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: Flying Eagle

The Flying Eagle cent was produced for circulation only in 1857 and 1858.

Images courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts

The Flying Eagle cent is one of the shortest-lived series of United States coins, having been produced for circulation only in 1857 and 1858.

There is also the pattern produced in 1856, which also saw limited circulation.

The copper large cents and half cents had grown increasingly unpopular, forcing the Mint to research other compositional alternatives. Many banks and stores refused the coins as too ugly and too heavy. The coins were not legal tender then, although they are now.

Also, by the early 1850s, it was costing the Mint more to produce the copper cents than their face value. Something had to be done. Nearly 20 years earlier, eccentric New York City dentist Dr. Lewis Feuchtwanger unsuccessfully peddled to the U.S. Mint his alloy of "American silver" – copper, nickel, zinc, tin, antimony and other trace metals.

In 1850, the Mint was notified of a congressional proposal for ring-shaped cents of billon – 90 percent silver, 10 percent copper – but the annular cent proposition stalled. At the same time, nickel mine magnate Joseph Wharton pushed the use of his monopolized metal to solve the coinage crisis.

Mint technicians unsuccessfully conducted experiments using various combinations of copper and nickel, with and without being alloyed to additional metals.

In early 1856, Mint Director James Ross Snowden, one of Wharton's cronies, eventually settled on a new cent sized 32 percent smaller than the Coronet cent produced from 1816 to 1857. The small cent would be struck in an alloy of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel.

The nickel was added to produce a cleaner, more rugged coin that would withstand long circulation. The white metal was also added to increase the intrinsic value of the coin so it would be accepted by a skeptical public. The difficulty in obtaining the metal was also seen as a deterrent to counterfeiters.

For the obverse, Snowden approved the modification of Mint Engraver Christian Gobrecht's Flying Eagle motif, and for the reverse, Engraver James B. Longacre's wreath, originally used in 1854 for the $3 and $1 gold coins.

The 1856 pattern cents quickly became the prize possessions of hoarders.

For circulation, the new cents were struck in unprecedented quantities – 17.45 million business strikes dated 1857 and 24.6 million dated 1858 – in order to redeem the old copper cents as well as demonetized fractional foreign silver pieces.

The 1856 Flying Eagle cents are actually patterns, but a small quantity of non-Proof specimens were placed into circulation, possibly the following year. It is believed some 1,400 Proofs and restrikes were produced in all. Despite the extremely low mintage, it is considered common among patterns, since most patterns number 30 specimens or less.

Beware of 1856 alterations. On all genuine pieces, the upright of the 5 connects with the center of the knob, and, on the great majority of these, the e in one and cent on the reverse are closed by large connecting serifs.

The year 1858, with 24.6 million cents struck, also produced at least three major varieties. Collectors can look for the 1858 Large Letters variety, where the letters in the legends and mottoes are significantly larger and thicker than those on the 1858 Small Letters variety. There is also an overdate for the year, an 1858/7.

At first, the cents were well accepted, then blasphemed as a non-legal tender annoyance. The Flying Eagle cents designed by Mint Engravers Christian Gobrecht and James B. Longacre subsequently flew out of circulation as fast as they had flown in.

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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