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: Middle Date large cents

John D. Wright, cataloger extraordinarie of the large cents of 1816 to 1839, writes that the series collectors refer to as the Middle Dates offers "more bang-for-the-buck than the ones either before (too many bucks) or after (not enough bang)."

Catalogers of large cents generally classify cents as the Early Dates (1793 to 1814); the Middle Dates (1816 to 1839; no 1815 cents were struck); and the Late Dates (1840 to 1857). Wright's reference to "too many bucks" for the Early Date cents characterizes the expense involved in acquiring the many rare die varieties and dates, while his comment "not enough bang" refers to technological improvements to the minting process that make the cents of 1840 to 1857 less interesting (at least to some).

To a neophyte, the cents of 1816 to 1857 appear to have the same designs: a portrait of Liberty wearing a coronet on the obverse, a wreath on the reverse). However, specialists know that the designs of the Middle Date cents are variations on that Coronet Liberty-Wreath theme. All are not the same.

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

Why are the Middle Date cents so interesting?

Wright writes that the Middle Date series offers enough "specialty" that he would never feel the letdown of the "complete collection syndrome" that one feels when "plugging that last hole in each album."

The fun is in the chase and in the seeking, Wright writes, not in the having. And what a chase it can be.

Collectors can choose from several ways to collect Middle Date cents, Wright advises. One approach is a date set. Another way to approach the series is to collect one of each date and major varieties. A third approach is to focus on a single year. A fourth approach involves chasing after all of the nearly 250 die varieties (the approach that has kept John Wright so happy over the years).

Expanding that latter goal to include die states, and one has a goal that will probably never be completed. Other approaches include collecting errors. Whatever your approach, you'll have fun with Middle Date cents.

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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