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 half dime

The Seated Liberty half dime is the smallest in size and lowest in denomination of the six series of coins bearing the Seated Liberty designs. The Seated Liberty half dime's production at the Mints at Philadelphia, San Francisco and New Orleans totaled 84,828,478 coins struck for circulation.

The design, featuring Liberty seated on a rock and holding a shield, was first conceived in 1835 and was first used on the silver dollar patterns of 1836. But the design was first used for circulation on the half dime in 1837.

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

The series is divided into several subtypes. The first, struck at Philadelphia in 1837 and New Orleans in 1838, appears Without Stars on the obverse. A semicircle of 13 stars was added around the obverse border when the design was modified in 1838. This general design was employed in the half dime series from 1838 through 1859.

Early pieces in the series appear sans drapery at Liberty's elbow. Mint officials determined this was an oversight and agreed that the addition of drapery would make Liberty's dress more flowing in appearance. The proportion of the drapery to the design varies from denomination to denomination within the Seated Liberty series. On the half dime, the drapery appears very large.

From 1838 to 1853, the Mints at Philadelphia and New Orleans produced half dimes. Numerous varieties occur through the half dime series, including the 1849/6 and 1849/8 overdates.

In 1853, small arrows were added to each side of the date to reflect a reduction in weight. Because of rising silver prices, the weight was reduced to prevent coins from being melted for their silver content. The arrows remained until 1855.

In 1856, the arrows were dropped, with the earlier design resumed through 1859. Two interesting varieties appear during this period: The elusive 1858 regular date over inverted date and the 1859 with stars bearing hollow center points.

Two transitional patterns or fantasy pieces were produced in 1859 and 1860, both missing UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The obverse of each features Liberty seated surrounded by stars. The reverse features half dime surrounded by a wreath.

In 1860, the regular half dime issue was again changed. The obverse stars were replaced with the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The reverse wreath was enlarged. This basic design was retained through the end of the series in 1873.

One of the most startling numismatic discoveries of the 20th century, more than 100 years after its production, was the unique 1870-S Seated Liberty half dime, since Mint records confirming production of the coin were unknown until March 2004. The piece came to light in 1978 when it was displayed by the Chicago-based auction firm Rarcoa.

In 1872, two half dime varieties were created at the San Francisco Mint, one with a Mint mark above the wreath bow and the other with a Mint mark below.

During the last decade or so of the half dime denominations, coins were not released into circulation at the time of coinage, but were stored by the Treasury. During the period, specie payments were suspended and silver coins did not circulate. This accounts for many latter year pieces being elusive.

The gap was filled by copper-nickel 5-cent coins bearing the Shield design.

The Seated Liberty half dime series is teeming with collectible varieties in addition to those previously cited. These include blundered dates, repunched and recut dates, overdates, repunched Mint marks, as well as large, medium and small dates, and more.

Collectors of Seated Liberty half dimes and other coins in the Seated Liberty genre may be interested in the specialty club devoted to their study – the Liberty Seated Collectors Club, which publishes research in The Gobrecht Journal.

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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