USA Coin Album: My Kingdom for a Time Machine

Posted on 11/10/2020

A look at collecting coins from circulation a hundred years ago.

Most numismatists have, at some time, fantasized about going back in time to scoop up old and rare coins from circulation. I know that as a child trying to fill my coin folders, I frequently wished that I’d been born a decade earlier. In retrospect, that was a rather modest goal, but then ten years seemed like a very long time to someone not yet of that age. Assuming that no one reading this will live long enough to witness the invention of a time machine, all we can do to create that thrill is to comb through old articles published decades ago for vintage accounts of coin hunting.

One of my favorites appeared in the July 1925 issue of The Numismatist. In a letter dated June 6, Ebenezer S. Thresher of Kansas City, Missouri detailed his efforts to locate all of the various United States coins that were still circulating at the time. By his estimation, these included bronze Indian Head and Lincoln cents, Liberty Head and Buffalo nickels, the three Barber silver series, Mercury dimes, Standing Liberty quarters, Walking Liberty halves and Morgan and Peace silver dollars. He commenced this search June 1, 1919, checking off each entry as he found it on a card he’d prepared with all of the possible issues. His results to date were included in the letter.

Thresher prefaced his survey by stating, “Of course, I hardly expected to find the 1894 S dime or the 1913 Liberty-head nickel in circulation, and some of those dated 1925 probably have not been coined.”

Among the coins Thresher sought unsuccessfully was one that never existed—a silver dollar dated 1878-S and having eight tail feathers. Still, there were many coins on his list that he may have been able to find but did not. Aside from the recent issues dated 1924-25, these included four Barber dimes that are indeed scarce but collectable coins: 1893-O, 1896-S, 1901-S and 1915-S. Quarters that eluded him were similarly dominated by San Francisco Mint issues: 1893-S, 1896-S, 1899-S, 1901-S, 1909-O and -S, 1911-D, 1913-S, 1914-S, 1915-S and 1923-S. It’s no surprise that the three Barber quarter keys ('96-S, '01-S and '13-S) were lacking, but the absence of a 1911-D is noteworthy. Also scarce in the Midwest were several half dollars Thresher hadn’t as yet encountered: 1893-S, 1895-S, 1897-O, 1904-S, 1905, 1908-S, 1919-S and 1921.

Among the silver dollars not seen in six years’ searching were a couple of Carson City Mint pieces — 1884-CC and 1885-CC — which the hobby learned years later were almost all held within government vaults in Mint State condition! Also evading Thresher’s keen eye were the dollars dated 1889-S, 1892, 1893-S, 1894, 1897, 1899 and 1923-D. (The 1897 Philadelphia Mint dollars, so common today in Mint State, were almost entirely withheld from release until the 1940s-50s. When I attempted to find a well-worn example to match a set I was building some years ago, it proved impossible.)

Remember, these listings are of the coins Thresher did not find, which means that his coin collection would be the envy of any numismatist active today. He did express surprise that he’d found a few coins then known to be quite rare, such as the 1877 cent, the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter and the 1895 dollar (he evidently came across a circulated Proof of this rarity). He also observed that “Over half, and probably two-thirds, of the silver dollars in circulation here [Kansas City] bear the O mint mark. In other denominations hardly one in a hundred are from that mint.”

Though Thresher wasn’t specifically seeking coins other than the ones on his prepared list, he did relate that he’d found 21 dimes, 12 quarters and 16 halves of the Seated Liberty type, as well as 67 Shield nickels, all but eight of them dateless! His most unusual find occurred a couple of years previous to his letter, when in a week’s time he saw four 1867-dated half dollars that were Mint State or nearly so, and friends who knew of his hobby interest brought him seven more. Thresher commented, “It would certainly be interesting to know their history.”

Though not seeking commemorative coins, he had found an 1893 Columbian Exposition half dollar in circulation. His acquaintances brought him the following coins they’d received: one 1892 Columbian half and five 1893s, one Isabella quarter, two 1920 Pilgrim halves, two 1921 Missouri halves without star and one Monroe Doctrine half dollar. Friends also brought him no fewer than six Nickel Three-Cent pieces that had been passed off as dimes. Perhaps the most amazing discovery was when an acquaintance received in change a holed and plugged 1796 silver dollar that had been filed around its edges to the size of the current type!

The irony of all this bounty is that in 1925 there existed not a single coin board, folder or album into which to place one’s coins. The first such product did not appear in the market for another three years. That’s why so many old coin collections have been found mounted onto wooden panels using nails or dowels. As a tribute to Mr. Thresher’s efforts, presented here are a few of the coins that escaped his search.

1885-CC Morgan Dollar
Click images to enlarge.

1893-S Barber Half Dollar
Click images to enlarge.

1923-S Standing Liberty Quarter
Click images to enlarge.

1923-D Peace Dollar
Click images to enlarge.

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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