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: Copper-nickel 3-cent

The war between the North and the South ended April 9, 1865. Five days later President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Not exactly an auspicious backdrop for the introduction of a new U.S. coin denomination – the copper-nickel 3-cent coin – but one that links it forever to an important time in American history.

The need for a 3-cent coin was voiced as early as 1849 – before the introduction of the 2-cent coin in 1864 – when the Washington Globe made the following observation: "It would be an improvement in our currency, if there were a two-and-a-half or three-cent piece of silver, or of a mixture of silver and copper. There is everywhere in Spanish America a silver coin called a cuartillo, which is the fourth part of a real (12½ cents), the cuartillo being of course 3 1/8 cents. This is the smallest coin; and instead of a smaller, eggs are used in some places, and in others grains of cacao. A three-cent piece would be found to be very useful and convenient, as it would not then be necessary to use the copper cents to the extent they are now used, which though answering every purpose for which they were intended, are still heavy and inconvenient, and copper being very soft and very oxidizable, is not particularly well adapted for either tasting, smelling or handling.'" Others agreed in Washington with the Globe's logic. Congress debated and then on March 3, 1851, authorized a silver 3-cent coin. The first silver 3-cent coins were struck later that year.

But that was not the end of the push for a circulating 3-cent coin.

The story leading up to the striking of the copper-nickel 3-cent coin involves several players, most notably – a Mint director, a metallurgist/mining investor, and congressional leaders.

In 1863, during U.S. Mint Director James Pollock's first term, metallurgist James Wharton became interested in nickel. According to Don Taxay's The U.S. Mint and Coinage, Wharton was apparently encouraged by Pollock to undertake its extraction.

Rep. John Adam Kasson, R-Iowa, was an opponent of using nickel but eventually, due to the nationwide disgust with the paper fractional currency notes, he relented. Congress authorized production of a 3-cent coin in copper-nickel. The copper-nickel 3-cent coin, designed by James B. Longacre, was introduced in 1865. His obverse design features Liberty wearing a coronet with a ribbon in her hair. Longacre's theme of a coronet-crowned Liberty can be found in the Coronet gold dollar series of 1849-1854 and the Coronet $20 double eagle of 1850-1907.

There are some slight differences between the depiction of Liberty on the copper-nickel 3-cent coin and the gold dollar and double eagle. On the 3-cent coin, Liberty wears a ribbon in her curls in addition to the coronet. On the gold dollar, Liberty's curls stop at the base of her neck, while in the $20 gold piece Liberty's curls cover the back of her neck and the edge of the bust.

But despite the small changes, the essence of Longacre's regal personification of Liberty – as she appears on the 3-cent coin – remains the same.

The reverse design is a Roman numeral III with the same wreath as used on the 1859 Indian Head cent (also designed by Longacre, who frequently mined earlier coin designs when designing later issues).

The high mintage year for the copper-nickel 3-cent coin was 1865, when 11,382,000 were struck. Mintages for the copper-nickel 3-cent coin drop off for every year after that with the least amount of coins struck in 1884 with 1,700 and only 1,000 in 1884.

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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