- Lou Roten
- Fall of 2021
A while back a woman called in about finding a 1909 VDB Lincoln cent in an envelope, a coin which one of her family members had bought when the coin was issued. She wondered if it had any value. I asked her what color it was – she said copper. I told her I meant was it shiny or brown. It had been wrapped up in an envelope for many years; she located the V.D.B. initials and told me the coin was brown. I told her that the coin was probably circulated, that it was fairly common and had some value, and a bit more if it turned out to be uncirculated.
However, when the 1909 Lincoln Cent was issued, many stood in line to purchase the new cent with Lincoln’s image on it, memorializing his year of birth, and the first such US coin with a former president depicted. Moreover, many people in that line in 1909 were alive when Lincoln was president and probably remembered where they were when they heard of his assassination. He had been murdered just 44 years before in April of 1865. One of her family had purchased the coin at the time of its issue. The coin had value as a family heirloom. It was a piece of history put away since it was purchased. I suggested that it would be a nice start for a younger member of her family, especially because of the family connection with the purchase of the coin. The little piece of history became more than a simple one cent piece. She thanked me for those thoughts. There are many instances when coins represent a family connection to an historical event, or simply a connection to a family member.
What attracted me to coins (and stamps) is the connection to American History. Stamp collecting is no longer very popular and has been in decline for many years, except for high quality material, a market that is thriving. In contrast to coinage, stamps depicted real people from its beginnings: the 1847 issue Scott #1 has the portrait of Benjamin Franklin, and Scott #2 has the portrait of George Washington. Later issues depicted other presidents, cabinet members, military and civilian leaders. Commemorative stamps told a history of the United States.
American History, US Civics, Ancient and International history, geography, all are essentially ignored in our schools, much to the detriment of those who will carry on after us.
Coin Collectors know, but how many acquainted with coinage only as currency know there once was a ½ cent piece, a 3 cent piece, made of nickel and silver, or a 2 cent piece, or a 20 cent piece? Why were they minted? How many know that on early large cents, the fraction 1/100 was used for some who may not have been able to read but did recognize numbers? How did the mint keep up with and adjust to the changing values of gold, silver and copper? How and when were coins marked or changed in size when metal values changed?
When $20 gold pieces were being minted along with silver dollars, the gold to silver ratio, by weight, was about 16. It took 20 silver dollars to buy 1 $20 gold piece. The Seated Silver dollar contained 0.77344 oz of silver, while the $20 gold Liberty contained 0.96750 oz of gold (that ratio by weight (20 x 0.77344)/.96750 = 15.988). The Trade dollar contained 0.7874 oz of silver (that ratio by weight was (20 x 0.7874)/0.96750 = 16.27). Silver value had declined a bit. What was the reason for minting a Trade Dollar? The Morgan dollar returned to 0.77344 oz of silver and the ratio by weight was once again 15.988. That ratio, now using spot price per oz of each, is now in the mid to high 70s. (Au spot /Ag spot).
For collectors a type set of American coinage is an historical tracing of our young country’s monetary relationship with the older world and is very manageable, selecting one coin from each series. The transition from the use of foreign currency to minting our own, beginning with some private issues and by individual colonies, then as a country, was a difficult and challenging commercial struggle, and a great story. Collecting coins from that transition and learning how the United States coinage began its journey in the latter half of the 18th century to eventually become the major international currency by the 1920s are both interesting endeavors. A type set of general United States coinage and if possible, a gold type set, make for very interesting and rewarding avocations and are far more rewarding than collecting most modern US mint issues.