Something that is quite fascinating that many people don’t actually know is the history of that change that sits in your change jar or in your car. For example, did you know that the dime is actually the third iteration of the dime? Or that there used to be a half dime before there was a nickel? Or that the Lincoln penny is actually the latest in a very long line of pennies? Today, we delve briefly into the history of our pocket change and see the rich history from where our currency comes from.

The Lincoln Penny

1909-S VDB Lincoln cent
The Lincoln Penny

For many of us, the Lincoln head penny is the only penny that we know, with Lincoln’s profile on one side and the monument on the other. But, the truth is that the Lincoln cent piece didn’t start in circulation until 1909 and broke the mold where minting was concerned as it was the first US coin to feature a president on it. It had been tradition since Washington’s presidency that no coin feature the depiction of a president past or present. So when this coin was brought up for review, it had met some resistance from traditionalists, but they all fell by the way side in front of Theodore Roosevelt who pushed the coin design through after having just approved four new designs for the gold eagle denominations. The first year it was minted the lincoln cent had the designers initials VDB at the base of the reverse. This led to a public outcry and the initals were quickly removed, which in turn, created the coveted 1909-S VDB cent. Another interesting fact, in 1943, when copper was scarce during World War II, the penny was made out of a steel alloy which led to another collector’s item. Who knew the penny would hold so much sway?

1943 Steel Lincoln Cent Obverse
The Steel Lincoln Penny

The Jefferson Nickel

1945 Jefferson Nickel
The Jefferson Nickel

Introduced in 1938, the Jefferson Nickel is the only coin to still be made of its original composition today. Almost 80 years later, this humble coin is still being minted honoring our third president. Early in 1938 the Treasury Department announced a competition for designs to replace the Buffalo/Indian Head nickel. The rules of the contest was that the obverse would feature an “authentic portrait” of our third president with the reverse featuring his home near Charlottesville. Additionally, the design had to fit the technical requirements of Mint. Out of 390 models, German-American Felix Schlag’s design was selected. Schlag’s initials didn’t appear on the nickel until almost 30 years later.

The Roosevelt Dime

Silver Roosevelt Dime
The Roosevelt Dime

Another coin with a rich history is the dime. The first ten cent piece was coined in 1793 and was the last of the first issuance of coins when the US mint first opened. The dime’s design has changed over 11 times since its first issuance in 1793, with an average of 12 years per major design. The Roosevelt Dime has been the longest running design in the coin’s lifespan with it coming to it’s 70th birthday in 2016. The Roosevelt Dime was issued under pressure from the US public who, in 1945, wanted some memorial for the fallen leader. This coin broke the 40 year tradition of asking outside artists for designs and was tasked internally by the US mint to their chief engraver. While there are no rare dates for the Roosevelt dime, there is one premium dime that is worth more than its silver bullion value, the 1949-S dime that was minted out of the US mint in San Francisco.

The Washington Quarter

Washington Silver Quarter 1944
The Washington Quarter

Our final coin today is the Quarter. The Washington Quarter’s story is interesting to say the least. After the dark shadow of the Great Depression had fallen across the us in 1931, Americans had little to celebrate. However, the following year, 1932, would mark George Washington’s 200th birthday and to help bolster public spirit the Treasury Department were ready to mark the occasion. Originally, the Treasury Department had proposed a half dollar be struck to honor the birth of the founding father. The contest was started early and while most entrants were denied, one had gained unanimous favor by the Commission of Fine arts. The original design of the coin was done by Laura Gardin Fraser, the designer for the Oregon Trail commemorative coin and wife to the creator of the Buffalo nickel. However, the commission wasn’t the only party that needed to be pleased for the coin to be minted.

Congress then got into the debate, due to the fact that the Treasury Department needed their approval to change the design for the half dollar. Once they were asked, they instead compromised and decided to change the quarter instead. But, it was the final person, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who still had something to say.

Mr. Mellon, had his own views on art, and felt that the design by John Flanagan was superior to the Fraser design. Flanagan’s design was simple, more like a portrait with Washington’s profile on the obverse and a heraldic eagle adorning the reverse. With it’s simple design the mint was able to issue the coin easily and quickly. Since it began production of the coin in 1932, the mint has issued over 21 billion coins, an amazing quantity by any standard.

Well, I hope you liked our brief look into the history of our nation’s coinage, if you’re interested in our selection of collectable coins, you can browse through them here.

Gary Dyner is the owner of Great American Coin Company. Connect with him on Google+.

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Great American Coin Company