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: Washington Eagle quarter

The Washington quarter dollar was born out of the Treasury Department's desire to produce a coin to mark the bicentennial of the birth of the first president of the United States.

Coinage presses had remained dormant for more than a year after production of Standing Liberty quarter dollars had ceased in 1930. Standing Liberty quarter dollars had only lasted for 14 years, not the 25 that the Mint Act of Sept. 26, 1890, afforded the secretary of the Treasury without needing special legislation.

Special legislation was needed to introduce the Washington coin. The bust originally was going to appear on a half dollar as proposed, but the bill was changed to reflect the use of the 25-cent denomination. Congress authorized the Washington quarter on March 4, 1931.

COIN VALUES: See how much Washington quarter coins are worth today

A design competition was staged with the mandate that the obverse had to be based on a bust of Washington sculptured into clay form in 1785 by Jean Antoine Houdon. The reverse had to depict a national symbol, such as a shield or eagle.

The designs submitted by Laura Gardin Fraser – designer of the Oregon Trail commemorative half dollar and wife of Indian Head 5-cent coin designer James Earle Fraser – were declared the competition winners. Although the Fraser designs were overwhelmingly recommended by the Commission of Fine Arts and the Washington Bicentennial Commission, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon rejected them.

Mellon favored another design from the more than 100 models that were submitted. Still, the commission pressed on with its selection of the Fraser models. The commission at one point had considered a suggestion that the eagle from the reverse of the Saint-Gaudens double eagle be replicated for the Washington quarter reverse, but the idea was scrapped as too provocative.

Mellon left office in early March 1932, with unsuccessful pressure put on Mellon's successor, Ogden Mills of New York, who also rejected Fraser's designs after carefully reviewing the issue.

In an April 16 letter to the Commission of Fine Arts, Mills made known his selection of the designs of sculptor John Flanagan.

The approved models used from 1932 through the beginning of 1934 proved unsatisfactory in that the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was all but illegible and there was weakness in Washington's hair. Subsequently, the obverse hub has been modified numerous times over the years to sharpen details.

The reverse hubs have also been modified over the years with minor changes in details, mainly the leaves and lettering.

To celebrate the nation's Bicentennial, the reverses of the quarter dollar, as well as Kennedy half dollar and Eisenhower dollar, were changed for the dual-dated coins (1776-1976). The eagle on the reverse was replaced with Jack L. Ahr's Colonial drummer design, with 13 stars surrounding a flame.

The Bicentennial coins were struck in copper-nickel clad for circulation and silver clad for Proofs and special sets.

The key dates to the Washington series are both from the first year of issue - the 1932-D and 1932-S coins. They are the only two coins in the series with mintages under 1.6 million, with 436,800 and 408,000 coins respectively.

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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