USA Coin Album: Something of Value - Part 1

Posted on 9/15/2015

United States coins have had their values expressed in a number of ways.

Visitors to the USA are often puzzled by the obsolete size relationship of the nickel and the dime, the latter of which was coined in silver until 1965. For 50 years both have been struck in the same base metals, and their relative sizes are now clearly transposed. The truth is that our coinage system is completely obsolete and needs a total revision to address this and other issues, but that’s a story for another day. This month I want to examine how the nominal values of our coinage have been stated over the past 200+ years.

The first coins struck by the US Mint were the half cents and cents of 1793. In a seeming act of overkill, both had their face values expressed no fewer than three ways. The reverse of each stated either HALF CENT or ONE CENT, respectively. For the benefit of the illiterate, a fraction was placed below these words: 1/200 or 1/100. Of course, this supposes that those illiterate in English were somehow literate in mathematics. This may have indeed been true, as even the poor and uneducated needed to know the value of money. Finally, as a safeguard against clipping, the practice of stealing metal from a coin by filing or cutting, the edge of each copper coin was also given a protective device.

The half cents, which debuted a few months after the cents, read TWO HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR. To distinguish the starting point of this text, single or double leaves were included as stops. The cents, which were coined as early as March of 1793, initially featured a decorative edge comprised of an undulating vine that was periodically interrupted by broad reeds, the so-called “Vine and Bars” edge. This was switched to a lettered edge reading ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR, probably at the same time that half cent coinage commenced.

When the weight of both coins was reduced substantially at the end of 1795, the resulting planchets were too thin to carry letters, and plain edges became the norm for cents and half cents thereafter. A protective edge device had never really been necessary, since the likelihood of copper coins being clipped was extremely slim. The numeric fraction survived on both coins until the introduction of the Classic Head design (1808 for cents and 1809 for half cents). By that time both coins were familiar enough that no one really needed more than one statement of value. In fact, the text denomination was continued primarily as a safeguard against the coins being silver or gold plated to pass as more valuable pieces (the US Mint would regret omitting this feature on the first issue of Liberty Head nickels in 1883).

The silver coinage was more at risk for clipping, so the Mint had to use a protective edge device for all such pieces. The thin planchets of the half dime, dime and quarter dollar precluded a lettered edge, so the reeded edge still familiar today was employed. The half dollar and dollar were sufficiently thick that both were able carry statements of value on their edges, the half reading FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR and the dollar HUNDRED CENTS ONE DOLLAR OR UNIT. In fact, neither coin carried any other statement of value, a condition which seems odd to us today but which was an established norm for many European nations at the time.

Both our silver and gold coins, though they had nominal values assigned, were legally valued by their weights, and these decreased with wear. A heavily worn silver dollar could depreciate due to metal loss and thus be rejected at its nominal value. Therefore, it was considered unnecessary to declare a face value on either obverse or reverse. This policy changed only gradually. The Draped Bust/Small Eagle half dollars of 1796-97 included a numeric fraction of ½ on their reverse, a feature unique to this issue. The fraction was omitted with the succeeding Heraldic Eagle coins of 1801-07, and no value appeared on the obverse or reverse of the dollar throughout the Draped Bust series of 1795-1803. The quarter dollar included no statement of value whatsoever until the Heraldic Eagle reverse debuted in 1804. The denomination 25 C. straddled the eagle’s tail, even though there clearly was not enough room for a comfortable fit.

The three gold issues were consistent in that all had reeded edges and absolutely no statement of value. The reason was the same for each, in that these pieces, though having nominal face values, were legally valued by the weight of any individual specimen. Next month I’ll look at how the US Mint began adding value statements to all of its coins in 1807.

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

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