Filling the Holes

Posted on 6/20/2008

Coin boards helped popularize the hobby in the 1930s, but they also changed its demographic makeup. David W. Lange examines how they also boosted the values of neglected minor and fractional coins.

Last year I published a book on the history of coin boards and the people who produced them. Introduced in 1935, these simple boards made coin collecting a popular and widespread hobby for the first time. They also changed the demographic makeup of the numismatic hobby and boosted the values of scarce 20th-century minor coins and fractional silver coins, which the more established collectors had largely neglected to that point.

At that time, veteran collectors considered it pointless, and almost comical, to examine coins found in circulation, but the creation of collecting boards for current or still-circulating older series proved quite compelling to the newly minted hobbyists. They weren’t particularly interested in half cents and three-dollar pieces; instead, they sought the elusive 1909-S V.D.B. cent and 1916-D dime. Such issues were still to be found in the 1930s, but this required searching through thousands of coins.

In my own collecting, I’ve purchased a number of coin boards still holding original collections taken from circulation. This has provided me with an understanding of both how rapidly coins wore at the time and which issues were likely to be found. The latest coins added were typically Uncirculated or very close to it, while those five years old at the time were most likely to still be just barely About Uncirculated. Ten years, however, reduced the average grade to Very Fine, and at that point the flattening of the protective rims led to even more rapid wear. The grades declined quickly, typically dropping a whole grade for every four years of circulation.

This knowledge helps to explain why Barber silver coins of the 1890s are seldom found in the popular grades of Fine through Extremely Fine. By the time these pieces began to be saved in the 1930s, all that had entered circulation were 35+ years old and extremely worn. Contemporary minor coins (cents and nickels) were of a harder alloy, and they were thus to be found over a broader range of grades during the 1930s.

For firsthand accounts of circulation finds of the time, there is no better source than old issues of the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine. This publication was the voice of the popular hobby, and it was created with newer collectors in mind. Several diligent searchers of coins from circulation published their results during the late 1930s and into the early 1940s, and these surveys are quite revealing. Though the outcome of such searches varied considerably from one region of the country to another, they are still fairly representative of what one could hope to find at the time.

Dr. J. Robert Schneider pored over 20,000 cents obtained in Illinois and Iowa, and his survey revealed how rare the key date Lincolns were as long ago as 1938. He found no 1909-S V.D.B. cents and just a single 1931-S. Other very rare issues were 1913-S and 1914-D (three each) and 1922 No D (just one). He reported a total of only 13 Indian Head cents still circulating. In Texas, Quinton Lothan likewise found no 1909-S V.D.B. cents among the 5,000 examined and just three of the 1914-D. Single examples each were found of 1911-S and 1914-S. Mr. B. S. Moore of Greenville, South Carolina, examined a whopping 100,000 cents! He turned up just a single 1909-S V.D.B. and only two each of the 1922 No D and 1926-S cents. He did, however, find some 116 Indian Heads.

For other denominations, the results were similarly revealing. In 1938 Dr. Schneider surveyed 5,000 nickels in the Midwest. Not surprisingly, missing Liberty Head dates included 1885, 1886, and 1912-S. Single examples each were found of 1887 and 1888, while only three 1894 nickels turned up. All Buffalo nickels were found, with the sole exception of 1913-S Type 2. Rarities then included 1913-D T2 and 1913-S T1 (three each), 1914-D (two), 1915-S (two), 1917-S, 1921-S, 1926-S and 1931-S (one each). Some 14 Liberty Head nickels were already dateless, as well as 678 Buffaloes!

Of the 5,000 dimes Schneider examined there were a total of 14 Barber pieces he could not locate. All but five of these were “S” Mint issues, always elusive outside of the West. He found just a single 1916-D, nine and three respectively of the 1921(P) and D issues, six 1926-S, and only three 1930-S dimes. For the low mintage dimes of 1931, he found 15 (P), seven D, and eight S. Seven Barber dimes were then dateless and some 36 Mercuries.

Schneider likewise surveyed circulating quarter dollars and found a single Seated Liberty piece among the 5,000 examined (1876-S). All Barber issues were found, with the exceptions of 1896-S, 1899-S, 1901-S, and 1913-S. Tough dates included 1892-O and 1908-S (one found of each), as well as 1895-S, 1896-O 1901-O, 1903-S, 1909-O, 1911-S, and 1912-S (two each). Standing Liberty quarters were equally hard to complete as a series, due the rapidity with which the dates on 1916-24 issues wore away. Missing issues included 1916, 1917-D Type 2, 1917-S T2, 1919-S, 1921, 1923-S, and 1924-S. Of the pre-1925 dates, the most common was 1923(P), and it surfaced just 16 times out of 5,000 pieces examined. While some 43 Barber quarters were then dateless, a whopping 1462 Standing Liberties had no visible date! This is just 22 years after their introduction.

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