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 Date large cent

So much change over such a small period of time.

The large cents of 1793 to 1814 – referred to as the Early Dates by their fans – underwent what might seem to a neophyte collector a bewildering series of rapid design changes, particularly when compared to the design stagnation that has affected the cent from 1909 to 1958 and from 1959 to 2008.

During the 22 years that constitute Early Date large cent production, four distinct obverse design types were introduced, used, and discarded in rapid succession, while two completely different reverse design themes were used, one for just 12 days.

COIN VALUES: See how much Early Date large cents are worth today

The cent was the first U.S. coin struck in quantity for circulation. The first cents were struck from March 1-12, 1793. Those first 36,103 coins represent one of the most desirable of all U.S. coins: the 1793 Flowing Hair, Chain cent.

The designs of the new cent garnered almost instant criticism. The reverse design in particular triggered outrage, as politicians and citizens misinterpreted the major design elements of a chain consisting of 15 interlocking links. Each link represented one of the 15 states of the Union, but many saw the design as a "chain of slavery." The obverse design – a bare-headed female allegorical portrait of Liberty with flowing locks of hair – was criticized for appearing mad.

The Chain reverse design was the first to go; it was replaced by a Wreath design. The new Flowing Hair Liberty was introduced on the obverse. The 1793 Flowing Hair, Wreath cent went into production on April 9, less than a month after production of the Flowing Hair, Chain cent ceased. Production nearly doubled, to 63,353 coins, before a new obverse design was introduced.

Production of the 1793 Liberty Cap, Wreath cent began in early September 1793. A completely new, less "savage" Liberty portrait was created. She remained bare-headed, but she also carried a pole topped by a Liberty cap over her shoulder. A completely different, two-branch, olive Wreath design was introduced, replacing the first Wreath design (composed of uncertain flora). Production of this version of the cent continued until April 1796.

The Draped Bust obverse design was used from July 1796 through December 1808. Liberty appears as a buxom female with long hair flowing below the shoulder line, and her bust draped in cloth (hence the name). Many were struck on planchets provided by a private firm in Great Britain!

The Classic Head cent – last of the Early Date cents – was in production from 1808 through 1814. Liberty wears a "fillet'" or headband bearing the word LIBERTY, the first time that word appeared as part of Liberty's portrait.

Early Date large cents offer many dozens of die varieties, an advanced area of collecting.

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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