USA Coin Album: When, Where and by Whom?

Posted on 8/16/2011

Why do coins carry dates and mintmarks? This month, Dave answers the question.

Non-numismatists are great for coming up with coin questions that we fail to ask ourselves. One of my favorites is “Why are coins round?” I’ll save that intriguing topic for another time, but a different question asked of me not long ago is “Why do coins have dates and mintmarks?” This is indeed a matter that we as collectors take for granted. We never ask ourselves this fundamental question in the course of studying United States coins. The first impulse is to say that these elements are included to make the coins more fun to collect, but of course, that is not the real reason.

In the long history of coinage, it is only recently that most coins have been worth significantly less intrinsically than their stated face value. We now operate with a fiat currency that is worth simply what the government says it is worth. This is not to say that ancient and medieval coins were never debased, but such practices ultimately had a way of righting themselves through recalls and recoinages by more responsible rulers down the road. The notion of coins being worth just a fraction of their tender value as a matter of established policy is a fairly new phenomenon.

So this brings us back to the question of why coins carry dates and mintmarks. The original reason was for accountability. When coins were expected to have an intrinsic value that was equal to or close to their legal value, it was necessary to enforce these standards. The temptation to skim a little off the top by making the coins underweight or of sub-standard alloy was very great, especially in olden times when individual coiners were paid by the number of coins they produced. The penalties for cheating were severe in ancient and medieval times. Though the law sometimes stipulated that the sentence be death, more often the offender was either branded, had his ears cropped or his hand cut off (an attorney was of little use in those days).

Until the 15th Century Western coins did not carry year dates, as they do today. Instead, they bore simply mintmarks and/or privy marks which help numismatists to date them indirectly. A mintmark was usually a tiny depiction of some recognizable object, such as a star, a bird, a dog, etc. This typically identified the place of manufacture by city or state, while a privy mark often identified a particular assayer or coiner. Less often used was an individual’s actual name or initials, though this became increasingly common in the 18th Century.

By the time the United States Mint was established in 1792, the dating of coins by Christian years was well established in the West (since the USA had only one mint facility for its first 40 years of operation there was as yet no need for mintmarks). By placing the year of minting on each coin it was possible to track any discrepancies to the parties responsible at the time. So that such fraud would be detected in a timely manner, Congress called for an annual assay to be performed by a panel of distinguished citizens appointed from various fields. This assay commission did its work as a supplement to the Mint’s own in-house assays of more frequent interval. Discrepancies proved to be very rare and were usually attributable to innocent errors or sloppy management rather than deliberate deceit.

In actual practice, the dating of coins was of limited value in maintaining accountability, as the US Mint in its early years used dies of any date for as long as they remained serviceable. For example, one variety of 1795-dated half eagle has the Heraldic reverse not adopted for this coin until several years later. Obviously these coins were made from a leftover obverse die of an earlier year, thus negating the value in dating. A study of die states by numismatists has proved that many of the coins from the 1830s were produced in seemingly random order, an 1832-dated half dime perhaps having the same reverse die previously used for coining 1833-dated half dimes. A new policy put into place by Mint Director Robert M. Patterson ended this practice shortly thereafter, though that still doesn’t guarantee that a coin’s date establishes its year of minting.

For many years now the US Mint has begun striking the next year’s coinage in the fall of the previous year to have a large stock on hand for January release. This trend has only accelerated since the 1980s, as collectors eagerly anticipate the new issues of silver and gold bullion coins. This has led to the popularity of coins labeled as the first releases of the year, though in all likelihood they were made months earlier and not necessarily released in the same order coined.

While the dating and mintmarking of United States coins may be somewhat justified in the case of precious metal issues, these practices really serve no practical purpose for the base metal, circulating coinage. Clad dimes and quarters might just as well go unmarked year after year, as only we collectors would suffer. It seems, however, that the marketing value of identifying specific coin issues is actually on the increase. More and more ways are being found by the world’s mints to set their coins apart from one another, and recent years have even witnessed the adoption of privy marks by countries that never used them in past. Collectors eagerly line up to buy these distinctive and limited editions. How much longer will it be before the US Mint begins to add privy marks, too?

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