The Waning Days of Silver: A Personal Remembrance

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 4/1/2005

In my work with NGC I have the occasion to exchange e-mails with and meet in person at shows many of our collector customers.

David Lange

In my work with NGC I have the occasion to exchange e-mails with and meet in person at shows many of our collector customers. While a few are veterans in the hobby who have been collecting 50 years or more, I'm struck by the fact that the vast majority is relatively new to numismatics—at least they seem so to me. I'm not certain at what point I realized that my perceptions of the hobby and what makes it compelling became dated, but it now appears that the majority of current collectors have different goals than the ones that attracted me to coin collecting as a child.

One of the greatest distinctions between my memories of the hobby and those of the current majority is my first-hand experience in assembling sets from circulation. I began collecting in 1965, when dimes, quarters and halves were all 90% silver pieces (the first clad quarters debuted late that year, the dimes and halves early in '66). These were the only coins known to me then, and there was no particular importance attached to the fact that they were silver.

Though, as a child, I naturally started my collections with cents and nickels, I progressed to the higher denominations very quickly. While I never found any key dates in circulation, it was still possible to put together fairly complete sets of the current types. My success was somewhat hampered by the lack of a mentor. There were no adults collecting coins in my family, and my brother had dropped out of the hobby just after a brief flirtation and before learning anything useful that could be passed on to me. Several years elapsed before I realized that I could examine a lot of coins by getting rolls from banks. Until that time I relied simply on whatever coins I found in my parents' and relatives' daily change.

The result was a nearly complete set of Roosevelt dimes, lacking only the six issues of 1949-50, which were already being hoarded in circulated condition. Living in the San Francisco area, I had only slight difficulty with the S-Mint coins so coveted by collectors in the East, and the Philly pieces were common by virtue of their large mintages. It was thus the Denver Mint coins struck prior to 1950 that tended to be elusive. I had to trade with another kid to obtain my severely worn 1947-D. Despite widespread hoarding of the low-mintage 1955-P, D and S dimes, I had no trouble finding them.

Mercury dimes turned up with some regularity, though they were almost always dated in the 1940s. I assembled a complete set 1940-45, lacking only 1940-D and the overdate, and I gathered a few scattered pieces from the 1930s. These were all Philadelphia Mint coins, the branch mint issues having already succumbed to the popular coin collecting mania that began around 1960.

Quarters were all of the Washington type, with just two exceptions. Each of my parents acquired in their change one Standing Liberty quarter of the second type issued 1917-24. Naturally, these were dateless, otherwise they wouldn't have remained in circulation that long. With a numismatic library consisting solely of R.S. Yeoman's A Hand Book of United States Coins (the Blue Book), I immediately made an incorrect assumption regarding my prizes. Noting that three stars were placed below the eagle in 1917, my seven-year-old mind interpreted this to mean that my coins, which likewise showed three stars below the eagle, were clearly made in 1917. Some years went by before the bigger picture dawned on me.

The Washington series was another one that could be more or less completed, with the exception of mintmarked coins before 1940. I retrieved two very worn 1932 quarters from my mother's supermarket change. Oddly enough, both came from the same store about a year apart. Later dates that eluded me included several D-Mint pieces from the 1940s, as well as 1955(P) and 1958(P), both of which were extensively hoarded in uncirculated condition. In fact, when I attempted to recreate this collection from dealers' junk boxes just a few years ago, these two issues were the most difficult coins to find in worn condition.

Half dollars, though they still circulated where I lived in the West, were not encountered with enough frequency to complete a set. Even if it had occurred to me to purchase rolls from banks, I lacked the means to do so at that age. I assembled my Kennedy set as the coins were issued, nearly all pieces being uncirculated or just faintly worn. Walking Liberty halves dominated the older issues, and I could also count on my paternal grandparents to give me one each time they visited. Still, I never came close to completing even the short set of 1941-47, though I did score a nice 1927-S in VG. For some mysterious reason, I never once saw a Franklin half dollar in circulation. To this day I still think of it as an "Eastern" coin.

There was a tremendous sense of adventure then, never knowing what old coins awaited in the day's pocket change. Nothing I found was ever worth much more than face value at the time, but it instilled in me a sense of wonder that has sustained my interest in numismatics ever since. While the current generation of collectors has its own motivations for pursuing coins, the thrill of collecting from circulation is a memory I will always cherish.

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