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 dime

It was the longest running design for any U.S. silver coin – the Seated Liberty obverse. It was used on the half dime, dime, 20-cent coin, quarter dollar, half dollar and dollar as well as some dollar patterns.

When it was used for the dime denomination, the design was tinkered with several times during its 55-year run. At any given time, the obverse design has featured stars and no stars; with drapery at the elbow and without drapery; with arrows at the date and without arrows; with legend, without legend.

Even the reverse wasn't exempt from change. From 1837 to 1860 it featured a berry-bedecked wreath. Then it was changed to display a "cereal" wreath made up of corn, wheat, maple and oak leaves.

COIN VALUES: See how much Seated Liberty dimes are worth today

Many designers participated in the series. The design used on the obverse from 1837 to 1840 was the work of Thomas Sully and Christian Gobrecht (Gobrecht also designed the berry-wreath reverse with legend).

The concept for the design began when U.S. Mint Director Robert Maskell Patterson decided it was time to move away from John Reich's Capped Bust designs. Patterson liked the strength conveyed in the seated Brittania that was used on British coinage. He commissioned noted painters Sully and Titian Peale to submit designs favoring a Seated Liberty concept.

The new design apparently pleased Patterson and he assigned Gobrecht the task of engraving it. Gobrecht had been serving as a draughtsman and die sinker at the Mint, and assistant to then Engraver William Kneass since 1836. When Kneass died in 1840, Gobrecht succeeded him.

The obverse design depicts an allegorical figure of Liberty seated on a rock with her head looking back over her right shoulder. Her left hand holds a pole with Liberty cap on the upper end, while her right hand supports a shield resting against the rock. The word liberty appears on a ribbon held in place across the shield by Liberty's right hand. The date appears below the figure.

The first reverse design shows an open-ended wreath of two branches connected at the bottom with a ribbon tied into a bow, with the denomination one dime, rather than a numerical designation, within in the wreath.

Changes to the Gobrecht-Sully obverse were instituted by John Hughes in 1840. Hughes added drapery between Liberty's left arm and left thigh as well as more cloth over her bustline. He also fattened her arms, reduced her bust and the size of the rock she sits on, and straightened the shield to its full and upright position. In addition, arrows were added on either side of the date on coins dated 1853 through 1855.

In 1860, James B. Longacre removed the stars from the Hughes-Gobrecht-Sully design and moved the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA legend from the reverse to the obverse. He reintroduced arrows at the date from 1873 through 1875. Longacre is also credited with designing the cereal wreath used on the reverse. In fact, Longacre's reverse design remained in use until 1916 – even though the Barber dime obverse was introduced in 1892.

Despite the changes to design and even to fineness, the Seated Liberty dime remains popular with 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:

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