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: Early Dollars

Pick up one of the nation's first silver dollars – whether it bears the Flowing Hair or Draped Bust design – and take measure of its heft: This is a substantial coin!

It's big (39.5mm in diameter) and heavy (26.956 grams).

The diameter is the largest of any U.S. coin struck for circulation, being more than a millimeter wider than the later Morgan, Peace and Eisenhower dollars. It's also the heaviest U.S. silver coin struck for circulation. (Among all U.S. silver coins, only the noncirculating American Eagle silver dollar is bigger.)

The first two U.S. silver dollars are from short series. The Flowing Hair dollar was struck dated 1794 and 1795 only. The Draped Bust dollar, struck with the Small Eagle and Heraldic Eagle reverses, was struck bearing the dates 1795 to 1803 (the 1804 dollar is a post-dated fantasy and is not a part of the main series).

Designs for the 1794 Flowing Hair dollar were based on recommendations from numerous government officials. An early version, represented by a unique copper pattern, bears no obverse stars. That first design was rejected and a new die created bearing 15 stars.

The first 1794 Flowing Hair dollars were struck on Oct. 15. The coins were the first precious metal coins struck within the walls of the new Philadelphia Mint. A total of 1,758 1794 dollars were delivered by the coiner, the total mintage of the coin for the year.

Production ceased because a better press was needed to strike a coin the size of the silver dollar. The new press was completed in May 1795 and used first to strike some 1795 half dollars before being used to strike 1795 Flowing Hair dollars. Just 160,295 specimens of the latter were struck before new designs were introduced.

Although it's obvious at a glance that the obverse design was changed from the Flowing Hair concept to the Draped Bust rendition of Liberty, it's less obvious that two distinctly different Small Eagle designs were used for the two series.

The Small Eagle design used with the Flowing Hair obverse features an eagle standing on a flat rock, within a wreath and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The Small Eagle design used with the Draped Bust obverse features an eagle standing amidst billowing clouds, also contained within a wreath and the reverse legend.

Both types were struck with the date 1795. The exact date the switch was made is uncertain, although it may have been late September.

The Draped Bust obverse continued to be paired with the Small Eagle reverse into 1798, when a new reverse, called the Heraldic Eagle design by coin collectors, was introduced. Again, both reverse types are found paired with obverses dated 1798.

Since all dies were produced by hand, numerous die varieties exist offering: overdates, large dates, small dates, small letters, large letters, 13 stars, 15 stars, 16 stars, stars in 9x7, 10x6 and 8x5 configurations, and more. Variety collecting might be the most fun way to collect, although it certainly would entail a substantial financial outlay.

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.