Really Look at Your Coins’ Details

April 9, 2020

By Patrick A. Heller


When did you take the time to really look at a coin? I’m not talking about an inspection to ascertain the state of preservation (grade). Instead, when did you actually examine all of the features about any coin?

I have taught a summer coin collecting class the past several years as part of a 4-H Exploration Days program. At the beginning of class, we go around the room to introduce ourselves. Next, each participant is asked to look at a Bicentennial Eisenhower dollar (which they each get to keep). We go around the room asking attendees to each name one feature they notice about the coin.

Just off the top of your head, without pulling out a coin to look at or checking photographs, how many of these features can you name?

Bust of Dwight David Eisenhower
In God We Trust
“D” or “S” (if the coins were struck either at the U.S. mints in Denver or San Francisco; there is no mintmark if the coin was struck in Philadelphia that year)

Two different colors
Round shape

United States of America
One Dollar
The Moon
Liberty Bell
E Pluribus Unum
2 Stars
Pass and Stow Philada MDCCLIII

As part of tabulating all of the features of the coin, it is natural to discuss why are the features the way they are. Obviously, coins need to include identification as to who issued it, the denomination and the monetary unit. These are all necessary to determine value for use in commerce. The date can help ascertain whether the coin may still be current money.

Other design elements may be required by law. In America, for instance, each modern coin must have the words “Liberty,” “E Pluribus Unum” (a Latin phrase meaning “Out of Many, One”), and “In God We Trust.” Other design elements may be of significance to the history of the issuing country (Eisenhower was an honored general in World War II and later served as a U.S. president) or may depict the current national leader. On many coins you will also find mintmarks to identify the mint where the coin was struck and the initials of the coin’s designer (for the Bicentennial Eisenhower dollar, Frank Gasparro designed the obverse and Dennis R. Williams the reverse). Many U.S. coins also contain stars as a symbol of either the number of states in the Union or of the original 13 states, though there was only room for two stars on this coin.

Other features of a coin to investigate are what is it made out of, and why. Why is it the diameter and thickness that it is? Why is it the shape it is (there are some coins such as the current British pound that is actually multi-sided even though it generally appears round)? Why does the coin’s edge have reeding, lettering, symbols or nothing? At the time of issue, what was the purchasing power of the coin? If the coin has a hole in the center, why?

Coins don’t just magically appear out of thin air. Every feature about each coin has a reason behind it. Those reasons differ from coin to coin and from country to country. If you study the “how and why” behind each feature of coins, you will almost certainly enhance your numismatic experience.

By the way, with so many people staying home in today’s health crisis, it is an excellent time for you to practice really looking at your coins. If you have children in your home, identifying all the features on the coins you have could prove to be both educational and fun.

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