Jeff Garrett: Collecting US Type Coins

Posted on 6/4/2020

Type coins offer many ways to start a collection and serve as a tangible history of this country.

Recently, a longtime client who had sold most of his collection several years ago called about getting started again. He had built an amazing collection of Proof coinage, 1858-1891, but sold the coins once he had completed his personal challenge. However, he still has the “rare coin bug” and is ready to start another numismatic journey. Like many of my clients, he wanted advice on what to collect next.

The question of what to collect is one of the most frequently asked by beginners and advanced collectors alike. Most individuals are interested in starting something they can finish and that will hopefully be a good investment of their time and money.

Being able to complete a collection is extremely important to many collectors. Most series of US coinage have stoppers that prevent completion for all but the ultra-rich. Even a series as ubiquitous as Morgan Silver Dollars requires an 1895 Proof for completion, and these start at around $50,000 for a nice example. Some collectors ignore the super rare coins in the series they collect, but for many this is unacceptable. The satisfaction of competing the set must be within reach!

The 1895 Proof Morgan Dollar is considered the “King of Morgans” by many.
Click images to enlarge.

For the abovementioned client, I recommended starting a Type set of US coinage, 1793 to date. This means collecting one example of each Type of coin struck by the United States government since 1793. After considerable examination of the scope of the challenge, the client decided to focus on buying an example of every gold coin struck since 1795. Luckily, he has a few great gold coins to jumpstart the project.

Collecting coins by Type is one of my favorite suggestions for collectors regardless of their budget because there are so many ways to start a Type collection. (I will discuss those later.) In addition, you have the advantage of the ultimate diversification play by owning an example from every series. It’s like starting a rare coin “mutual fund.”

By collecting US coins by Type, you also are provided with a tangible history of this country. If coins could speak, these would be their stories.

The various designs that appear on US coins illustrate the simple beginnings of our first Mint, the growth and maturing of the nation during the 1800s, the staid designs of the Industrial Era, the glory and excess of the early 1900s and the hero-worship of recent years.

Liberty, from ingénue to grande dame

The first US coins (the 1793 Half Cent and 1793 Chain Cent) reflect the youth and inexperience of the American experiment. The concepts of liberty and freedom appear on both coins in the physical form of a young woman. On the Half Cent, a cap atop a staff further reinforces the concept of liberty, while the chain on the back of the Cent symbolizes the unity of the first states. The low face value of the coins ensured their widest circulation, allowing the general population to see that America had arrived, indeed. Coinage, after all, was a right and privilege reserved to sovereign entities, not to colonial subjects.

The 1793 Half Cent.
Click images to enlarge.

The earliest design types are not without their flaws, however. Many Americans perceived the chain of unity on the Cent to be representative of the tyranny the colonialists defeated just a few years earlier in their underdog victory over mighty Great Britain. Miss Liberty (on the Cent) seems to have a frightened, almost panicked look.

The 1793 Chain Cent.
Click images to enlarge.

As time passed and America grew up, Miss Liberty matured as well. The Draped Bust and Turban Head Types feature a sophisticated woman of fashion, strength and grace. The Classic Head and Matron Head Types show Liberty evolving into a “schoolmarm”-ish figure. Beginning in 1839, Miss Liberty regained her youthful appearance on some coins, her hair in braids arranged around a beauty contest winner’s coronet. On still other coins, Liberty sat stoically upon a rock, wearing a flowing robe and holding a staff and shield.

An 1805 Draped Bust Half Eagle, an 1808 Turban Head Half Eagle, an 1835 Classic Head Half Eagle and an 1848 Liberty Head Half Eagle.
Click images to enlarge.

Signs of the times

Politics and industry also had their places on American coins. The Heraldic Eagle reverse illustrates the constant tension between peace (olive branch) and war (arrows) as America struggled to take its place in the world. The Indian Cents and Three Dollar gold pieces sent a confusing message — their depiction of Liberty as a female Indian came at the same time that Native Americans were being slaughtered and their lands appropriated.

Agriculture became an important element of American coin designs as well: sometimes obvious (as in bales of cotton on the Trade Dollar), but more often subtle (as in wreaths of grains and cereal in Miss Liberty’s hair on the Morgan Dollar).

Economics played a large role in the size and form of many of our coins. In 1853, arrowheads were added to the front of Dimes, Quarters and Half Dollars to signify a reduction in the weights of the coins. (Conversely, in 1873, the arrowheads alerted the public to a weight increase.) The high price of copper resulted in a change from the Large Cent to the Small Cent in 1857. In 1864, the weight of the Indian Cent was reduced and the alloy changed from copper-nickel to bronze. In 1942, silver substituted for copper in the Five Cent piece so that the latter metal could be used for ammunition during World War II. In 1943, the Cent suffered the same fate, only this time zinc-plated steel was the substitute.

In 1864, religious activists succeeded in having the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” placed on the Two Cent piece. Eventually, the motto became America’s national motto and was placed on all US coins. When the motto was removed from certain gold coins in 1907 and 1908, the public clamored for its reinstatement and the US Congress accommodated.

An 1864 Two Cent piece.
Click images to enlarge.

Coincidental with the country’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in America, new designs were created for the Dime, Quarter Dollar, and Half Dollar. Miss Liberty and the eagle remained the central themes, but the designs lacked enthusiasm. American coins took on a cookie-cutter appearance that persisted until the early 1900s.

Coin designs improved dramatically under the influence of President Teddy Roosevelt, who enlisted some of America’s greatest artists to create designs inspired by the classic coins of the ancient world. Beginning in 1907, the Types created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Bela Lyon Pratt, Adolph Weinman and Hermon MacNeil are among the most popular and enduring of all American coin designs. The idealistic portrayals of Miss Liberty elevated American coins to new levels of art and inspiration.

The Indian Head $10 designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the Indian Head $5 designed by Bela Lyon Pratt.
Click images to enlarge.

Goodbye Miss Liberty, Hello Mr. President

The year 1909 saw the first, subtle shift away from the female form of Liberty to the beginning of hero-worship on American coins. The trend began when a portrait of Abraham Lincoln was placed on the Cent. In 1932, George Washington replaced Miss Liberty on the Quarter Dollar. In 1938, Thomas Jefferson took his turn on the Five Cent piece. Franklin Roosevelt was memorialized on the Dime in 1946. The great American statesman Benjamin Franklin appeared on the Half Dollar in 1948.

And so it went, until Miss Liberty disappeared from every American coin, replaced with a man of historic or political significance.

In 1976, America celebrated its 200th birthday by issuing special commemorative Quarter Dollars, Half Dollars, and Silver Dollars. The success of these circulating commemoratives set the stage for the 50 States Quarter program that began in 1999 and the special Nickels (Five Cents pieces) that first appeared in 2004.

The feminist movement in America was finally recognized on coins in 1979 when the image of suffragette Susan B. Anthony appeared on a new, smaller-diameter Dollar coin. Unfortunately, the American public rejected the Anthony Dollar, not because of the feminist connection, but because of the confusing size of the coin.

A 1979 Susan B. Anthony Dollar.
Click images to enlarge.

Determining Types

Determining which Types to collect might appear to be an easy task. However, the criteria used to separate types are sometimes contradictory, sometimes overlapping, sometimes liberal and sometimes too restrictive. For instance, if the word “Type” is applied liberally, it could mean simply one coin of each denomination. If the word “Type” is defined as any change to a design, then the many individually hand-cut dies created in the early years of the US Mint would qualify. Clearly, neither extreme is satisfactory.

A major type will display one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. A legally mandated change to the design on either side of a coin.
  2. A change to the design on either side of a coin that can be seen with the naked eye.
  3. A major change in the technological processes used to create coins.

Collecting Type coins

Type collecting can be enjoyed at any grade level. Assembling a collection of Type coins in Extremely Fine condition can be just as challenging and rewarding as building a set in Mint State. Type collecting can also be enjoyed at any price level. For Type purposes, the most common dates are on an equal footing with the rarest and most expensive dates.

In other words, there is no reason to purchase a $10,000 rarity when a $5 coin of the same Type will serve just as admirably. Because condition controls the price of a coin, collectors can build impressive Type sets with just a small investment by sticking with circulated coins. The lower the grade, the less expensive the set will be.

Type collecting can be limited to a certain time period, a certain denomination or a certain group. Clearly, a complete set of all the Type coins requires a significant investment of time and money, even in low grade. Thus, the collector can avoid the costly Draped Bust Small Eagle Reverse Half Dollar by sticking strictly with 19th or 20th century Type coins.

The same result can be obtained by zeroing in on all of the Types within a single denomination. Alternatively, a collector may choose to acquire Types within a certain group, such as all copper coins or all gold coins, to name two.

Collectors desirous of publicizing their accomplishments or comparing their collection to others can access the NGC Registry. Sets are ranked based on their level of completion and the condition of the individual coins. The NGC Registry can also give you guidance on what Type sets to collect. Registry set collecting has become one of the most important driving forces for the hobby in recent years. Collectors simply love the competition.

Congressman Jimmy Hayes once assembled one of the finest Type coin collections ever, which sold for millions in the 1980s. Hayes made the following observation about collecting Type coins: “The history of the United States has been recorded in many ways. From intricate volumes of prose to enormous monuments in granite, the heritage is preserved. However, there is not a more eloquent expression of our national evolution than that engraved and struck into the coins directly touching the hands of not only those who made history but also those who contemporaneously experienced its passage. By design, the artists’ images placed upon our coinage have become the most visible curators of our history.”

If this does not inspire your collecting instincts, nothing will!

Recommended reading

A Guide Book of United States Coins (Redbook) by R.S. Yeoman

United States Coinage – A Study by Type by Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett
Note: Much of this article was adapted from this book.

A Guide Book of United States Type Coins by Q. David Bowers

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