This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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You can’t blame the Mint for trying. After all, whatever the denomination and whatever the price at face value or more, the U.S. Mint is making money by making money. Any time it can convince you to save a single coin it’s a profit for them, and if it can convince you to save coins by the rolls, bags or dump truck loads, the profits simply increase.
In fact the offering each year of rolls of coins, now in a convenient two-roll set giving you a roll each from Philadelphia and Denver and bags of various sizes depending on the denomination, is certainly a lot easier way to get rolls and bags than in the past.
After all, rolls and bags weren’t just invented. They have been around for a long time although in the early days of the Mint you could also get kegs of large cents, which seem like a lot of fun as an idea as you could buy a handy display keg full of coins that could later be used as a decorative planter or if you bought a couple could be fashioned into handsome lamps or something else.
The major coin market slump during the circulation finds era was called the aftermath of the roll and bag boom, which collapsed in the late 1964-1965 period. The collector logic of that time was that if one coin was desirable for a set, then a roll or a bag quantity was even more desirable, because you were doing future collectors a favor by preserving them.
It was never really defined as to just how many of a coin would need preserving and the fact that the market collapsed is an indication that things had gotten out of hand.
That said, in the past it was not as easy or convenient to come up with a roll or bag of coins. Certainly the Mint was not taking orders. There were a few dealers especially those located near the main facility in Philadelphia who tended to specialize in coming up with large quantities of new issues. There were also others who when $1,000 bags of Morgans could be purchased for face value from the Treasury seemed to come up with bag after bag, but in the case of the average collector, simply finding a roll or a bag was not always easy.
I can well remember in 1959 I desperately wanted a roll of the new Lincoln Memorial reverse cent. That project took an entire afternoon going from one bank in the city to the next. I lived in Middletown, N.Y. Then you would stand in line only to be told they did not have the new cents. Finally that day the last bank came through and I had my roll, but that 50-cent roll had taken hours to obtain
A few years later when the first Kennedy half dollars had been released it was far worse. My father stood in line a couple of hours and was given two coins. That was the maximum so that the banks could try to service everyone. Half the world wanted an example of the new Kennedy half dollar in 1964 and we all wanted them the first day they were available on March 24.
I had asked my father to try to get two rolls, one each from Philadelphia and Denver, and by the time I eventually had the chance to get those two rolls about three months later I really did not want them any more. The novelty was gone and it was clear that the 1964 Kennedy half dollars were going to be the most heavily produced half dollars in U.S. history.
There was always higher demand for new designs, but back in the late 1950s and early 1960s there were not many new designs. Even so there was a great deal of interest in acquiring rolls and perhaps in the case of dealers bags of new issues. It had in large part dated back to the 1950-D Jefferson nickel.
The 1950-D might very well have been the most heavily hoarded coin in American history. With the lowest mintage in Jefferson nickel history, the 1950-D simply struck everyone as a coin they wanted to have and in many cases they seemed to want more than one.
As it turned out, a couple people wanted a lot more than one. There are reports of a number of hoards not of a bag but of hundreds of thousands of pieces. All the hoarding actually made the 1950-D seem far tougher than its already low mintage suggested. It did not matter if the mintage was 2.6 million, which realistically was not that low at the time. If you could not find them in circulation the 1950-D seemed much tougher than the mintage. Its price rose steadily and as the price rose, so did the demand. Eventually the 1950-D reached about $6 a coin and that was a pretty good return on a five-cent investment if you had been lucky enough to get one at face value.
Of course if you had managed to acquire a $2 roll of the 1950-D your profits multiplied. At $5 a coin with 40 coins in a roll, each roll could mean $200 in profit and back around 1952 that was a little like winning the lottery.
Many got the same idea at once which was that getting a roll of a new coin was potentially much more profitable than simply getting a single coin. Of course in the case of the 1950-D it went a bit overboard. A fellow named A.J. Mitula in Houston, Texas, reportedly had over a million pieces. Another in Milwaukee, Wis., allegedly had 320,000 and there were others with large hoards.
The sheer numbers eventually limited the profits as you can hoard all you want but to make any money off the hoard the market has to be willing to absorb your coins as well as those of everyone else.
In the case of the 1950-D there were profits for about a decade, but then for roughly 40 years the 1950-D did absolutely nothing in terms of price. That is a long time and the 1950-D has recently started to move, but realistically it is not that long when you realize how much extra demand their had to be to disperse the hoarded supplies that probably were well over one-half of the entire mintage, an extraordinary number at any time in U.S. history.
As it turned out in the long run the roll craze sparked by the 1950-D was something of a passing fancy. There were lots of very good dates to acquire back in the 1950s, such as the 1955-S cent and the three dimes of 1955. The three dimes of 1955 ranked 1, 3 and 4 in terms of low mintages for Roosevelt dimes and they were heavily saved as was the 1955-S cent.
The 1955-S cent and the 1955-S dime also were supposed to be the final two coins to be produced at San Francisco ever. That’s what we all believed until the coin shortage in the 1960s caused the Mint to start up the “S” mint once again.
Simply stated, 1955 was one of those years where virtually every denomination had a lower mintage coin and in most cases there was some saving. Just the fact that the period was called the “roll craze” by later writers suggests it might have gone beyond sanity. It might not have gone that far as there really is nothing wrong with saving a roll as you have nothing to lose as you can always get the face value back, but the fact is there were a lot of rolls saved, which at least from a profit standpoint seemingly had no purpose.
It was just a sign of the times. Everyone, or at least most people had some rolls stashed away somewhere even if they could not exactly explain why. I remember one day in a group of nickel rolls from the bank I discovered a roll of uncirculated 1962-D Jeffersons in the five rolls I received. I didn’t want the roll of the 1962-D as I certainly did not need the 1962-D and with its high mintage there was no reason to expect that there would be a shortage of the 1962-D nickels at any time in the near future, but that said, rolls were seen as better than gold. Somehow I couldn’t spend the roll, which was all you could do with it at the time as no dealer or collector was even going to spend $2.10 for the $2 roll, but somehow the spirit of the times was such that I held that roll for a couple of years and even when I spent it I had a nagging feeling that I would regret it as almost certainly it was going to jump dramatically in price.
That view of rolls and bags at the time was going to die anyway. The case with the 1950-D was classically self-defeating as if too many all decide to save too many examples of the same date the supply will normally overwhelm the demand eventually.
There was, however, one last burst of life in 1960 with the Philadelphia small- date Lincoln cent. There were a couple bags of small-date Lincoln cents that were found and sold at prices of around $2 per coin. As $50 bags contained 5,000 coins, it was an enormous profit, to the seller, but the 1960 small-date as well as the 1950-D Jefferson nickel and all the others simply ran out of steam in 1965 when the government deliberately tried to discourage collecting by removing mintmarks. The strategy worked, discouraging collectors, but also the speculation in rolls and bags bringing the craze to an abrupt end.
In fact, the roll craze of the 1950s was not all that unusual in some ways as the history of saving large numbers of coins of the United States had been very diverse over the years. There is no guide to each and every date that has ever been saved in large numbers and why someone saved large numbers of any specific date as that information is impossible to compile.
In his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards, Q. David Bowers has done an exceptional job of tracing many of the accumulations and hoards we know of in the past although the examples we know are certainly just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the rolls and other quantities that have been saved over 215 years of coin production.
There is very little evidence of any saving of significant numbers of the first coins of the United States. The Nichols Find, which involved 1796 and 1797, obtained probably in late 1797 by Benjamin Goodhue who was elected to Congress during the period does not have any certain purpose to explain it. The bag of perhaps 1,000 cents of the period of mixed dates was simply saved. Goodhue apparently made no attempt to sell any of the coins although some were sold later at $1 each by David Nichols, but there appears to have been no numismatic or profit motivation. If anything, it looks like a case where Goodhue had access in his trips to Washington and simply decided to acquire the cents as a novelty or keepsake of his time as a member of Congress.
The 1796 quarter based on grading service numbers was also possibly saved in some numbers by someone back in 1796. We do not know the story. The only hoard story behind the 1796 is that Col. E.H.R. Green had a hoard placed at 200 pieces in Mint State. Green was not, however, the person who did the original saving.
Moreover, there is doubt that the Green hoard, which was acquired by him in the early 20th century, were all Mint State coins and the hoard whatever its size, was not purchased as one group. It was a numismatic accumulation. The fact remains, however, the numbers of the 1796 seen at NGC and PCGS are unusually high for a 1796 coin with a mintage barely over 6,000. The collector numbers at the time were too small to account for the supply today, but we really cannot be certain who saved the 1796 in what numbers and why.
If profit was the motive whoever was responsible for the famous Randall Hoard of large cents did not do very well. The Randall Hoard was discovered in the late 1860s and ranks as the largest large cent hoard involving Mint State coins. The dates involved were primarily 1816-1820. The story has always been that the Randall Hoard was a keg of cents. Of course the size of kegs at the time varied although the general belief is that this was a small one of perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 coins although most kegs at the time were larger.
There is no known reason for the initial saving of the keg. Realistically our information in terms of the story is not always certain, but there is one good source and that is John Swan Randall who ended up with the hoard and who in a letter printed in the Bowers book stated that he acquired the coins from Wm. H. Chapman & Co. in New York. In his letter Randall states, “I then offered to take them at the price he paid – ninety cents a hundred – and he was very willing to let me have them.”
Realistically at less than face value the Randall Hoard has to be seen as one of the great purchases in U.S. numismatic history. As the coins had passed through a couple hands by the time Randall paid 90 cents on the dollar it is certainly safe to assume that the original owner did not do well at all on their investment although we frankly do not know the purpose that owner had in mind when the keg was originally acquired.
There was no large-scale hoarding of original rolls or bags seen for decades at least for numismatic purposes. There were small hoards that sometimes surfaced, such as about 1,000 1862 Indian Head cents that appeared in an auction, but the original purpose was not numismatic as at the time the cents were released the public was routinely hoarding all gold and silver coins and even the copper-nickel cents of the time. In fact, there are quite a few reports stretching back to the 1857 Flying Eagle cents of small numbers usually in the range of a roll of various dates of cents from 1857-1864, the period when copper-nickel cents were in production.
There are no famous hoards from the 1870s, although there were some unusual examples of saving of large numbers of certain dates. The 1877-CC quarter is perhaps the most interesting case as Q. David Bowers reports, “Hundreds of these came onto the market in the 1950s and 1960s.” It is hard to understand what the motivation might have been in this case simply because the 1877-CC was a higher mintage Carson City date. Moreover, at the time there was very little collecting by date and mint as most just acquired an example of every date. In addition, the quarter was a high denomination with few collectors, so the reasons for someone saving hundreds of examples of the 1877-CC is very hard to understand.
Beginning in the late 1870s and going through the 1880s there was a great deal of hoarding. The nickel design change in 1883 saw heavy saving both of the retiring Shield nickel design as well as the new Liberty Head design. There was also some seeming profit-related hoarding of low mintage gold dollars especially from 1879-1881 and gold $3 dates. In all cases the dates involved are lower in price than other dates of the period simply because the numbers saved mean a greater supply in the market today, so like the 1950-D Jefferson roughly 70 years later, the large numbers saved turned out to be self-defeating when it came to the profits those doing the saving expected.
By the early 1900s some small amount of saving of new issues was routine. It was still not, however, heavy. There was especially heavy saving of the new 1909 VDB Lincoln cent. That was expected as being a cent and the first circulating coin of any denomination to feature as its design the portrait of a former American, the 1909 VDB was naturally going to create a lot of interest. The rolls and other quantities were large enough that it would still not surprise many older dealers to learn of an original roll being offered today.
The 1909-S VDB was the rarity and its saving was definitely targeted at the profits the 1909-S VDB might produce. The fact that there was not much hoarding tells us a great deal about how the market worked at the time. A dealer named John Zug reportedly had a hoard of 25,000 examples along with quantities of other dates. Zug through his hoards had something of an inventory for his business at a time when very few dealers even bothered with modern issues no matter how low the mintages.
According to Q. David Bowers dealer Art Kagin did acquire 10 original rolls of the 1909-S VDB in the 1950s at $500 per roll and the source is suspected of having more that were offered at $12-$15 per coin. The original source of those rolls is unknown as the seller could have acquired them back in 1909, purchased them from Zug, or acquired them some other way.
There is evidence that in the decades that followed the amount of saving of rolls in particular did increase. Most Standing Liberty quarter dates of the 1920s were thought to have had at least a few rolls saved with the most heavily represented being the 1926-D and the 1927-S is the one where there might not have been even a single roll.
The 1931-S Lincoln cent with a mintage of less than 1 million was another heavily saved date. In fact, it shows the change in attitude among collectors and dealers when you compared the 1931-S to the 1909-S VDB from a couple decades earlier. The 1931-S is much more available in top grades and there is even one report of a hoard of 200,000 pieces, which would have been almost 25 percent of the entire mintage. Compared to the 1909-S VDB the 1931-S was very heavily hoarded.
The decades that followed would see dealers play an ever increasing roll in saving by the roll or bag. It climaxed with the roll craze of the 1950s and early 1960s only to go to the opposite extreme starting in 1965.
For a couple decades after 1965 there was very little saving of new issues. There were yearly mint sets, but few wanted any larger quantities as it was seen as money poorly spent especially when starting in the early 1980s there were modern commemoratives and then bullion coins, silver proof sets and assorted other options to spend money on.
The bottom might have been hit in 1982 and 1983 when there were no mint sets and apparently except for Lincoln cents of 1982, which had a composition change, there was virtually no saving. It took time but eventually the fact that there were no supplies of most denominations from 1982 and 1983 was discovered and many rose dramatically. Even so, it was not enough to create an immediate change in saving patterns.
The introduction of the 50-state quarters, however, was the second piece to the puzzle along with the Mint’s decision to offer rolls and bags, making the process far easier than in the past. Suddenly there was interest in again saving quantities and the process was easy.
Of course, as in the past, the price future of rolls and bags can vary but there can also be surprises as in the past rolls and bags have produced great surprises when errors were discovered. One dealer found examples of the 1972 doubled-die cents sitting in unopened bags of cents that were riding around in his car trunk. Treasures such as that are never guaranteed, but when you go through rolls and bags fun almost certainly can be guaranteed. That is why rolls and bags are never a passing fancy for those seeking fun and the chance to closely examine large numbers of new coins. That has produced ups and downs in popularity, but where there are interested collectors and dealers there are usually rolls and bags and it has been that way for decades.