USA Coin Album: Favorite Numismatic Anomalies, Part I

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 7/14/2010

This month David W. Lange reviews numismatic anomalies, items of trivia observed over a lifetime of collecting and studying US coinage.

Though the US Mint has strived to maintain absolute consistency in its coinage over the past century, there still have been a number of odd or irregular coins issued in that time. I’m not speaking of popular varieties such as repunched mintmarks and doubled dies; instead, I want to address more significant variations that required a conscious decision on the part of one or more persons to affect. Longtime readers of this column will recognize some of the coins described this month and next from previous issues of The Numismatist, in which I addressed them in other contexts. These oddities remain compelling enough to me, however, that I believe they are worthy of a second look.

The first item of study is the Large S mintmark that appears on a portion of the 1928 coinage from San Francisco. Before the 1980s, all mintmarks were applied at the Philadelphia Mint’s Engraving Department with hand tools. From mid-1917 until late in 1941, a single "S" mintmark punch was employed on all dies shipped to the San Francisco Mint for domestic coinage. This mintmark was small, uniform in thickness and had square dimensions with small serifs. Some of the 1928-S coinage, however, is known bearing a taller mintmark of rectangular dimensions and having a broader diagonal stroke. These are distinguished in coin catalogs as Small S and Large S varieties, when they are mentioned at all.

Far from being a new punch, the Large S mintmark was actually an antique. This same style mintmark appears on many coins of the 1880s, including Morgan dollars and gold issues. It seems to have been retired shortly thereafter in favor of mintmark punches of similar dimensions but having less bulbous diagonals. Whether it was revived in 1928 by accident or design is unknown today, but someone at the Engraving Department had to notice that it was not the normal punch for that period. 1928-S cents and dimes having the Large S are rather scarce, particularly Uncirculated, while there appear to be only slight differentials in rarity for quarters and halves. The Small S pieces are described in numismatic references as being the scarcer of the two varieties for quarters, but a small hoard of gem 1928-S issues that surfaced recently included nearly all Small S coins. 1928-S nickels all have the Small S, as do the silver dollars. The dollars were coined very early in that year, implying that the Large S dies seen on other denominations were prepared in later months.

Speaking of mintmark sizes, another popular variety is the 1945-S Mercury dime having a Micro S. This variety caused a lot of buzz when it was first publicized in the early 1960s, initial reports being that it was rare. We now know that several dies received this mintmark punch and that the Micro S variety, while still forming a minority of 1945-S dimes, is readily available in nice condition. This tiny letter "S" came from another old tool revived years after its last previous usage. Created for the reduced size of USA-Philippines coinage, it appears on the 10- and 20-centavos pieces dated 1907-19 struck at the San Francisco Mint. Its does not seem to have been thereafter until 1945, when someone at the Philadelphia Mint revived this vintage instrument for a single batch of dies headed west. Since several styles of "S" mintmarks were used during the stepped-up production of the early 1940s, it’s quite possible that no one gave this anomaly much notice at the time.

Another oddity from the San Francisco Mint, and one not so easily understood, concerns the quarter dollars coined there in 1937. These all have an obverse rim that is clearly much broader and deeper than on 1937-dated quarters from the other two mints. Indeed, this feature is unique not only to that mint but to the year 1937. Not easily seen on Uncirculated coins, it becomes quite evident when examining worn pieces. Look at any set of heavily used Washington quarters, and you’ll see that the obverse rim is still complete and distinct on the 1937-S piece, even though its reverse may be worn down well into the lettering. It sticks out easily among the other coins in the album.

The Washington quarter design experienced a number of growing pains between 1932 and 1938, with several versions of the obverse master hub evident for certain dates in that range. The reverse, too, was modified in 1934, a fact almost never mentioned in the numismatic literature, perhaps because this again is evident only when examining worn coins. The 1932-dated issues of all three mints have much more durable reverse rims than those of later dates. The typical silver quarter dated 1934 or later will grade lower on its reverse than its obverse because the original reverse hub was replaced with one having lower rims. This may have been done to facilitate fuller strikes on the obverse, but no correspondence concerning this matter has been found. What makes the 1937-S quarter unique among such series-wide changes is that the modifications appear to have been made to the working dies, perhaps at the San Francisco Mint itself rather than at Philadelphia.

Next month I’ll continue my review of some of my favorite numismatic anomalies, items of trivia observed over a lifetime of collecting and studying US coinage.

David W. Lange's column, "USA Coin Album," appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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