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: Silver 3-cent

Silver three cents were struck from 1851 to 1873.

Images courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts

The three-cent piece ordered to be struck at the last session of Congress was ready for issue in June last. The number of such pieces coined by us during the remainder of the year was 5,447,400; at New Orleans the number was 720,000. This new coin is believed to find public favor; and I anticipate a considerable issue during the present year.

—From George N. Eckert's 1851 Mint Director's Report dated Feb. 12, 1852

Eckert's prediction was on the money, so to speak, as the mintage of 18,663,500 silver 3-cent coins in 1852 was the largest of any of the 23 years of the series. Mintage was to decline steadily, dropping below the 1 million mark and then below 20,000 for most of the last nine years of issue.

As with other coins introduced after the death of Mint Engraver Christian Gobrecht in 1840, the designs ultimately selected for the silver 3-cent coin came from the imagination of Mint Engraver James B. Longacre. But before those designs could become reality, there was a brief artistic showdown with Chief Coiner Franklin Peale.

COIN VALUES: See how much U.S. silver 3-cent coins are worth today

Longacre reportedly had shown his trial pieces to Mint Director Robert M. Patterson and other Mint officials, who generally accepted the proposed design. But Peale wanted Longacre's designs abandoned. Peale wanted to use devices used by Christian Gobrecht when Gobrecht made pattern gold dollars in 1836.

Peale took it upon himself to do just that and produced a Liberty Cap design featuring a cap and rays with the date below on the obverse and the Roman numeral III on the reverse circled by a palm wreath, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA inscribed around the border.

Longacre, apparently mindful of the artistic tug-of-war, wrote in a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Corwin to explain the devices he'd chosen for the coin.

"For the obverse I have therefore chosen a star (one of the heraldic elements of the National crest) bearing on its center the shield of the Union, surrounded by the legal inscription and date. For the reverse I have devised an ornamental C embracing in its center the Roman numeral III, the whole encircled by the thirteen stars – I think I have obtained the object of the law – but it would be very gratifying to me to have your candid opinion, provided your health should be such as to allow of your making a response to my communication in a private way – with very high respect and deep solicitude for your health – I remain etc.

"P.S. I should observe that the low relief of the coin is not to my taste if it could be avoided, but it is made necessary by the thinness of the piece, and the necessity of adapting the depth of the engraving to the powers of the press in striking it."

Ultimately, that lower relief was to win Longacre the nod of approval from Patterson because it would be easier to strike.

The design for the silver 3-cent coin was modified over the years. There are three obverse and two reverse design varieties.

Coins dated 1851 to 1853 were struck at the Philadelphia and New Orleans Mints in 75 percent silver and 25 percent copper. The design is Longacre's original.

A new design was mandated for coins dated 1854 to 1858 to correspond with the Act of March 3, 1853, which fixed the standard weight of silver at 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper. The coins, struck only at the Philadelphia Mint, also feature two extra outlines around the star on the obverse. These were known as "fish scales" because they were easily lost and became discolored and dirty.

The third design has two outlines around the star for coins dated 1859 through 1873.

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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