US Coin History

When one looks at JFK’s image on the half dollar, Susan B. Anthony on the silver dollar, the classic image of the Buffalo on the nickels of many decades past a unique insight into American history can be derived through its coin history. But how much does the average person know about US coin history?


It has been said most people take money for granted except for when they notice they are running short of funds. A similar notion can be said about US coin history because we can not perceive of a time when the United States did not issue currency. Perhaps this is because no one is old enough to remember when the colonies issued “continental scripts”. Perhaps this is a good thing because those scripts were barely worth the paper they were printed on! Thankfully, the United States did eventually gain its independence and when it issued its own currency the currency had legitimate value. But sometimes we neglect the history of the United States’ issuing of it own currency particularly the first instances of issuing coins.

It was the Coinage Act of 1792 which started the proverbial ball rolling for minting coins in the United States. This act established the silver dollar as a legitimate currency unit and was quickly followed by Congress’ authorization of the establishment of the US Mint to produce the various coins. The first Mint was in Philadelphia and it was followed over the years by Mints in Denver, West Point and San Francisco. These Mints are all in operation today and remain the origination point of all the historic coins that have been produced over the years.

Various incarnations of the silver dollar coin were produced throughout the years, but the dollar coin along with its compatriot the half dollar (fifty cent piece) coin have seen their popularity and numbers swindle significantly. The most widely used coins that still exist to this very day are the penny, nickel, dime and quarter. Yes, there were a number of other coins produced over the years such as the ten dollar gold piece but they have long since been discontinued.

The penny first debuted in 1793 and was made of traditional copper until 1853 when it was then minted in bronze before switching back to copper several years later. The coin would be briefly minted in metal during World War Two due to copper shortages but returned once again to copper after 1944. While there have been a number of images on the penny, modern version of the coin feature Abraham Lincoln on the front and the Lincoln Memorial on the reverse of the coin.

Buffalo Nickels

Buffalo Nickels

Prior to the Civil War, five cent pieces were made of silver and were called “half dimes”. Due to silver shortages the copper nickel alloy debuted and it remains in existence today with the modern version of the coin featuring the image of Thomas Jefferson with the old discontinued “Buffalo Nickel” still being fondly remembered to this day. The dime has been around since 1792 being one of the first coins ever minted and the modern version of the coin featuring the image of the iconic president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Quarter debuted in 1796 and its nickname derives from twenty five cents being one quarter (1/4) of a dollar. It has been colloquially called “two bits” which derives from Spanish slang but this colloquialism has fallen out the vernacular in recent years.

This is a basic history of US coins and one should never lose sight of the fact that it is a living history. In other words, the future may bring new coins and new designs. Time will eventually reveal what these new spins actually will be.

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