Coins have always held a special place in the American psyche. Early on, Thomas Jefferson suggested that citizens could do without paper money entirely, relying instead on coins in a broad range of denominations. Cooler heads prevailed, but in 1792, Congress established the Coinage Act, which created the U.S. Mint and standardized coin denominations—from half-cent copper pieces to $10 Eagles made of solid gold.
U.S. gold coins are both symbolic and collectible, embodying the growth of U.S. economic power and influence in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Because they're made of a precious metal, even those with little numismatic value have been treated as investments, which can reward or punish a collector depending on the rise or fall in the price of gold.
U.S. gold coins were issued in several denominations over the years (starting in 1795), including one-dollar gold pieces, two-and-a-half-dollar quarter eagles, three-dollar pieces, five-dollar half eagles, ten-dollar eagles, and twenty-dollar double eagles. Many of the higher denomination gold-eagle coins did not circulate widely among the public—some were hoarded, others were melted down, and a great many were used for trade or interbank transfers.
Gold coins may get a lot of attention, but the first U.S. dollar coins, issued in 1794, were actually made of silver. They were not well received, because the press used to strike the coin was not strong enough to make a clear impression on a denomination that size. Only 1,758 of these Flowing Hair silver dollars were issued, with a few hundred more struck the following year.
In 1795, a depiction of Lady Liberty with a Draped Bust replaced the silver dollar’s obverse (front). The reverse of the coin, consisting of an oddly undernourished-looking eagle, remained fairly consistent until 1798, when it was replaced by what is known today as the Heraldic Eagle. That raptor made it onto the backs of the 1804 silver dollars, which are among the rarest and most mysterious U.S. dollar coins ever minted.
From 1840 until 1873, Seated Liberty silver dollars were put into circulation, though by 1853 the value of the silver in the coin was worth more than a buck, making their use as currency problematic. In some years, tens of thousands of coins were issued, although in two years (1871 and 1872) more than a million were struck. Rarest of all are the 1870-S dollars minted in San Francisco—less than a dozen are thought to have been produced.
The Morgan silver dollars of 1878 to 1904 and 1921 came next. Designed by the U.S. Mint’s chief engraver, George T. Morgan, the coin featured a profile of a garlanded Lady Liberty on the obverse, with an eagle clutching arrows and an olive branch on the reverse...
Peace dollars (1921-1928 and 1934-1935) were named for the word "PEACE" stamped below the perched bald eagle on the coin’s reverse. They replaced Morgans at a time when a post-World War I nation was looking for a hopeful sentiment. Sculptor Anthony de Francisci won the open competition for the coin’s design. Collectors prize the so-called high-relief coins struck that first year—the relief was so deep that the coins could not be stacked properly.
Silver was not the only material used to mint dollar coins. In 1849, the year of the California Gold Rush, gold dollar coins were minted. The original design, sometimes called the Type One gold dollar, featured a Liberty head on one side and a wreath on the other. Coins from 1849 whose wreaths appear open at the top are extremely rare.
In 1854, the Indian Princess gold dollar was introduced—coins bearing a Princess with a small head were struck from 1854 to 1856; larger-headed Princesses were produced until 1889. Gold dollar coins, especially the original Liberty heads, were sometimes soldered into jewelry. As you’d expect, coins with solder marks are worth less than those without.
U.S. half-dollar coins, also known as halves or 50-cent pieces, are another popular area of U.S. coin collecting. Some key collectible varieties include the early half dollars (Flowing Hair, Draped Bust, etc.), Seated Liberty half dollars, Barbers, Walking Liberty half dollars, and Franklins.
The first U.S. quarters were coined in 1796 in Philadelphia. Designed by Robert Scot, the so-called Draped Bust quarter featured basically the same Lady Liberty on its obverse as Scot’s silver dollars, dimes, and half dimes from the period. Like those dimes and half dimes, these early quarters carried no mark stating their value—it was not until 1804 that "25c" was added to the coin’s reverse. Only 6,146 quarters were minted in 1796, making this one of the most prized U.S. coins for collectors.
No quarters were struck after 1796 until 1804, when 6,738 quarters with a new Heraldic Eagle reverse were added to the young nation’s stockpile. Greater numbers of Draped Bust quarters were minted from 1805 to 1807, but then production of the denomination ceased until 1815, when the first Capped Bust quarter was coined.
In 1815, John Reich took over the design of the quarter. He made the coin larger in diameter by several millimeters, gave Lady Liberty a cap, revised the appearance of the Heraldic Eagle, and added a banner with "E Pluribus Unum" (which means "out of many, one") above the bird’s head. Certain coins minted in 1822, 1823, and 1827 are especially rare.
This Capped Bust design lasted until 1831 (although coins were not minted every year), when William Kneass reduced the coin’s diameter and removed the motto on its reverse. Through 1838, larger numbers of coins were struck—hundreds of thousands in most years, and almost 2 million in 1835. That’s why prices for these quarters are modest compared to the ones that preceded them.
Christian Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty quarters came next. The same design was used on half dimes, dimes, half dollars, and dollars, as well as twenty-cent pieces. Almost half a million coins were struck in 1838 when the new design debuted, and robust production levels were maintained until 1891, when the Seated Liberty made way for Charles Barber’s Liberty Head quarter.
This coin, produced from 1892 to 1916, is considered by many to be the most beautiful execution of Lady Liberty on a coin. Because millions of coins were minted every year, the supply of these coins is great, which makes them a favorite of beginning collectors on a budget.
Standing Liberty quarters are noteworthy for the outcry they caused upon being issued in 1916. For many citizens, the coin was obscene since Lady Liberty, who is now standing between the words "In God We Trust" with a shield in her hand, is nude from the waist up. The next year, 1917, she was clothed in a sleeveless top of tightly linked chain mail—modesty, and Liberty’s virtue, had prevailed.
Washington quarters bring us to the present. From 1932 until 1964, silver quarters featuring America’s first president on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse lit up jukeboxes and dropped Coca-Colas from vending machines throughout the land. In 1965, silver quarters became copper quarters with silver skins. In 1976, the eagle on the quarter’s reverse took a year off for the country’s bicentennial—it was replaced for that one year by an image of a colonial drummer, designed by Jack L. Ahr.
At the tail end of the 20th century, in 1999, the State quarters program was launched. Washington remained on the coin’s obverse, but during each year from 1999 through 2008, the reverse of these quarters featured one of five designs to commemorate America’s 50 states. The coins proved incredibly popular, as young people and adults filled books with examples of each coin, minted in the order of statehood.
Dimes were not introduced until 1796. The very first U.S. dime coins were known as Draped Bust dimes, and the denomination (10 cents) was not written anywhere on the coin until 1809.
U.S. dimes have been released with such designs as the Draped Bust, Capped Bust, Seated Liberty, Barber, and Mercury (or Winged Liberty Head). In 1946, the Roosevelt dime we are familiar with today was issued.
Prior to the Coinage Act of May 16, 1866, which sanctioned the production of the nickel, five-cent coins were known as half dimes. Nickels, which were first produced in 1866, are larger than half dimes and are made of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel. They completely replaced half dimes by 1873.
The first U.S. cents issued were half cents, authorized in 1792. Although minted in multiple varieties until 1857, they were unpopular due to their weight and size.
Large cents were issued every year from 1793 until 1857, with the exception of 1815. They featured multiple depictions on the front, such as the Flowing Hair Liberty, the Draped Bust Liberty, and the Braided Hair Liberty.
Flying Eagle cents, made of copper and nickel, were struck from 1856 until 1859. Lady Liberty was not featured on this coin—instead, the coin’s obverse depicted a soaring eagle.
In 1859, the Indian Head cent was introduced, featuring Lady Liberty wearing a Native-American headdress. Made of the same material as the Flying Eagle cent, this coin was in use until 1909, when it was replaced with the Lincoln cent.
Lincoln cents feature Abraham Lincoln’s head, and although they have been made from different materials since its introduction, the design prevailed.
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