'S' Mint Memories, Part One

Posted on 4/15/2009

This month, David W. Lange takes us through the first part of his comprehensive look at a personal favorite of his — issues of the San Francisco Mint.

I've had a lifelong love affair with the San Francisco Mint, both its coins and its facilities having played significant roles in my numismatic life. I was born in the year that the mint was downgraded to mere assay office status, and the recent 50th anniversaries of both events provided the occasion for a bit of reflection.

A native of San Francisco, I lived nearby well into adulthood. In fact, I remained in the area until being recruited by NGC in 1994. Coins from that mint were always circulating, though far fewer after the 1968–74 production began to get scarce around 1980. Discovering the coin hobby at the age of six or seven, my one-volume library soon taught me that minting had ended at San Francisco in 1955. This didn't matter to me, because silver was still circulating, and many 'S' Mint coins were yet to be found in my parents' pocket change. Even so close to the source these formed a minority of the total circulating coinage, but I always had more difficulty filling the 'D' Mint holes in my folders, especially for dates before 1950.

I'd been collecting a year or two when the clad coinage appeared without warning (not receiving coin periodicals nor belonging to a coin club, my childhood ignorance of the numismatic world was epic). Silver coins remained in circulation until 1968–69, when they seemed to nearly disappear within a year's time. Only the most common 'P' and 'D' issues were still seen at that point. Wheat cents were not hoarded until well into the 1970s, so I still found plenty of 'S' Mint cents and nickels from the 1940s and '50s, but earlier issues were seldom encountered. To these, however, were added in 1968 brand new 'S' Mint cents and nickels, which likewise caught me unaware.

I never found anything truly rare in circulation, but even slightly scarce coins were exciting discoveries to a coin-crazy child. Highlights of my early collecting days included 1918-S and 1920-S Buffalo nickels found so worn that a great deal of study was required to make out the dates. The first of these was retrieved from the receipts of my grade school's daily milk route. (Do kids still push milk carts from one classroom to the next?) At one point I had my entire fifth-grade class and my teacher attempting to make out whether the date was 1918 or 1928, since none of us had seen one in nice enough condition to know how the numerals appeared when new. Eventually it went into the 1918-S opening in my folder, and comparison with a much better one years later proved that choice to be correct.

My best 'S' Mint silver coin find was a 1939-S dime. While today this would be considered just junk silver, worth more as bullion than as a collectible, it was an amazingly exciting moment for me at the time. When another kid at school stole it a few months later, this became just the first of many hard knocks, proving that numismatics is not for the faint of heart.

I was about nine or 10 when I began buying the coins I lacked. Not familiar with actual coin shops until a year or two later, my first purchases were at F.W. Woolworth and The Emporium department store, both located in downtown San Francisco and both now gone from the scene. Until the bullion price explosion of 1979–80 drove such operations out of existence, many retail stores leased space to coin and stamp dealers. These departments were usually staffed by career salespersons who had only the most rudimentary knowledge of numismatics. Knowing very little myself at the time, I nevertheless filled in my folders with the missing pieces, including precious 'S' Mint coins from the 1930s and earlier. The discovery of actual shops dedicated entirely to servicing coin collectors was a defining moment in my young life. The first was a really grungy operation in the nearby suburb of Daly City, and I took an immediate liking to a "BU" 1939-S half dollar offered there. Examination of the coin today would likely reveal it to be "AU," but that's a moot point, as my father wasn't about to let me give real money to such a lowlife.

I soon found much nicer and more professional operations in both SF and its suburbs. As my knowledge and experience grew, so too did my ambitions as a collector. By my mid-teens I'd cashed in my heavily worn sets for their silver value and begun nicer collections. Attractive, Fine through Extremely Fine coins were suitable for the earlier pieces, but from the mid 1930s onward all of the pieces had to be choice or gem uncirculated. Numerous sets were built and then upgraded in the course of this activity, and I learned a lot about grading and eye appeal in the course of doing this. Eventually I developed a more long-term goal that required me to sell many of the coins I then owned; I had made up my mind to acquire as many San Francisco Mint coins as my budget would permit from 1854 to date, including the gold issues. While this soon proved to be impractical, the plan had its genesis in an exhibit I remembered from the Old San Francisco Mint Museum, and I'll have more to say about this next month.

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