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: Lincoln cent series

The Lincoln cent was introduced to honor the nation's 16th president on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Both sides of the coin introduced in 1909 were designed by Victor D. Brenner. Coins struck from June to Aug. 5 depict the initials V.D.B. at six o'clock on the reverse.

The initials on the reverse were believed to be too conspicuous by some and due to negative newspaper coverage were removed from coins struck later during 1909 by order of the secretary of the Treasury. That action resulted in the 1909 and 1909-S varieties, both with and without V.D.B. The coins with the initials are scarcer, with the 1909-S Lincoln, V.D.B. cent being a key coin in the series.

COIN VALUES: See how much Lincoln cents are worth today

The initials were restored to the coin in 1918, but were placed on the obverse at the left lower part of the truncation, where they appear on all Lincoln cents after that date.

The Lincoln Memorial reverse designed by Frank Gasparro was introduced in 1959 to mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth.

The Memorial reverse made the Lincoln cent the first U.S. coin struck for circulation to depict the same person on both the obverse and reverse, since a statue of Lincoln can be seen inside the memorial on the reverse.

In 2010, the Shield reverse was introduced, which according to a U.S. Mint release at the time, "features a union shield with a scroll draped across and the inscription ONE CENT."

Sixteen type coins by design and composition can be collected to complete a type set of Lincoln cents: the 1909 with reverse initials v.d.b., 1910-17 without initials, 1918-58 Wheat reverse with obverse initials v.d.b., 1943 (zinc-coated steel), 1944-46 (95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc), 1959-62 Lincoln Memorial reverse (with 95 percent copper, 5 percent zinc and tin composition), 1962-82 (95 percent copper, 5 percent zinc); 1982 to 2008 Lincoln Memorial reverse (99.2 percent zinc, 0.8 percent copper) and the four new reverses produced honoring the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and centennial of the coin design produced both in 99.2 percent zinc, 0.8 percent copper and the original 95 percent copper, 5 percent zinc and tin.

The 1943 issue during World War II is probably one of the best known failures in the U.S. coinage system. The zinc-coated steel cents are magnetic and will not work in most vending machines. The zinc quickly deteriorates in use. At the time the 1943 cent was issued, the public complained the coin was being confused with dimes in use.

An almost legendary error from this period is the 1943 copper composition cent. The few genuine specimens apparently were made by accident when some copper-alloy planchets used for 1942 cents became mixed with steel planchets.

Likewise, there are 1944 zinc-coated steel cent errors. Although the Mint did not use the steel planchets for U.S. coins after 1943, it did use them to strike foreign coins in 1944. Again, steel planchets were mixed with the copper alloy planchets, resulting in the error.

Key dates in the series are generally accepted to be the 1909-S V.D.B., 1909-S, 1914-D, 1922-D No D, 1924-D, 1931-S, 1955 Doubled Die and 1972 Doubled Die.

The Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005 (Public Law 109-145) authorized the United States Mint to issue four different Lincoln cent reverses throughout 2009 to recognize the bicentennial anniversary of Lincoln's birth and the 100th anniversary of the production of the Lincoln cent. Brenner’s likeness of Lincoln continues on the obverse. The reverse designs are emblematic of four periods, or themes, in Lincoln’s life: His birth and early childhood in Kentucky; his formative years in Indiana; his professional life in Illinois; and his presidency in Washington, D.C. At the conclusion of the bicentennial year, beginning in 2010, the Lincoln cent coin will feature a reverse design emblematic of Lincoln's preservation of the union.

Each of the four 2009 reverses include the inscription 1809, the year Lincoln was born. The reverse designs include: Childhood in Kentucky designed by United States Mint Artistic Infusion Program Master Designer Richard Masters and sculptured by United States Mint Sculptor-Engraver Jim Licaretz; Formative Years in Indiana designed and sculptured by United States Mint Sculptor-Engraver Charles Vickers; Professional Life in Illinois designed by United States Mint AIP Master Designer Joel Iskowitz and sculptured by United States Mint Sculptor-Engraver Don Everhart; Presidency in D.C. designed by United States Mint AIP Master Designer Susan Gamble and sculptured by United States Sculptor-Engraver Joseph Menna.

The United States Mint also will issue numismatic versions of the four redesigned 2009 Lincoln cent reverses with exactly the same metallic content as the 1909 coin (95 percent copper, 5 percent tin and zinc). They will be struck. Proof and Uncirculated conditions, and will be included in the United States Mint's annual numismatic set offerings.

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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