We live in a time where the United States Mint, as well as the other major mints of the world, produces beautiful proof sets, made to the highest possible standard and packaged in such a way that they will probably look pristine for decades or centuries to come. But the proofs of today really only have one major thing in common with those of the past – they are both made with care. We would be polite in the extreme if we were even to call the packaging of some of the earliest sets flimsy. Yet there are still plenty of proofs that can be collected as sets, and in their original packaging. Walking backwards through the years, here’s what we come to.
From the Present Back to the 1968s
The proof sets of the last few decades have been extremely well packaged. The inserts fit the coins snuggly (yes, with the rare exception), and the plastic case is rigid enough that it protects against just about every mishandling, with the possible exception of the unattended family dog chewing on them for a bit. This makes collecting modern proof sets wonderfully easy, both because they have been made in large numbers, and because people don’t tend to want to break them out of attractive cases that protect the coins quite well.
In Silver as Well
Most collectors are aware that since 1992 the Mint has given us a choice of what can be called a “regular” or base metal proof set, or one made with the dime, quarter and half dollar made of silver – to the same standards as circulating coins from 1964 and before. The silver proof sets always cost more than their base metal siblings, but they are packaged to the same high standard. The one difference is the insert or backing that keeps the coins in place. The color is different, and the word “silver” on the insert is rather prominently placed right where a person can see it. Collecting these is as easy as collecting any of the base metal versions, since they are made to the same high standard, and are made in large enough quantities each year that anyone who wants can add one to their collection.
The 1950s and Turbulent ’60s
The ’60s are now remembered as a time of change; and while the workings of the United States Mint hardly qualify as huge ones for the general public during that era, it was a time of change and evolution in the production and the marketing of proof coins and proof sets – or at least, much of the ’60s were.
Prior to the rigid packaging that we can claim is a hallmark of the Mint’s modern proof sets – and their few years of “special mint sets” – there were plenty of years in which proof sets were mailed to customers directly from the Mint in plastic film packaging that was very flexible, much like the thin packaging used to enclose pills in some medications today. Some still survive in this original packaging, despite the fact that it was probably not the plan to make these thin film containers into any type of long-term storage item. A word or two of explanation is then in order.
The growth in the number of collectors, as well as the number of local and regional numismatic clubs in the 1950s and early 1960s, meant that there were more folks who wanted to enjoy the best coins they could get during that time than there had been before. And importantly, one of the mainstays of collecting then was to fill coin books with the new issues of a year, whether they were the now-classic blue books or other albums. Many collectors ordered proof sets right from the Mint, then when they received their proofs, clipped them out of the thin film cases and placed each coin into the corresponding book, building their collection from year to year with the best coins they could possibly get.
With that collecting mindset in place, and to give credit where it is due, this film type of packaging did a pretty good job of keeping proof coins separated as they were moving through the mail. The U.S. Postal Service did not handle the volume of letters and packages in the late 1950s and early 1960s that it does today, and it’s probably fair to say that there was a pretty low chance then that a mailed proof set would be damaged in some way in transit. Couple this with the just-mentioned idea of breaking up proof sets, and we can see that the packaging was certainly acceptable for its time. But even today, a person can add full proof sets to a growing collection by finding those from this time that are still in their original packaging.
Wrapped and Shipped, the Early 1950s and Before
The Mint had been out of the proof coin business from 1943 to 1949 and had produced less than 4,000 sets in 1936, slowly ramping the numbers up to 21,120 sets in 1942. When the folks in Philly got back into the business of producing proofs in 1950, there were just over 51,000 sets made that first year. But by 1954, the production number had jumped up to 233,300 sets. Clearly, this was a program that was on the rise.
One common factor among these earliest proof sets is that there is basically no chance that any of them remain in their original holders – because those holders were nothing more than small plastic bags for individual coins, all stapled together, wrapped in some tissue paper and mailed to the customer. What this means for us today is that we will have to get back to some serious re-assembling if we want to collect entire proof sets from these years. As we might expect, a huge number of the proof Walking Liberty and Franklin half dollars have been certified and slabbed, as they are the big guns taken from these classic sets. But many of the other pieces have been slabbed as well. It may be impossible to find any of these coins in original wrappers after more than six decades. But it isn’t impossible to hunt down and re-form a set from each year.
Taking the big view, proof sets are definitely a fun means of collecting what is the crème de la crème of United States coins. Plenty of these sets remain in their original packaging and are quite inexpensive. And though the oldest sets have probably been broken up into individual proof coins by now, the exciting possibility then exists of putting back together some truly beautiful proof sets from years past.