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: 2-cent

The Civil War brought lots of hardship to citizens on both sides of the conflict. One of those hardships was the lack of small change to transact the daily business of life.

As a solution many merchants in the North began issuing their own privately struck tokens. The federal government did not consider these tokens to be legal tender issues and officials were becoming increasingly concerned about the proliferation of the tokens.

An Act of April 22, 1864, authorized a change in the composition of the 1-cent coin as well as the striking of the 2-cent coins.

COIN VALUES: See how much U.S. 2-cent coins are worth today

Mint Engraver James B. Longacre suggested an obverse design featuring a national shield with stripes in front of two crossed arrows. The shield is flanked by laurel branches. Above the shield is a ribbon designed to bear a legend, several of which were suggested.

Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase approved Longacre's design and chose "In God We Trust" for the motto on the ribbon. The 2-cent coin was the first U.S. coin to bear this motto.

Some say the adopted motto for the coin, the first U.S. coin to carry it, was influenced by "In Deo Speramus" or "In God We Hope," the motto of Brown University, from which Chase was graduated.

But credit for the motto idea is most commonly given to Baptist minister Mark R. Watkinson, who wrote to Chase on Nov. 13, 1861, suggesting that U.S. coins bear some recognition of God. In his letter to Chase, he said such an addition would "relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism."

Chase took the matter under consideration and in a Nov. 20, 1861, letter to the Mint director, Chase stated: "No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition."

Two varieties exist for the 1864 issues - Small Letters motto and Large Letters motto. Both some early Proofs as well as business strikes were struck with the Small Letters die. A new master hub was used for the remainder of the issues of 1864 through 1870. They can be identified by the Large Letters motto, making two major varieties of the first year of issue to be collected.

About 20 million 2-cent coins were issued in 1864. Production declined to less than 14 million the following year and continued until long after the Civil War. The issue of 1872 was the last of the business strikes. About 600 Proof 1873 pieces were struck as part of sets distributed to collectors. The Act of March 3, 1871, authorizing the Mint to redeem and melt 2-cent coins, is another reason for the scarcity of this date.

According to Q. David Bowers' United States Copper Coins, "the rarest date in the 2-cent series is the Proof-only 1873. Rare varieties within the series include the 1864 with small motto, the 1867 with in god we trust doubled, and the very rare 1869/8 overdate. Of the later piece, probably no more than two or three dozen, if indeed that many, exist."

Two-cent coins are collected by dates by some but for others finding a single example from the series is enough to provide a representative type set of U.S. coins.

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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