design the Capped Bust quarter dollars (1815-1828), among other coins.

Reich was rebuffed in his efforts by Engraver Scot, who was unyielding to outsiders, presumably fearing replacement. With Scot's advanced age and declining health of utmost concern to Mint officials, Reich was hired in 1807 as an assistant engraver.

Reich's first assignment was to redesign all denominations.

His Capped Bust design first appeared on the half dollars and half eagles in 1807, then quarter eagles in 1808, dimes in 1809 and finally on the quarter dollars in 1815, the next time the banks ordered the denomination.

Breen reports the sporadic mintages of the quarter dollar denomination was reflective of the public's preference for Spanish and Mexican 2-real coins, which were legal tender at par even though lighter in weight.

The Capped Bust quarter dollar series offers a number of overdates: 1818/5, 1823/2, 1824/2, 1825/2, 1825/3 and 1825/4. During 1822, the reverse was blundered with the 25 struck over the 50 C.

According to Breen, the variety is "very rare, not because of die failure, but because this die was laid aside in horror as soon as impressions were examined."

"It was briefly resurrected in 1828, when the new Mint Engraver William Kneass could blame it on his late predecessor, and excuse its exhumation on grounds of economy."

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:


Dimes and half dimes:


Half dollars:


Gold coins:

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