Though the process of minting coins has been around for centuries, the history of US coinage only dates back to the late 1700s. Before the colonies became the United States of America, there was no unique currency. People relied on trading foreign coins or bartering with goods. That changed in 1792, when the first coinage act was passed and established the foundation for the US Mint, which would oversee the production of all US coinage. These early coins were made of gold, silver, or copper.
Early US Coins
The half disme was the first official coin of the United States. Legend tells that the first half disme coins were minted from Martha Washington’s silverware. Numerous other coins, with varying designs and denominations, were shortly added to the mint’s docket.
As US coins were introduced into circulation, there was a transitional period that lasted a few years before foreign coins were no longer recognized as legal tender. This was partially because the US was experiencing a shortage in gold and silver, which were used to strike coins. Spanish coins were widely used during this time. English speakers referred to these coins as the Spanish milled dollar due to the milling technique used on coin blanks to produce consistent weights and sizes.
The Californian Gold Rush in the mid-1800s produced enough gold to strike US coins and end the use of Spanish coins. Still, the Spanish coins became the direct ancestor for US coinage.
Notable Historic American Coins
Out of the many coins that have been minted over the years, some are notable because they set a precedent or lasted longer than others. Let’s explore some notable historic American coins and the reasons they are remembered.
- Half dollar (1974 - present): The half dollar coin was once a major circulation coin made of silver, though it is seldom seen today.
- Half cent (1793 - 1857): This coin carried the smallest denomination, yet it was about the size of a modern quarter. It was made of pure copper and was a staple for making change, only to be abandoned shortly before the Civil War.
- Large cent (1793 - 1857): The large cent contained twice the copper of the half cent, making it large and heavy. It was replaced by the small cent in 1857 due to the rising cost of copper in the 1800s.
- Half dime (1794 - 1873): The country’s first five cent coin was minted in silver and was very small in size.
- Dollar (1794 - present): With the scarcity of silver back then, old US dollar coins were made in low mintages (and not produced at all in 1804 and 1836). Now made of more common metals, dollar coins are more popular as collectible items than they are used for circulation.
- Gold coins (1795 - 1933): The US Mint produced gold coins in various denominations with low mintages. Many of these coins have since been melted down or stashed by collectors. The demand was the precursor for the American Gold Eagle bullion coin, which was first minted in 1986.
- Quarter (1796 - present): The quarter has seen several redesigns over the years, and was in fact quite a large coin until 1964.
- Dime (1796 - present): Until 1964, the dime was minted in silver. It’s design was based on that of the half dime.
- Double eagle (1849 - 1907): This $20 coin contained nearly an ounce of pure gold. Following the California Gold Rush, they were minted in large quantities. Today, they are collected as bullion coins.
- Silver three-cent piece (1851 - 1873): This was the smallest US silver coin and it was struck in silver. Like many other silver coins, the public stashed these coins once the Civil War began.
- Small cent (1856 - present): Currently known as the penny, this coin was originally nicknamed the “white cent” because of its makeup of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel. The original Flying Eagle design was replaced with the Indian Head design after just three years. The Lincoln design was introduced in 1909, making the small cent the first coin to portray a president. The design was later changed to the Lincoln Memorial in 1959, and an ongoing Union Shield design was debuted in 2010.
- Two-cent piece (1864 - 1873): This copper coin was the first to carry the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, which was a result of increased religiosity during the Civil War.
- Nickel three-cent piece (1865 - 1889): This coin helped retire the widely unpopular three-cent paper notes that were issued during the Civil War.
- Nickel (1866 - present): This coin made the half dime obsolete and has also retained the same metallic content since it was first struck. It has featured the shield design, the Liberty head design, the (perhaps most well known) buffalo design, and the Jefferson design. Special commemorative designs were released from 2004 to 2006.
- Twenty-cent piece (1875 - 1878): This coin had the shortest lifespan in US history, with only 1.4 million coins minted. A common complaint was that is was too similar in size and design to the quarter.
- State quarters (1999 - 2008): This series of commemorative quarters featured each state in the Union, along with DC and US territories. It was widely popular to collect one of each.
The End of Precious Metal Circulation Coins
In 1933, Executive Order 6102 made it illegal to hoard monetary gold in America. This was due to the Great Depression, when hoarding gold only worked to stall economic growth. Gold was confiscated from the general public and the US Mint discontinued minting gold coins and silver dollars.
Federal Reserve notes, which were first issued in 1917, were originally backed by gold. That changed in 1933 when they could no longer be exchanged for gold coin. However, silver certificates were still exchangeable for silver coin up until 1964.
From 1933 on, no pure gold or silver coins were produced at the US Mint until the 1980s, when the mint started producing bullion and commemorative series that continue to the present day.
Modern US Coinage
After Executive Order 6102, paper notes took place of all coin denominations above 50 cents. However, coins of smaller denominations were still mainstays for Americans. It became a tradition to place past presidents and Founding Fathers on American coinage, which began with the Lincoln cent in 1909. The tradition continued with the Washington quarter in 1932, the Jefferson nickel in 1938, the Roosevelt dime in 1946, and the Franklin half dollar in 1948.
More recent coinage has been partial to commemorative designs. The Washington quarter gave way to the state quarter program beginning in 1999. In 2004, nickels displayed a Lewis and Clark design to pay homage to the 200th anniversary. 2009 saw a redesigned penny in honor of Lincoln’s 200th birthday that included a shield design on the reverse to represent Lincoln’s preservation of the Union.
Even as technological advances continue to digitize our currency, circulated coins remain a staple in the US. There’s no doubt that our coins will continue to change over the years, but if history tells us anything, it’s that there will always be a place for coins.