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 Half Dime

If the United States Mint were to issue a coin today that bore absolutely no reference to its denomination, Congress would likely launch an investigation. However, the Mint did issue a coin that for its first nine years of production, despite several design changes, bore no denominational markings of any kind.

It was the half dime.

Or is that half disme?

COIN VALUES: See how much your Early Half Dimes are worth today

The Mint Act of April 2, 1792, authorized a half disme – a silver 5-cent coin – as the smallest of the silver denominations. The unusual spelling – disme – was also used for the 10-cent coin that we today call the dime.

According to the late Walter Breen, Mint officials used both spellings – "dime" and "disme" – until 1835-36.

The words "half dime," with the traditional spelling, weren't used as a legend on the silver 5-cent coin until 1837, when the Seated Liberty design was introduced.

Interestingly, the 1792 pattern pieces do bear a denominational reference: the words HALF DISME. (Some of these 1792 patterns may have circulated.)

However, the first two half dimes (or half dismes) issued for general circulation bear no denominational markings of any kind, even on the edge (which was too thin to be lettered as on the silver dollar and half dollar, and on the copper half cent and cent), which is reeded.

The Flowing Hair half dime was issued in 1794 and 1795 only. The Draped Bust, Small Eagle design was used in 1796 and 1797. The Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle design was issued in 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 and 1805.

The third series – the Capped Bust half dime – was introduced in 1829. It bears on its reverse the denomination as 5 C.

Early half dimes offer much to variety collectors. The hands-on approach to die production resulted in overdates (like the 1796/5); misspelled words (LIKERTY); different star counts (13, 15 and 16 in 1797); and more.

The earliest of the early half dimes can be expensive. However, for collectors willing to spend a little time and money, it's a great collection to build. Early half dimes aren't cheap, even in low grades. Forget about a Mint State set, even if such a set were possible. It would probably take a collecting lifetime and a fortune to complete.

Capped Bust half dimes are much more affordable, even in Mint State. The best approach to the early half dimes might be a complete set of Capped Bust half dimes, and type specimens of the early designs. You'll need three: the Flowing Hair, Small Eagle; Draped Bust, Small Eagle; and Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle.

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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