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: Morgan dollar

For decades the Morgan dollar, issued between 1878 and 1921, has ranked at the top U.S. coin collectors' favorite coins.

Images courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts

For decades the Morgan dollar has ranked at the top U.S. coin collectors' favorite coins. Why is the Morgan dollar so popular? There are many reasons, including: large size, attractive designs, numerous varieties, historical significance.

Morgan dollars are collected by type, by date and Mint mark, by die varieties, or by designs (several "different" designs were used for both sides, each slightly different than the others), depending on budget and interests.

COIN VALUES: See how much Morgan dollar coins are worth today

A type collection would be the smallest, at just one coin. The next smallest collection would be to collect examples of each design variation: four obverse designs and four reverses. Consult the Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan & Peace Dollars by Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis for details on how to identify the various designs (which are beyond the scope of this introductory article). Another method would be to collect one example of each date, with no regard for Mint mark. Such a set would require 28 pieces.

A date and Mint mark collection would be somewhat more challenging. The total number would depend upon whether the collector intends to purchase date and Mint mark varieties. One way might be to collect those pieces listed in Coin World's Coin Values retail price guide.

Probably the most challenging method is to collect by VAM variety. VAMs are named after Van Allen and Mallis, whose book catalogs the coins and is essential for collecting by varieties. The Top 100 Morgan Dollar Varieties: The VAM Keys by Michael S. Fey and Jeff Oxman also provides a useful listing of the most popularly collected VAMs.

The Morgan dollar arose out of the U.S. and international political and financial climate of the mid to late 19th century. Silver prices had dropped since the discovery of vast amounts of the metal in Nevada in 1859, and because Germany had "dumped tons of silver on the international market" in 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War, states researcher R.W. Julian in Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States by Q. David Bowers. Julian notes that silver coins disappeared from circulation during the American Civil War, hoarded by fearful citizens. Beginning in 1873, the Mint illegally began exchanging minor silver coins for the paper money introduced during the Civil War, with Congress making the action legal in 1875 (specie payments for paper money had been suspended during the war). The Civil War era minor silver coins reappeared in circulation in 1877, Julian points out, triggering a halt to the production of minor silver coins in 1878 due to the glut.

The standard silver dollar in the United States had been eliminated with the Coinage Act of 1873, although a Trade dollar intended for circulation outside of the United States was approved. However, with the cessation of production of minor silver coins, silver proponents feared an end to silver purchases by the federal government, according to Julian. These silver barons successfully lobbied for new legislation to permit a new coinage of silver dollars, even though as Julian adds, silver dollars did not circulate well and thus were unnecessary in commerce.

A compromise bill, introduced by Richard Bland in the House and William Allison in the Senate, passed as a result of the intense lobbying effort. President Hayes vetoed the bill as a foe of unlimited silver coinage, but Congress overrode the veto within hours. The resulting coin was called the Bland-Allison silver dollar upon its introduction in 1878. Only later did it come to be called the Morgan dollar, after designer George T. Morgan.

Morgan had been hired by the U.S. Mint in 1876 to redesign U.S. minor silver coinage. The Morgan designs used for the silver dollar were originally used on pattern half dollars.

More than 570.2 million Morgan dollars were struck from 1878 to 1904, when production was halted. Production resumed briefly in 1921, when another 86.7 million Morgans were struck. Because the silver dollar was not a popular denomination, many of the millions of Morgan dollars never circulated but were instead stored in Treasury vaults for years, some of which were melted while others were released decades later in huge quantities (one such release caused the once rare 1903-O Morgan dollar to drop from a value of $1,500 in Uncirculated in 1962, to $30 in 1963!). The federal government sold Carson City Morgan dollars from Treasury vaults during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Private hoards may still exist. Today, Morgan dollars are plentiful although certain dates are scarce or rare. The large quantities ensure, however, that current and future collectors will always have the Morgan dollar to collect.

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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