New collectors checking their change for unusual coins have many different design types to search for. The Westward Journey nickels of 2004-2006, the special 2009 Lincoln bicentennial cents and of course, the State and National Parks quarters give collectors a great number of coins to find.
But it’s not like it was years ago, when silver coins still circulated, old-fashioned coins were still around, and some really old pieces could be found in every-day change. When I began collecting in the late ’60s, I often found Mercury dimes, Buffalo nickels, Standing Liberty quarters and yes, even the occasional half dollar.
Like many other collectors, I began looking through Lincoln cents, attempting to build a full set out of circulation. Lincoln cents had been around nearly 60 years by then, so even a date set provided a challenge for a young numismatist. San Francisco mint cents were few and far between in the Chicago area, although it made the search more fun. The appearance of a Lincoln cent with an “S” mintmark would make my day.
Most of the cents were of the Memorial design that started in 1959, but a great many Wheat Ear cents were still seen. I would guess that about 40 percent of the cents I saw at that time were Wheat Ears.
Many Lincolns dated in the 1930s could be found in change, along with cents of the 1920s and even earlier. A steel cent of 1943 came up every now and then, but it would not look attractive, and would probably have a few rust spots.
The oldest Lincoln cent I ever found in change was a well-worn 1910. This coin was over 57 years old, the equivalent of finding a 1954 cent now. I never did find any 1909 cents, the first year of the Lincoln design, let alone a prized 1909-S VDB. I never found any cents dated 1915 or 1922, either. Even then, I knew that the 1922-D was a key date, and the 1922 without the mintmark was one of the rarities in the set.
Some of the old cents I found were in surprisingly good condition. I especially remember a 1928-P with some mint luster. Maybe someone found an old purse or piggy bank containing this coin. A good-looking 1919-S in Extremely Fine was found, and sometimes, I would see cents of the mid to late ’40s with mint red.
Jefferson nickels were the main 5-cent pieces to be found, but an old Buffalo nickel would turn up fairly often, usually with the date worn off. A few Buffaloes of the 1930s still had their dates. Sometimes a Buffalo nickel would have a “D” or “S” mintmark and no date – frustrating.
The oldest nickel I ever got in change was a 1913 Type I. The date was worn off, but because it was a Type I, minted only in 1913, I could discern the date.
One day, I bought a blue Whitman folder at the local coin shop, along with a bottle of nickel date restorer and got to work. My hoard of Buffalo nickels did produce a 1914-D, many 1920s issues, and a few from the 1930s. The folder was nowhere near completed, and eventually, I abandoned the date restorer and became fussier about which Buffalo nickels went into my collection.
Jefferson nickels were plentiful, and war nickels were not uncommon in change. I could always pick out a war nickel by its scruffy appearance and the large mintmark on the reverse. I recall a family trip to Washington, D.C., where a number of war nickels kept coming up in change. I managed to build a few complete sets, including the 1943-D, the scarcest of the 11 war nickels.
Yes, I did find a 1950-D in change. I remember getting this coin at an ice cream shop. I think this shop is even still in business.
Silver coins were found with some regularity in the late ’60s, although clad coinage had begun a few years earlier, in 1965. Lots of 1965, 1966 and 1967 dimes and quarters were seen, and this is still true today. The oldest dime I ever got in change was a 1916 Mercury dime with no mintmark.
My grandmother liked to put away a few coins, especially the more unusual ones, and her particular favorite was the Mercury dime. “The dime with the lady,” as she called it. Sometimes, if I ran an errand or cleaned a closet for her, she would pay me in Mercury dimes and other old silver coins. I bought another Whitman folder, this one for Mercury dimes, and quickly filled up the holes for the late 1930s and the 1940s coins. I never did complete that set. I was missing many of the 1920s issues, and of course, that included the 1921 dimes. No overdates, but I did find a 1945 micro-S, a popular variety at the time.
Nobody paid much attention to Roosevelt dimes during those years. Even the silver issues were considered very common. But to a young collector, anything old was interesting, and I accumulated a few dimes from 1949 and 1955. If the Roosevelt series has any keys, those were the dates.
Quarters were the workhorse coin in circulation, as half dollars were rapidly disappearing from everyday use. Washington quarters dated back to 1932, and my best circulation find of all was a Washington quarter — the 1932-D. Well used with the rim worn into the lettering on the reverse, the “D” mintmark was bold and a welcome sight to a young collector.
Standing Liberty quarters could still be found, worn slick, with no dates. Like the Buffalo nickels, the Standing Liberty quarters often had mintmarks visible, even though the date was long gone. When I saw photos of Mint State quarters in guidebooks, I could see that the design was a beautiful one; what a shame it did not wear well. Most of the designs on the quarters I found were flat. Miss Liberty was holding something – a shield? I couldn’t be sure. The eagle had no detail at all.
My collecting dream was to find a 1916 Standing Liberty quarter in change, and I came as close as anyone could. I got a 1917 Type I quarter in change, with the last two digits of the date present. Strangely enough, the silver date restorer I bought for the quarters did not work. My dateless Standing Liberty quarters remained that way. I may have had a 1921 or a 1923-S in my hoard, but I never knew.
Half dollars were not easy to find. The Kennedy half dollar began in 1964, and many people who loved the President saved these pieces as souvenirs. Once in a while, though, I would see one in a cash register drawer, and I would ask for it. I got a 1943-D Walking Liberty half dollar this way.
Almost everyone saved Kennedy halves but no one seemed to like the predecessor, the Franklin half dollar, minted only from 1948-1963. I liked the plain design, the portrait of Ben Franklin, and the Liberty Bell and small eagle. They weren’t that hard to find at the time. I completed a set from circulation, bank rolls, and gifts. I especially liked the 1948-dated coins, and saved them in a box. Mint State or worn, “P” or “D,” I liked the first year of issue.
A few years after these circulation finds, the Eisenhower dollar was minted. These did not circulate, although I cashed a check and got one, a brand new 1972. The day was Saturday, Jan. 15, 1972. Until the beginning of the State quarters in 1999, this was the earliest day I found a coin with the new year.
Not only coins, but also unusual paper money could be found. Federal Reserve Notes with the green seal were abundant, but a Silver Certificate with a blue seal would turn up once in awhile. The different color made it stand out. Red seal $2 United States Notes were sometimes seen, and if a collector really searched, a Federal Reserve Bank Note would show. These were really different. The brown seal and the black lettering on the face really made these notes stand out from the pack. I recall my father receiving one in change and commenting, “Look at the funny money I got. Is this real money?” I saw another when I worked in a record store. The customer asked me, “Do you know if this is a counterfeit?”
Searching through change, old piggy banks and bank rolls today can result in great coin finds, but it can never compare to looking through change in the days of silver coinage, half dollars and older type coins.