Coins as history

I just spent a week going through one of the big books used by coin collectors, numismatists, to grading and pricing United States coins. Oh, there are a lot of them: colonial coins, foreign coins that circulated in the United States, privately issued coins, Confederate coins, bullion coins, commemorative coins, proof coins . . . and that’s even before we get to the coins the U.S. Mint issued for circulation.

If you know what to look for, and have the background, every coin tells a story.

Take this coin, the 1876-CC twenty cent piece. Your first two questions are, “1876-CC, what does THAT mean?” and “Twenty cent piece??” Good questions.

The Federal Government was given the responsibility for issuing coins as money in the U.S. Constitution. They were supposed to be in gold and silver. And the original denominations were 1/2 cent, one cent, five cents, ten cents, quarter dollar, half dollar, dollar, quarter eagle ($2.50 in gold), half eagle, and eagle ($10 in gold). The first mint was set up in Philadelphia, and it began churning out coins in 1792. Considering the Constitution had been ratified in 1789, you can see it took a few years to get started.

There were some rules, mostly set by the Mint. The coins had to depict some representation of the goddess Liberty on the obverse (front) and an eagle on the back. (Not true for copper coins.) No living people on the face of the coins; we were not some monarchy! The coins had to carry their denomination and “United States of America.” The other mottos you associate with our money, “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust” weren’t standard in the early days. The initial content was nationalistic enough. The styles of Liberty and the eagle changed every so many years, based on the whims of the Mint directors and the aesthetics of the Chief Engraver and his assistants.

The Mint struggled to put out enough coins to facilitate commerce in the United States. So sometimes new mints were established in places that either had major gold and silver strikes, or were commercial hubs, to increase the number of coins minted. There was a major silver strike out in Nevada, which is why a branch mint was established there. To do some primitive quality control, special letters were stamped into coins that came from mints other than Philadelphia. These were called mint marks. “C” had already been used for a branch mint in Charlotte, North Carolina, because of a gold strike in the 1830s, so Carson City’s mint, which was established later, got “CC” as its mint mark.

The Mint experimented with different denominations to address different needs. A three-cent piece was coined for many years when the price of a first-class postage stamp was three cents. Sensible? yeah, maybe. The twenty cent denomination takes a bit more explanation. There was frequently a shortage of small change, below a dollar. This was particularly bad in the western states and territories, which being newer had less capital and coins to start from. So some influential politicians decided that another silver coin added to the mix would be useful, especially if it were coined in quantity in the branch mints out west. And a twenty-cent piece, five to a dollar, made a certain amount of sense. So the coin was authorized, and most of them were coined in Carson City or the other western branch mint, San Francisco.

But, as you might expect, the twenty-cent piece was often mistaken for a quarter. The design was very similar, though the eagle faced in opposite directs. The twenty-cent piece was close to the same weight and size as the quarter. And so the coin quickly became unpopular. Three years of circulating coinage, two more years of coinage for collectors, and that was it. The twenty-cent piece disappeared from the Mint, from circulation, and from people’s memories.

The Carson City Branch mint endured into the 1890s, thanks to local silver mining and pressure from Nevada Congressmen. Now it’s a museum.

8 thoughts on “Coins as history

  1. Judy

    Coins as history is definitely one on my favourite things. I love early American coinage, but enjoy very much the colonial coins—pillar and bust mexican/spanish dollars or pieces of eight so desired by Asia trade. The dollar mex as they say was the template in size and fineness for so many silver dollar issues from our own Morgans to Japanese Dragon Yen, Chinese Dragon Dollars, British Trade Dollars and so on. Have to see the magic in a time when your chance purse was laden with real silver and gold.

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