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: Seated Liberty dollar

Thirty-three years isn't a very long life by most people's reckoning. But if the Seated Liberty silver dollar design had a tombstone that's the story the dates 1840 to 1873 would tell.

It was just three years after the Seated Liberty design was used on the half dime that the Seated Liberty silver dollar was introduced.

COIN VALUES: See how much Seated Liberty dollar coins are worth today

By the time a new design for the silver dollar was presented (William Barber's Trade dollar, which was a variation of the Seated Liberty design), the concept of a Seated Liberty with Liberty cap, pole and shield seemed to have run its course.

Only one other denomination would be struck with the design after production of the silver dollar ceased in 1873 – the short-lived 20-cent coin.

Both the silver dollar and the half dime denominations bearing the Christian Gobrecht-Robert Hughes-Thomas Sully concept were discontinued in 1873.

It would be almost another 20 years before the design disappeared from the U.S. Mint engravers' repertoire altogether.

There are some similarities to the Trade dollar design adopted in 1873: a seated allegorical figure representing Liberty and an eagle on the reverse. But the similarity ends there.

The Seated Liberty silver dollar retains drapery behind Liberty's left elbow. The design doesn't require the arrows and rays used on previous incarnations of the design on lower denominations because the silver content remained steady throughout its run.

The only noticeable difference during the 33 years this type of silver dollar was struck occurred in 1866 when Treasury officials decreed all $20 gold double eagles, $10 gold eagles, $5 gold half eagles, silver dollars, half dollars and quarter dollars were to incorporate the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse.

On the Seated Liberty design, the motto appears on a ribbon below the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA legend and above the eagle's head. The denomination, located beneath the eagle's feet, is expressed as ONE DOL. The eagle still bears a shield on its breast and arrows and an olive branch in its talons. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appears along the top half of the reverse.

Seated Liberty dollars are collected by date and Mint mark and by major varieties. The key and semi-key dates are so numerous (21 and eight respectively) that most collectors shy away from trying to complete such a set.

A complete collection of Seated Liberty dollars, dated 1840 through 1873 comprises 46 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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