I started collecting in grade school by filling holes in blue Whitman coin folders. All the necessary ingredients were there to get started. The holes were clearly marked by date and mint, and my progress toward completion could be judged at a glance. Difficult to find coins were labeled by their low mintage figures – a guidebook was not necessary. Like a bicycle with training wheels, the coin folder included everything I needed to begin the trek.
I fondly remember those Saturday mornings when I pulled out my tattered Lincoln folder to take stock. I began the ritual by punching them out on the kitchen table. Next, I retrieved the rusty tin of Copper Brite from under the sink. A fresh white facecloth was secreted away from the bathroom; I covered the spout and flipped the cleaner upside-down to produce a circular blot of thick purple paste. With a vigorous thumb, the cleanings began. I mashed each cent into the cloth and rubbed hard until under tap water, the coin sparkled with a golden sheen.
Once cleaned and dried, I arranged them in rows by date. This was my favorite part of the ritual – arranging and rearranging. I had one from every year except 1915, 1922 and 1931. Very few were from San Francisco. But I had a 1910-S in full good condition! This one received special attention – I kept it glossy! I was proud of my collection.
These were my cents, and I was their master! I could organize them anyway I wanted to: by date, by mint, by condition. After each one had been inspected, I lined them up and punched them in taking note of the dull thump that signaled a snug fit in the folder. Reassured that each cent was given the attention needed, I hid them in a special place under my bed.
A series of coins, painstakingly assembled, is quite an accomplishment. I had searched hundreds of bankrolls to find them. I traded away too many Mercury dimes to get that 1910-S from the big kid down the block; it was a difficult deal! But all the effort was paying off one cent at a time. Each cent was a trophy. This was an epic quest for a 9 year-old!
As we all can agree, a collection of Lincoln cents, laid out in a folder, provides a pleasing visual display. It has rhythm: identical faces aligned in rows like a drum-beat, with accents interspersed where “special” coins shine brighter or boast of rarity. Vacant holes produced sharp cadences, marking still missing coins. These vacancies represented my hopes and dreams – rewards yet to come. My future was clear.
Those simple coin folders provided a template for organizing a small part of my otherwise chaotic world. This singular focus was what I craved in life. Many of us have tired lists of things that we have to do (back then my list included: clean bedroom, complete homework, help with chores). How liberating it was to have one goal of my own design!
The empty holes represented a challenge that introduced novelty into pocket change. Since the remaining coins were harder and harder to find, the challenge increased as the game unfolded. Casual collectors grew frustrated and simply gave up. But I had a burning desire to have them all, to complete the set and master the game.
The feeling of control is a fundamental part of the collecting experience. In no small way, we control our destiny by assembling a set of coins. It is with great pride that the Lincoln cent collector stands back and surveys the completed folder and exclaims, “I did this!”
My non-collecting friends were perplexed. “Why not go to a museum if you want to see them?” My answer was clear and to the point: “Because they are not yours and you cannot touch them.” Having control is everything. You have not mastered the game if you are not in control.
Autonomy is a powerful motivator for collecting. Collectors exercise supreme domination over their coins. Susan Steward, in her book On Longing, has taken this theme a step further in suggesting that the fascination with miniatures – from doll houses to toy soldiers to matchbox cars – is rooted in childhood play geared towards ruling a “homemade universe.” Lincoln cents made up my little world!
Of course, seasoned coin collectors refrain from the kitchen table play of nine year-olds. The urge to touch is still present, but this desire is funneled into a set of codified rules of engagement. In short, coins must be treated in a certain way. Consequently, the collector gains mastery by becoming an expert coin handler. The underlying dynamic is the same, however. The desire for control is played out in the development of specialized numismatic skills.
Becoming an expert at condition grading is a prime example of how collectors gain a sense of mastery. Learning about history and minting methods reflect other areas of expertise. These newfound skills not only help us build better collections, but also they set us apart from others. We develop specialized skills that our next-door neighbors do not have. And make no mistake about it; determining the grade of a Lincoln cent is an advanced skill.
Many of us struggle to learn the nuances of wear. After all, the differences between a Good-6 and Very Good-8 Lincoln cent is only about half a bow tie on the obverse and two to four lines of the upper grain stalk on the reverse! Discerning these differences takes some practice (and young eyes). Yet, once our grading skills are developed, and it becomes second nature, the grading process becomes enjoyable. It is deeply rewarding in the same way that scrubbing your Lincoln cents on the kitchen table used to be.
Of course, condition grading and all the other rules for collecting become internalized over time. They become our rules. When I finally stopped scrubbing my Lincoln cents, I still had the urge to rub my finger across the surfaces to explore the variations in relief. The feel of cool copper is alluring, even to this day. But I learned to resist this urge. It violates my now deeply held respect for the coins.
Non-collectors think we are obsessed with order and procedure. They are amused by our preoccupation with the minutest of details (like bow ties). But they miss the point. We are not obsessive; rather, we want control. We want to build collections of our own design. We are striving to shape the world we live in, and in doing so, gain a better understanding of our world. Perhaps the best analogy is that we are forming our own little museum. We are the owners, but also the curators.
We get to decide what exhibit to create next. An arrangement of coins on the kitchen table tells a unique story of our choosing. The storyline reflects our interpretation of history. Or, the storyline can be about our own quest to acquire one of each. What is included or excluded is wholly up to us. Lincoln cents spread out on the table tell a story of devotion to numismatics and the power of ownership; they also tell the story of a president, two world wars, and a nation of penny board collectors during the Great Depression.
Maybe this is the greatest of all powers: the ability to tell stories. This is a chief reason why we collect coins. It allows us to organize the world as we see it. What is collecting but a meaningful sequence of events that produces a narrative of our hopes and dreams? I am a master collector, and collecting Lincoln cents is part of my story.
Michael S. Shutty Jr. is a clinical psychologist from Middlebrook, Va.
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