Where did the word “numismatics” come from? First documented as an English word in the early part of the 1800s, this word derived from a French adjective, numismatiques, which means "of coins." In turn, that word came from the Latin word for “coin.” The meaning of the word gets even more interesting when the Latin word gets traced back to the original Greek that it was borrowed from. After some iterations, the word came from the Greek nemō, or "I dispense or divide."


Know your U.S. coins: Liberty Head 5-cent

Liberty Head 5-cent coins were issued between 1883 and 1912.

Images courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts

Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber was asked by Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden in 1881 to prepare patterns for 1-cent, 3-cent and 5-cent coins with a common obverse motif of a classic head of Liberty, with legend and date.

The reverse was to carry a wreath of corn, wheat and cotton framing the denomination reflected in Roman numerals.

Out of that exercise and with few modifications came the design for what would become the Liberty Head 5-cent coin. The pattern 1-cent and 3-cent pieces were scrapped as being too difficult to coin.

COIN VALUES: See how much Liberty Head 5-cent coins are worth today

Barber's adopted design carried a rendition of Liberty based on a Greco-Roman marble sculpture. Liberty faces left with a coronet with liberty incused, wheat heads and cotton boughs tucked behind. The pattern design was modified to include 13 six-pointed stars on the obverse and the legend was moved to the reverse. The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM was placed in small capital letters in an arc below the wreath-circled Roman number V for five. But there was no other identifiable designation for the denomination.

Soon after being issued in 1883 the Liberty Head 5-cent coin encountered a unique dilemma.

Because it resembled the gold $5 coin and did not include a denomination instantly clear to the public, unscrupulous individuals gold-plated the new 75 percent copper, 25 percent nickel coins before passing them off to merchants at 100 times their actual face value. Many people were fooled by the reeded edge applied to make it look like the gold $5 coin then in circulation. These surreptitious pieces quickly became known as "racketeer nickels."

To repair the damage caused by the confusion, Snowden ordered Barber to modify the 5-cent coin design. The motto was moved above the wreath on the reverse and the denomination cents was added below the wreath and Roman numeral V. More than 5 million of the 1883 Without cents subtype were made before production was stopped to strike the modified design. The public hoarded the coins, which are more affordable today than their With cents subtype. More than 16 million of the With cents subtype were struck, but the coins made their way extensively through commerce and are rather scarce today.

Nearly 600 million Liberty Head 5-cent coins were struck for circulation during its 29-year life span. Among the most difficult dates to find are the 1885 and 1886 issues, with 1.47 million and 3.32 million coins produced, respectively. The rarest circulation strike is the 1912-S, struck at the San Francisco Mint. Only 238,000 were produced for commerce.

Mintage of the Liberty Head 5-cent coins continued without interruption into late 1912, when the decision was made to replace the Liberty Head design with James Earle Fraser's Indian Head design beginning in 1913. During the changeover period from 1912 to 1913, it is believed one or more Philadelphia Mint employees clandestinely struck at least five Liberty Head 5-cents coins dated 1913. All five known specimens were struck on Proof planchets. These famous rarities constitute one of the greatest intrigues in U.S. numismatic history. When sold, the five coins have posted some of the all-time record prices. Two are held in museum collections and three are held in private collections.

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

Numismatics is about more than just coins.

While many people use numismatics as a general term to refer only to the study of coins, this word actually refers to the study of all kinds of money. As such, it includes the study of coins and also paper bills, tokens, and other related objects that have been used as currency by various people throughout history, as well as noncurrency items like medals. Some kinds of money used at different points in history might surprise novice numismatists; for example, a culture might have used shells as a currency. 

Barter, or the trade of objects and services for other objects and services, has long been used in the marketplace and continues today. In some cases, the line between barter and currency still provides a topic of debate, but in most cases, articles about numismatics cover subjects like coins and paper money. Numismatics might become easier to comprehend by understanding the numismatic values of coins and paper money, and this refers to the value of a coin or note that is higher than the intrinsic or face value. In other words, this could also be called the collectible value. For example, a historical gold coin has an inherent value that is based upon its bullion value. It may also have a face value, or the actual value of the money assigned by the country that produced it. However, that same coin might be worth much more than the gold or the face value because it is rare, historically significant, beautiful, and/or designed by a famous artist.

Ultimately, understanding numismatics really depends upon understanding the nature of money. In the past, money might have been shells, gems, or precious metals. Today, most societies rely upon coins and paper money, but in this digital age, even that has begun to change as billions of dollars get exchanged every day electronically without the need for physical currency. Even more revolutionary, there are new digital currencies that have never been based upon any nation's physical currency. As it has in the past, it is likely that the study of numismatics will continue to evolve as currency evolves.