For years, hoarding made San Francisco Mint coins unobtainable to most collectors and imbued them with a mysterious allure. David Lange gives a history of these prized coins and their place in the history of American numismatics.
When collecting coins from circulation was a popular hobby, all coins made at the San Francisco Mint held a particular allure, since their generally lower mintages made them scarce relative to coins made at the Philadelphia and Denver Mints. Until the World War II-era migration to California, most coin collectors lived in the East or Midwest, where it was quite challenging to find S-Mint pieces in circulation. The attraction of S-Mint coins remains today, though to a lesser extent. Many of these issues were hoarded in worn condition during the 1940s-60s, making them appear far more common in dealers’ inventories today than they did in circulation back then.
By 1968, I had been a collector of coins from circulation for about three years. Living in the San Francisco area, I was luckier than many collectors in finding the coveted S-Mint cents. None had been minted since 1955, yet the issues from 1940 through that year still turned up with some frequency in general circulation, the sole exceptions being the steel cents of 1943.
Without a knowledgeable mentor, I learned about USA coins primarily from a single guidebook passed on to me from my older brother, a book which was then several years old. Not being aware of the various coin newspapers and magazines that carried the latest news, I was totally out of touch with hobby developments. The result of such ignorance was that I suffered great frustration in a pointless search for 1965-D cents and nickels, coins for which there were printed openings in my blue folders.
Thus it was with great amazement that I retrieved from circulation in the spring of 1968 a cent bearing that date and displaying a distinctive "S" mintmark. I knew with certainty that the San Francisco Mint had stopped making coins in 1955, and that was that. I couldn’t contain my excitement at this totally unexpected discovery, so I immediately telephoned my coin collecting buddy up the block with the news. Being equally clueless, he had to see it, too, so I jumped on my Stingray bike with its groovy banana seat and raced up the street, rarity in hand.
Well, enough of that nonsense. Here are the facts that I didn’t know at the time: The U.S. Mint announced in the fall of 1967 that the manufacture and sales of proof sets would resume after a three-year hiatus. Like the special mint sets offered in their place during 1965-67, the new proof sets would be produced at the San Francisco Assay Office, as the mint had been renamed by then.
Since this development coincided with the restoration of mintmarks to United States coinage, collectors began inquiring whether there would be circulating equivalents to the 1968-S proof coins. The answer proved to be “yes” with respect to cents and nickels, but it came too late to prevent frenzied orders for the proof sets that many hobbyists believed would be the only way to obtain 1968-S coinage of any kind. This set sold out within days, despite a very awkward ordering process involving computer punch cards (in those pre-Internet days, the ordering period began November 1 of the previous year, and sets were not delivered for several months). Many orders were returned, and for a couple of years afterward the 1968-S proof set sold for three times its $5 issue price in the secondary market.
The novelty of new cents bearing the magical ‘S’ mintmark was a real shot in the arm for the coin hobby, which had taken quite a tumble since the heady days of 1960-64. Interest in collecting coins from circulation had all but died after the removal of silver and mintmarks in 1965, but the restoration of mintmarks and proof sets gave it a brief revival. While the proof sets of 1968 and 1969 enjoyed a brief moment of inflated aftermarket values, both soon tumbled below issue price, as the speculative frenzy subsided.
Still generating collector interest, however, were the S-Mint cents made for circulation since 1968. While I had no trouble finding them in the San Francisco area, for collectors further east they seemed to be nearly unobtainable from circulation. Of course, their relative rarity in circulation was due in no small part to massive hoarding by speculators. Dealers and profit-minded collectors made friends at their local banks, and new shipments of fresh S-Mint cents often were scooped up before having a chance to enter circulation. Such activity was only exacerbated by the seemingly low mintage of 1968-S cents. While 258,270,001 coins is actually a very large number, this paled in comparison to the multi-billions spewing forth from Philadelphia and Denver.
Huge numbers of the S-Mint cents were set aside in this manner. The earlier frenzy to obtain 1955-S cents at the time of issue had initiated the practice of saving entire 5,000-coin bags, whereas previously speculators had focused exclusively on roll quantities (50 coins per roll). Bag hoarding sputtered a bit after 1964, but the S-Mint cents of 1968-74 revived it. When a nationwide coin shortage hit the USA in 1973-74, Mint Director Mary Brooks became so frustrated with speculators that she ordered the mixing of 1974-S cents with those of the other mints before shipment.
Next month, I’ll look at the individual cent issues of 1968-74, including varieties.
David W. Lange's column, "USA Coin Album," appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.