Coins: Facts, History and Useful Information

by Chad Eicher

Coins

Coins are one of the oldest and most universal forms of currency.

They have been used for trade, for storing wealth, and as a symbol of status since the dawn of civilization.

But what exactly is a coin?

We explore the different types, values, manufacturing process, and other interesting facts that will help you get to know your money better!

History

The first coins were minted in the seventh century B.C. in Lydia, a region of what is now Turkey. They were made from electrum, an alloy of gold and silver that was mined nearby. These coins had no set value; their worth depended on weight and purity. The Lydians cut them into pieces to make change for customers who couldn’t afford bigger denominations (like when you buy something with quarters).

These early Lydian coins are thought to be the inspiration for our word “dollar”—from “thaler” which means “a coin worth one-half dealer.” Today most countries use paper money instead of coins because it’s cheaper to produce and more convenient than carrying heavy coins.

Types of U.S. Coins

U.S. Coins

The following is a list of the different types of coins that are commonly used in the United States. From smallest to largest, they are:

  • 1 cent piece (penny)
  • 5 cents (nickel)
  • 10 cents (dime)
  • 25 cents (quarter)
  • 50 cents (half-dollar)
  • 1 dollar

Pennies

Nickels

Quarters

Half-Dollars

List of Half-Dollars

Dollars

U.S. Coins Facts

Here are some interesting facts about U.S. coins:

The first U.S. cent, also known as the Fugio cent, was minted in 1787 and featured an image of the Sun with its light shining down on the sundial.

The first dimes, made from silver and produced in 1796, featured a head of Liberty on the front and an eagle with wings spread wide on the back. Dimes were not marked with stars until 1837 when 11 stars encircled the image of Lady Liberty to reflect the addition of new states to the Union.

The “S” mintmark on dimes, quarters, and half dollars indicates that the coins were made at the U.S. Mint branch in San Francisco (the “P” mintmark is for Philadelphia).

Capitalizing on national interest in ancient cultures following Napoleon’s 1798 expedition to Egypt, the design of the quarter was changed in 1804 from a head of Liberty to a depiction of a heraldic eagle with a shield. This new image reflected America’s newfound status as an emerging world power.

In 1838, 10-cent pieces replaced the declining half dime and by 1891 all coins were made from nickel (hence the term “nickel” for 5-cent coins). Silver half dollars were minted from 1892 to 1935.

The composition of U.S. coins was changed in 1965 and again in 1983 to reduce their cost and include more stable, economical metals. Today all pennies are made from 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper (previously they were 95% copper). Nickels and dimes are made from a 75-25 alloy of nickel and copper, while quarters, half dollars, and dollars contain 91.67% nickel with 8.33% copper.

Coin Manufacturing Facts

A coin’s weight is measured in ounces, grams, and troy ounces.

The weight of a penny is 2.5 grams, while the nickel weighs 5 grams, and the dime, quarter and half-dollar are each weighed at 8.1 grams. The U.S. one-dollar coin has a combined weight of 8.1 grams with an alloy containing 77% copper, 6% zinc, 17% manganese, and 4% nickel.

The diameter of each coin is measured by its “millimeters” (mm). The millimeter size also determines the thickness, or “thickness millimeters” (mm), of a coin. Here is how the measurements break down:

  • Penny – 19,05 mm in diameter and 1.52 mm thick
  • Nickel – 21.21 mm in diameter and 1.95 mm thick
  • Dime – 17.91 mm in diameter and 1.35 mm thick
  • Quarter – 24.26 mm in diameter and 1.75 mm thick
  • Half-dollar – 30.61 mm in diameter and 2.15 mm thick
  • Dollar – 26.49 mm in diameter and 2.00 mm thick

The U.S. Mint, also known as the bureau of the Department of the Treasury, is located in Washington D.C. The United States Mint presently has four active coin-producing mints: Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, and West Point.

Each year, over 10 billion coins are produced at the U.S. Mint facilities to meet the growing demand for circulating coins around the country (in 2014, there were approximately 30 billion coins in circulation).

Coin Manufacturing Process

New coins are minted by the U.S. Mint through an extensive process that involves stamping (punching) metal blanks between two hard steel dies. Coins are struck with great pressure to produce enough force to transfer their images onto blank coins.

Each coin begins as a strip of metal, which is rolled between grooved steel plates until it takes on the desired thickness and shapes (this process is known as “upsetting”).

File-like tooling called “star” and “collar” mechanisms aid in forming coins at each side into the desired disks, from this stage on they are known as planchets.

After being cut to size and punched with a date, each planchet is struck twice by a die to produce a coin. First, it is held in place between two dies and struck with great pressure, then ejected out of the coining press for inspection and bagging.

The U.S. Mint produces about 400 million coins per day, including more than 14 billion nickels and dimes annually (the combined weight of nickels and dimes is 1,362 pounds). Pennies are estimated to be used only once every year or two. Half-dollars are rarely seen in circulation and dollar coins are used so infrequently that many vending machines do not accept them.

The Mint also produces medals and other items for the U.S. government, including military decorations and Congressional gold medals authorized by special acts of Congress (the first such medals were awarded in 1776).

Life of a Coin

The lifecycle of the U.S. coin consists of four stages – design, coin making, circulation (use), and retirement.

Design

U.S. coins are designed by the Mint’s engraving staff, who use computer-assisted design (CAD) technology to produce drawings that have traditionally been done by hand. Custom software is used for this process because it allows coin designers to input specific parameters into the program instead of drawing each coin by hand.

Coin Making

Coin making begins with a special planchet being fed into a blanking press and cut down to the proper diameter. The blank, or round metal disk, now called a planchet, is then struck with two steel dies to produce coins.

Circulation (Use)

Coins circulate for a number of years before they are pulled from circulation and destroyed by the Federal Reserve. The way in which coins are handled largely depends on their denomination, with larger or more valuable coins undergoing a different process than smaller ones.

Retirement

When it is time to remove an old coin from circulation, it may be taken out of circulation and returned to the Federal Reserve Bank.

If this coin is in good condition, it may be replaced with a new one and sent back into circulation. If it has no value, it will eventually be recycled by either smelting or breaking down the metal content and used again for another purpose such as jewelry or decoration.

Collecting coins

Coin collecting is the hobby of collecting coins. Coin collectors are often known as numismatists.

There are many types of coin collectors, including people who specifically collect coins that were minted in a certain year or by a particular country, and those who collect by some other criterion such as denomination (all U.S. pennies for example) or type (all quarters). Coin collecting is not only an expensive hobby but also a very popular one throughout the world.

All coins are categorized into either bullion coins, coins made for circulation (coins intended to be used as currency), or non-circulating legal tender (NCLT). While most coins are known only by their face value, there are some rare coins that can cost more than their face value if they are in good condition.

The value of a coin

There are three variables that affect the value of a coin: rarity, condition (or grade), and denomination (how many were minted). A rare coin’s price is determined by how difficult it is to find. If there are few coins in circulation or available on the market, they will be worth more than coins that are widely produced.

The second part of the equation is condition; an old, worn coin will be worth less than a new, shiny one. Finally, the value is determined by multiplying the coin’s rarity and condition together.

Coins FAQs

Where are the 4 U.S. mints located?

U.S. coins are produced at all four U.S. Mint facilities: Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, and West Point.

How many types of U.S. coins are there?

There are currently six U.S. denominations in production: cent, nickel, dime, quarter, half-dollar, and dollar.

How do I know if my coin is worth money?

The value of the coin is determined by three variables—how many were minted, its condition or grade, and the demand.

➜ How to determine what’s your coin worth

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