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 quarter dollars

Collectors might be tempted to think if they've seen one coin with the Seated Liberty design they've seen them all.

But just because the Seated Liberty coinage design bears the distinction of being the longest-running design for any U.S. silver coin doesn't mean that the quarter dollar series didn't produce a few interesting twists.

In fact, change is the most constant aspect of these coins, struck from 1838 to 1891. The obverse design for the coins was the work of Christian Gobrecht, based on a drawing by Thomas Sully. The essential difference in the obverse design is whether extra fabric is or is not present at Liberty's elbow. Seated Liberty quarter dollars dated 1838, 1839 and 1840 are minus the extra fabric, while coins dated 1840 to 1891 do exhibit drapery.

COIN VALUES: See how much Seated LIberty quarter coins are worth today

The reverse eagle design is credited to John Reich, William Kneass, Robert B. Hughes, Gobrecht and Sully. The eagle, with wings partially raised, looks to the viewer's left. In its right claw it holds an olive branch and in its left claw, three arrows.

Arrows were sometimes used to symbolize preparedness. Olive branches symbolize peace and are considered the international emblem of friendship and accord.

Arrows of another kind were used on the obverse of this series in certain years. In early 1853 the weight of all fractional silver coins was reduced by about 7 percent to prevent hoarding and melting. To distinguish between the old and new weights, arrows were placed on either side of the date on the half dime through half dollar on the new-weight coins. On the reverse, rays were put around the eagle on the quarter and half dollar. The rays were removed about 1853, and the arrows after 1855.

By 1866 another new design element was added. All silver dollars, half dollars and quarter dollars incorporated the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse.

The idea for the motto began with Baptist minister Mark R. Watkinson, who wrote to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on Nov. 13, 1861, suggesting that U.S. coins bear some recognition of God.

Chase took the matter under consideration and in a Nov. 20, 1861, letter to U.S. Mint Director James Pollack, Chase stated: "No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition."

An Act of April 22, 1864, authorized the change in the composition of the 1-cent coin as well as the striking of 2-cent coins. The Mint director was also given authority to determine the mottoes on U.S. coins, with the approval of the Treasury secretary, paving the way for the addition of the IN GOD WE TRUST motto legend.

However, not all 1866 Seated Liberty quarter dollars were struck with the motto. At least one 1866 Seated Liberty, No Motto quarter dollar is known. In fact, at least one 1866 half dollar and two 1866 silver dollars are known without the motto. There are no Mint records of the coins having been struck.

During the mid-19th century, a number of Mint employees profited from the sale of fantasy pieces produced for collectors. The 1866 No Motto coins may be the result of this unauthorized activity by Mint employees.

These are just a few of the interesting twists that make this series fun for collectors.

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:

Community Comments