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Coins offer insurance in bad times

During the Great Depression, Joseph P. Kennedy said in 1936 that he would gladly give up half his fortune if he could be guaranteed he would keep the other half.

That sounds peculiar until one remembers the context of the times. Market values had fallen dramatically between 1929-1933. There was great worry that the very systems of economic organization and government itself would be changed to prohibit great fortunes.

Huey Long’s “Every Man A King” effort begun in 1934 would have capped personal income at $1 million a year, and everyone else would have been guaranteed a minimum income.

The times made many people nervous.

Yet the 1930s ended up being a decade of great advancement for coin collecting. Ordinary coin collectors led ordinary lives collecting throughout the decade. It was a good one for commemorative coins and plugging holes in Whitman coin boards that changed into albums in 1940.

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How could numismatics thrive during a time that many people looked back on as being so terrible that their behavior for the rest of their lives was changed?

I asked that question of the famous R.S. Yeoman, pen name of the creator of the Red Book. He joined Whitman and moved to Racine, Wis., in 1934 to take over the coin board product line.

Many people viewed filling a coin board as if it were a form of saving money, Yeoman said. In a period when the next meal was in doubt, having ready cash was paramount. Chasing down dates and mintmarks made the process fun, and the resulting savings helped keep financial fears at bay.

Most people don’t remember, but Whitman’s other great product of the time was playing cards. They were a cheap form of entertainment. Friends gathered to enjoy games instead of going out and spending money, money that they might need should they suddenly join the unemployed. A new deck cost all of a dime.

Coin collecting is still a great way to save money, even though hobbyists probably don’t even think this is what they are doing in the 21st century.

But one thing is sure: uncertainty about the future never ends. Just as 1930s collectors could fall back on their coin boards if needed, today’s collectors can fall back on their holdings of American Eagles, silver dollars, or other collectible coins.

Who knows how many collectors of uncirculated state quarter rolls cashed them in during the Great Recession of 10 years ago to keep food on the table? I’ll bet they were glad they had those rolls. Coin collectors have some insurance against bad times.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News Express. >> Subscribe today

More Collecting Resources

• Are you a U.S. coin collector? Check out the 2019 U.S. Coin Digest for the most recent coin prices.

• Keep up to date on prices for Canada, United States and Mexico coinage with the 2018 North American Coins & Prices guide.