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Were 1950s collectors really so different?

Certainly I am a little partial to the idea of assembling a collection from circulation as I was one of the pesky kids with chocolate stained shirts who used to hang out in banks changing rolls and coin shops back in the 1950s.

You may never get rich from the 50 state quarters, but there is nothing wrong with that. What you will gain is knowledge and a lifetime of memories of the fun you might have assembling a 50 state quarter set.


In fact, if there is any good advice that I would give collectors today it would be that with so many different coins now in circulation it is a great time to start checking your change and an even better time to consider assembling a 50-design quarter collection from circulation not because it will pay big dividends in terms of dollars, but rather simply because it would be fun to do.

Certainly I am a little partial to the idea of assembling a collection from circulation as I was one of the pesky kids with chocolate stained shirts who used to hang out in banks changing rolls and coin shops back in the 1950s. I never got rich doing that, but I was having a great time and a time I still remember fondly as the fun of assembling sets from circulation is hard to describe if you have never tried.

In fairness, I was one of those kids who collected just about anything and everything. One of my great joys was the few times a year when the garbage men would take away anything. Whether it was an old sofa or radio which was no longer working, it did not matter. If you thought it was junk they would take it unless I beat them to it.

My mother, who was very clean, dreaded those nights as she knew from the minute things started appearing on the curb to my bedtime I would be making an endless set of trips around the neighborhood returning with new treasures to be stashed under my bed.

My coin collecting came very early, about 1957. I was starting with some stamps as my father was partial to stamps, and while interesting, I was naturally looking for other challenges. That was especially true at the start of one summer when a spill in the school yard left me with an arm I could not use for a couple of months. A kid with an arm that is not working for two months during the summer is a truly tragic and rather pathetic sight. My mother was frankly happy if I found anything to occupy my time
My friend, Billy, proved to be the answer to keeping me busy one day. As it turned out he had just begun a collection of Mercury dimes and there was very little else he was willing to discuss. In fact, nearly a prisoner in his room for two hours, I was on the receiving end of what even to this day is perhaps the most inspirational lecture I have ever heard on Mercury dimes.

It was simply amazing to hear someone who was not even 10 years old and who had been collecting for just two weeks go on at such length over the joy and advantages of collecting Mercury dimes. By the time he was done, I was almost as convinced as he that finding a 1916-D Mercury dime would only be slightly less important than finding buried treasure.

It was no accident that Billy went on to West Point and the only thing that surprised me about his later days was that he did not end up as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. With his ability to inspire, he certainly would have done well in that role.

Of course he was not perfect in getting his message across as he convinced me to start collecting coins, but not Mercury dimes. It was not that I did not like the Mercury dime and find it interesting, but rather a simple case of finances that pushed me toward Lincoln cents. In addition, I think I had a hunch that collecting the same coins as Billy would subject me to thankless hours of additional lectures and, frankly, at least for the time being I had more than my share of Mercury dime talk.

Actually I think Billy was the exception to rule as almost everyone back in the 1950s started with the Lincoln cent. It was just natural as after shelling out a quarter for a Whitman folder you did not have that much money left for coins. Actually, it was more expensive as the Lincoln cent had two folders, with one having the dates from 1909-1940 and the other having the dates starting with 1941. That 50 cents for the two albums was real money then even if I knew it was going to be money well spent
You could not tell it from the assortment of treasures under my bed or the piles sitting in my closet, but really I was a fairly organized kid. I was bothered by all the empty holes in those two folders and quickly came up with a system.

Armed with 50 cents for a roll and some extra cents for replacing the dates I needed I mapped out a strategy that saw me go from one bank to another in town. There were three and I figured out rest stations where I could check the dates in each roll before going to the next bank to turn in the rolls for another one. That way I could go through three rolls from three different banks ending up at my grandfather’s restaurant where I got to go through all the change in the cash register as well as all the tip money. And that would be a slow day.

I was also known to make one lap of the banks and then reverse it, leaving the restaurant and ending up at home with my final roll of the day. Of course, if I had enough money to get more than one roll, that was better. My record then was 10 rolls at a time, although there I ran into a slight problem as the banks were not overly thrilled giving out 10 rolls of cents to a kid who did not even have an account.

To say it was fun would be an understatement. While I did find better dates like the San Francisco cents from the teens, there were still a number of holes that I could not fill. I do not know why, although heavy hoarding is the likely reason I could not find a 1955-S. That was the only empty hole in my second book of Lincolns. With a mintage over 44 million I should have been able to find a 1955-S, but I eventually broke down and bought an uncirculated one for a quarter. As might be expected, I found one a few weeks later that I cheerfully put in a roll I kept in a box of better dates to be sold or traded later.

The best Lincoln cent I actually found in circulation was in my mind a message about doing good deeds. There were periodic special drives at the church to collect money for worthy projects. It was one of the bigger of such drives that saw every youngster given a small piggy bank in the shape of a church where they were to deposit coins for a couple of months before all would be turned in.

My mother and I spent an entire afternoon counting and wrapping all the coins in those small churches and that was where I found my 1911-S. It was not just the fact that the 1911-S was the only coin I found that day that I needed, but it also was a cent in far better shape, probably around VF, than you would usually find for such an early date in the late 1950s.

I remember thinking at the time that I should volunteer more often to help in worthy projects, especially if it involved counting and wrapping coins, but unlike the banks and restaurant, I found that worthy projects did not come along every day where I could check the change.

One of the great things about collecting from circulation is that you learn as you go along. The situation with the 1955-S Lincoln cent was a good example. It was far too tough to find, assuming the mintage total was correct. With its mintage it should have been a little tougher than the other dates in the book of cents starting with 1941, but it certainly should not have been as tough as it was as there were any number of Lincoln cents in the folder from 1909-1940 that had lower mintages and that were found easily.

An even more classic case took place when I turned my attention to Jefferson nickels. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the 1950-D Jefferson nickel was on everyone’s mind. With a mintage of 2,630,030 the 1950-D was the lowest mintage Jefferson nickel and that had translated into a price of roughly $6 if the coin was uncirculated.
Suffice to say getting an uncirculated 1950-D was not a priority. Getting a 1950-D was a priority, but having a Mint State example was not a concern at the time as my concern was filling holes. I went through roll after roll of nickels with no luck. It was frustrating. As while low mintage, the 1950-D was actually not as low mintage as some Buffalo nickels and I had found them even though many Buffalo nickels had no dates. The 1950-D was much, much tougher to find than the mintage total suggested.
Back at the time our information was not as good as it is today. Weekly hobby papers were yet to be invented in the late 1950s, and even had they existed, I really was too young to get information anywhere other than friends or a coin shop.

I finally decided to break down and buy a 1950-D and there, too, something was wrong. There were a couple coin shops in town as well as a couple people who did not have shops but who did have coins. I asked them all and no one had a circulated 1950-D and no one seemed to know why.

One dealer said to me, “I don't know that I’ve ever seen one except uncirculated.” No one in town including me was able to connect the dots in that the 1950-D had been saved in such numbers that there really were very few that ever reached circulation for any length of time.

Strangely enough one dealer did come up with a circulated example that was actually a filler. It had many digs in it that made it look like someone had repeatedly stabbed it. The price was $2, which was ridiculous when an uncirculated example was $6, but I was kid and could do a lot with $4, so for a time I owned the world’s worst 1950-D.

It worked the other way as well as some coins were far too available to justify their prices or the claims being made about them. I learned a good lesson early. The 1950s were really the first time collectors paid a lot of attention to errors. It was probably a function of the 1955 doubled-die cent, which seemed to capture the attention of everyone but whatever the reason there was a lot of promotion of errors back in the 1950s and early 1960s.

I remember sending away for 10 errors for a dollar. It seemed like a great deal and when they came I was excited. One of the errors was a 1957 cent with the “9” filled. It looked impressive, but when I started checking for others I quickly added a number more, convincing me that a 1958 with a filled “9” was not about to become the next 1955 doubled die obverse.

That experience was put to good use when the discovery of the small-date 1960 cent was announced. Everyone was excited anyway as we had just seen the first design change on a Lincoln cent and for many of us it was the first design change we had seen on any denomination. Now we were confronted with some of the 1960 mintage from both Philadelphia and Denver having a small date.

With visions of buying a car from the profits, I immediately began a search as the suggestion was the small-date 1960 was going to be big and important. After about a month of intensive searching I realized that the Philadelphia version was good, but seemed to me to be roughly equal to a date like the 1910-S Lincoln, but that the 1960-D small date was not only not very good but in reality quite common as I had a roll in less than a month.

As it turned out, I was pretty close to right as the 1960-D small date today is priced at about the same price as a regular 1960-D. One is $10 in MS-65 and the other is $11.
The Philadelphia version at $12 in MS-65. This is less than the $16.50 a G-4 1910-S cent brings. It is also a lesson. Values of many errors tend to be transient. Markets going wild for them can easily lose traction. Only a few double-die cents that you can distinguish with the naked eye have made it into the regular price guide books showing significant prices.

The further you go away from these cents, the harder it is to find someone who understands errors well enough to want to buy them. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it means the error field is an area that requires almost more study than the mainstream of collectors who would naturally prefer a 1910-S cent in G-4.

My efforts at finding the small dates had quickly convinced me that the suggestion that they would be big and important was simply wrong and the years have shown that basically my search had produced pretty accurate results.

You can say that today is different as back in the 1950s you could find better dates in circulation and you would be partially correct, but only partially. Many of the sets we were assembling had no dates that were really worth any price premium at all.

The Roosevelt dime and Franklin half dollars sets had no coins you could sell to a dealer for more than their face value and except for the 1955-S Lincoln cent, which a dealer might pay a dime for in circulated grades, there was nothing in the 1941-to-date set either. It did not matter to me or many others. The idea was not getting rich; the idea was completing a set and having fun.

I probably never had more fun than the day the date restoring compound arrived. In fact, the date restoring compound was basically etching acid that would produce a shadow of the date on a Buffalo nickel that had its date worn off. It would also leave a stain, so any Buffalo nickel where it had been used was a filler. That said, the idea of dates being magically restored seemed like fun to me and I ordered a bottle. While waiting for it to arrive, I had accumulated rolls of dateless Buffalo nickels. In fact, the happy local dealers had sold me a few as well for just a little over their face value.

My mother was not impressed. Reading the instructions made it sound like it had the potential to blow up the house or at minimum leave an odor that might linger for months.

My brother and I were banished to the front sidewalk where we spent an absolutely glorious day restoring Buffalo nickel dates. We filled a set and came close to a second, which did not surprise me as I had made a point of getting dateless coins with mintmarks. There was no profit in the whole affair, but it was great fun and that is the point.

When I was older in the years after 1965 many collectors, myself included, were discouraged by the lack of interesting coins to be found in circulation. I missed the fun of checking change. Then around 1979 I had a brainstorm with a little help from the Mint, which was offering to sell small $100 bags of the new Anthony dollars. I decided to buy one. Certainly there was no profit to be made in 100 Anthony dollars, but I figured they would be fun to have and to study.

As it turned out, there was nothing special in the $100 bag, but that does not mean there was nothing of interest as I was able to study carefully the Anthony dollar and how well or poorly some were struck. I also had a certain amount of fun attempting to spend the coins. People forget how unpopular the Anthony dollar was, but at the time I had a couple people try to refuse them and more than a couple sour looks. Eventually, I used the last $10 or so at the post office where there was a sign for the Anthony dollar saying, “The Dollar of the Future.” I correctly figured that the post office was obligated to take them without a fuss.

Certainly when you look at the coins now in circulation there has never been such diversity. With the state program and the interest of officials in additional changes, it seem like a time where however you approach the coins in circulation, it should be a lot of fun.

A quarter collection involving a Philadelphia and Denver coin of each state is probably tougher to assemble than many would assume and it will get no easier. Along the way you might well find errors or other interesting coins, but even if you find nothing other than the basic coins in a collection, the fun will be a memory you will have for the rest of your life and that is what is most truly priceless.

More Resources:

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin BooksCoin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition