An interesting note about our early coinage is that in the first years our mint started striking coins, it did not always note the value on the coin.
The United States Mint was created by Congress in 1792, but due to the effort involved in procuring equipment, engraving dies to strike coins and purchasing metal, the first coins minted were struck in 1793 and were only half-cent and 1 cent coins. The 1 cent coin was almost the size of our current half dollar, while the half cent was about the size of quarter. Both were made of pure copper, with the half cent containing half the amount of the copper as the 1 cent coin.
These coins, while undergoing design changes periodically, continued until 1857, when the half cent was dropped altogether and the 1 cent was drastically reduced in size to almost what we use today. In both cases the coins were not struck every year. During the entire production, the words “HALF CENT” and “ONE CENT” appeared one the reverse of the coins.
In 1794 the mint expanded production to include the half dime (5 cents), the half dollar and the $1 dollar coins. And this starts the question about the denomination. The silver half dime was struck from 1794 until it was totally replaced with the 5 cent “nickel” coin in 1874. The first series of half dimes were minted from 1794 until 1805, but not every year. These coins had no notation as to their value. A new design of half dimes was introduced in 1829 and had the notation “5 C.” on the reverse. This continued until 1837 when another new design contained the words “HALF DIME” on the reverse.
The first two years the half dollar was minted, 1794 and 1795, it had no notation as to the value. In 1796 and 1797 the fraction “1/2” was placed on the reverse. Another new design was created in 1801 and continued until 1807, but dropped any notation of value. Another design commenced in 1807 through 1836 and included the notation “50 C.” A design from 1836 through 1837 had the words “FIFTY CENTS” and then with another design starting in 1838 had the notation “HALF DOL.”
Silver dollars were first struck in 1794 and through design changes continued until 1803. (There are silver dollars dated 1804, but these are extremely rare and were actually minted from 1834-1835 and were meant to be used in presentation proof sets.) During those years, the dollar coins has no notation as to value. No silver dollars were minted for circulation again until 1840, when the new design included the words “ONE DOL.”
The remaining coins, the dime and quarter, were first struck in 1796. The dime, from 1796 through 1807, was not struck every year and had no notation as to value. The redesign in 1809 had “10 C.” added, and then with the new design in 1837 added the words “ONE DIME.”
The quarter was first struck in 1796, and no other quarters were struck until 1804. The 1796 design had no notation of value, while the 1804 added the notation “25 C.” The 1838 redesign of the quarter added the words “QUAR. DOL”
When the mint first started producing coins, it was probably assumed everyone one would know the value of the coins because of their size. But as the value of silver increased it became necessary to reduce the size of the coins, hence the need to note their value as part of the design.
Collecting early American coins from the 1700s and 1800s produces a collection of many interesting designs. Typically, a collector chooses one of each design rather than trying to collect every date. And as I mentioned above, not all denominations were struck in every year, due to the fact there already was sufficient coinage available. Most type sets of early American coinage show the different front designs, but expanding the collection to a second coin showing the reverse and the denomination notation changes adds interest to the collection.
Douglas Keefe is the president of Beachcomber Coins Inc. He and his wife, Linda, operate Beachcomber Coins and Collectibles, formerly in the Shore Mall and now at 6692 Black Horse Pike in the old Wawa building just beyond the former Cardiff Circle. They have satellite offices in Brigantine and Absecon. Between them they have more than 70 years of experience in the coin and precious metals business. They are members of the American Numismatic Association, the Industry Council of Tangible Assets, the Numismatic Guarantee Corporation, the Certified Coin Exchange and the Professional Coin Grading Service.