Nerdy reputation or not, coin collecting (otherwise known as numismatics) has been a hobby since the days of ancient Rome. If you’re not a member of the enthusiast crowd, though, knowing a thing or two about the following faves just might be enough to help you rub elbows with true aficionados.
The Stupidest Coin the Government Ever Made: The Racketeer Nickel
In 1883, the United States issued a newly designed five-cent piece called the “V nickel.” The coin got its name because the value was indicated on the back simply with the Roman numeral ‘V,’ sans the word “cents.” After all, it was obvious it was a nickel, right? Apparently not. Turns out, the V nickel was the same size as a U.S. $5 gold piece, and both coins featured a bust of Lady Liberty on the front.
It wasn’t long before light bulbs started going off over the heads of con men all across America. Within weeks of the V’s debut, crooks were gold-plating the nickels and palming them off as $5 gold pieces. Meanwhile, government officials scoffed at the notion that anyone would fall for such an obvious hoax. Unfortunately, they were wrong again. Despite the gold-plated nickels not looking like $5 coins and not being nearly as heavy, most people didn’t notice, because the gold coins were rarely used in everyday purchases.
By April 1883, “gilded nickels” were both a national joke and a growing concern for commerce and law enforcement. The U.S. Secret Service made arrests in 10 states related to the scam. In one raid, they seized a “half bushel” of coins waiting to be plated. But all good things come to an end, and con artists had a hard time getting enough new nickels to keep the racket going. Finally, embarrassed officials put an end to the scam by halting production of the nickels until new dies were prepared. This time, the redesigned backs read “V cents.” Today, the V nickel remains a favorite among coin collectors.
The Coin You Carry in Bundles: The Kissi Penny
money hasn’t always been strictly confined to coins and bills. In Biblical times, for example, people used sheep and cattle as currency. Of course, because deceased livestock don’t paste that well into scrapbooks, numismatists have to draw the line somewhere. And that’s where the phrase “odd and curious money” comes in. It’s a numismatist category used to classify various pre-cash societies in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.
One widely collected type of odd and curious money is an iron currency from West Africa known as the Kissi penny or Kilindi. Named for the Kissi people living in and around Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the pennies are actually rods of twisted iron roughly 1 foot long. Each has a double-pointed tip at one end and a leaf-like piece at the other—distinctive marks that kept “clippers” from being able to whittle away the metal and pawn off the cut coin as whole. The exact value of the Kissi penny is not known, but it wasn’t much. Large purchases were made by binding Kissi pennies into bundles of 20 to 100. Historians do know, however, that Kissi pennies weren’t taken lightly. They were said to possess a soul, and if one was broken, it was repaired by a blacksmith under the guidance of a local priest.
The Coin Your Mom Doesn’t Want You to Pick Up: Leper Colony Coins
Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, was once among the most feared diseases in the world. Mistakenly believed to be highly contagious, it was a disfiguring and paralyzing condition that, until the 1900s, had no known cure. Sufferers were forced from their homes and exiled into colonies, where they wouldn’t be able to spread the disease to the larger population.
Among attempts to quarantine lepers? Giving them their own currency. Many people feared leprosy could be transmitted by handling money, so special coins were minted (and, in some cases, paper bills printed) for leper colonies in areas including Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, the U.S. Canal Zone, and the Philippines. Some city officials found another convenient use for leper money—paying inmates for their work and allowing them to buy personal items with it. This, so the logic went, prevented prisoners from ever being able to save up “real” money to aid in an escape.
The Coin from 1780 That’s Definitely Not from 1780: The Maria Theresa Thaler
The English word “dollar” comes from “thaler,” any of several large silver coins issued in the German-speaking countries of central Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries. But by far the most famous is the Maria Theresa thaler, which features a portrait of Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria (1717–1780) on the front. And though the archduchess’ thalers were Austrian coins, they wound up being circulated across North Africa and the Middle East for almost two centuries. Because Austrian traders used them to buy coffee in the Middle East, thalers quickly became popular among Eastern merchants, who came to trust the weight and purity of the coins’ silver content.
The catch? Merchants put their trust solely in the 1780 Maria Theresa thaler. When presented with newer (and perfectly legitimate) thalers imprinted with more current dates or featuring different monarchs, Eastern traders assumed the coins were counterfeits. Eventually, it became such a problem that the Austrian government agreed to mint new Maria Theresa thalers, dated 1780, for foreign trade. In fact, for decades after that prized date, demand for the coins was so strong that mints in Italy, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands churned out their own versions of the 1780 Maria Theresa thaler.
Reportedly, the 1780 thalers were still circulating in parts of Yemen, Muscat, and Oman until the early 1980s. And today, Austria still mints Maria Theresa thalers, though they’re commemorative coins not used for regular trade. Estimates vary, but it’s believed between 400 million and 800 million of them may have been minted during the last 225 years.
The Coin You Can Never Take on an Airplane: Spanish Pieces of Eight
In the New World, colonists had to get creative when it came to currency. Because the British were too cheap to mint coins for their American settlements, colonists had to make do with barter, paper money, or whatever foreign coins they could scrape up through trade. Fortunately, Spain’s New World colonies were rich in silver mines, and the Spanish had plenty of coins to toss around.
At the time, Spain minted coins about the same size as the Germanic silver thaler coins of Europe, and Americans took to calling them “Spanish dollars.” But officially, Spanish dollars were valued at eight reals (real being Spanish for “royal”). So how do you make change for a Spanish dollar? For our colonial forefathers, it was easy. Knowing that silver is a fairly soft metal, they’d just take a mallet and a chisel, or even an axe, and slice up the coin like a pizza. The cut slices were called “bits,” or pieces of eight. A 2-real piece was worth about 25 U.S. cents, which is why a quarter is sometimes referred to as “two bits.” Another term for cut coin slices was “sharp silver,” because the points were indeed sharp enough to cut cloth or even skin.
The circulation of pieces of eight and Spanish dollars in America began to decline after the first U.S. Mint opened in Philadelphia in 1792. However, it took a long time for the establishment to catch up with America’s demand for coins, and foreign currency was legal tender in the United States until 1857.
The Dreamiest Coin of All Time: The King Edward Coin
When Britain’s King Edward VIII gave up his crown, he also gave up the glory of seeing his face on English currency. Edward succeeded his father, King George V, in 1936, but problems quickly arose after he announced his intentions to wed a twice-divorced American named Wallis Simpson. Rather than dump his scandalous fiancée, Edward played to the fairy-tale dreams of every girl in the world and gave up the crown instead.
Edward VIII’s reign lasted less than one year, which wasn’t long enough for Britain to switch to new coins, so all the British coins minted during his reign still bore the profile of his late father. Certain colonial coins, such as this 1936 10-cent piece from British East Africa, carried King Edward’s name, but not his image. Rare relics of Edward’s short (and romantic) reign, these coins are a numismatist favorite.
As for the hole in the middle, that’s a fairly common design trait of yore. One explanation is that it allowed people to carry their coins on a string or wear them on a necklace, so they’d be easier to keep track of.
7. The Not-Quite Counterfeit Coin: The 1804 Silver Dollar
America’s most famous rare coin is the 1804 silver dollar. Why so special? Because it was actually made by mistake. Due to governmental budget constraints, the production of silver dollars was halted in the early 19th century. And while a few thousand $1 coins were minted in 1804, they were produced frugally, using the previous year’s dies. Ironically, the first $1 coins dated 1804 weren’t made until 1834, when the United States decided to present the King of Siam and the Sultan of Muscat with a diplomatic gift: complete sets of American coins. Records at the U.S. Mint correctly listed 1804 as the last year silver dollars were made, but didn’t specify that the last ones were dated 1803. Consequently, American officials decided to strike a few new dollars with the date 1804, and ended up creating a coin that had never before existed.
Today, there are only 15 of these 1804 silver dollars left. Eight of them were from the batch minted as diplomatic gifts. The other seven were produced between 1858 and 1860, when an employee of the Philadelphia Mint decided to get rich quick on the coin collector’s market. Using the mint’s silver and equipment, he struck a number of new 1804 silver dollars to sell to collectors. The phony coins (although illegally produced, they’re technically not counterfeits because they were made at a U.S. Mint) were eventually found and melted down—all but seven of them, that is. One of these re-strikes was auctioned in 2003 for $1.21 million, but that’s chump change compared to the $4.14 million paid for one of the original coins back in 1999.
8. The “Choose Your Own Coin” Coin: Blank Coins
The quality-control regulators at our mints do a great job of catching mistakes, but luckily for collectors, some botched coins do make their way into circulation. Among the more common errors are blank coins, such as this one-cent piece. Coins are made by pressing a die onto a planchet, or coin blank, that’s been punched out of a piece of sheet metal. Sometimes, a planchet slips through the process without being struck, and a blank coin, such as the one above, ends up in an otherwise ordinary roll of pennies. Other common errors include coins struck off-center, coins struck on the wrong planchet (i.e., the image of a quarter stamped onto a penny), and double-struck coins.
9. The Coin You Could Stub a Toe On: England’s Giant Pennies
The original English penny was a silver piece descended from a dime-size Roman silver coin, but that sleek and elegant design began to change in the late 1700s. During that century, Britain struggled with the cost of minting coins and often didn’t bother to mint them in small denominations. Labor costs were high, and those who had money dealt in larger denominations, anyway. Then, in the late 18th century, inventors Matthew Boulton and James Watt (who are often credited with creating the first practical steam engine) invented coin-making machinery that greatly cut production costs.
During the Middle Ages, English monarchs, always in need of money, realized they could make a profit by cranking out pennies with less than a penny’s worth of silver. More and more copper was added to the mix, and by the turn of the 19th century, pennies were entirely copper (or bronze). Of course, because these metals were cheaper, the coins got bigger—much bigger.
For the next century and a half, English pennies stayed big—about the size of a modern U.S. half dollar. They also stayed heavy. In fact, demonstrators in the 1960s sometimes used British pennies to throw at police officers. And in 1966, a woman was arrested in Nevada for plunking British pennies into slot machines meant to take U.S. half-dollar coins.
Inflation eventually drove the price of copper so high that making coins out of the metal no longer made sense. By 1969, a ton of English pennies, worth about $1,080 U.S., could be melted down and sold for more than $1,600 worth of scrap copper. The official end to the giant penny craze came in 1971, when Great Britain decided to decimalize its currency.
Incidentally, the United States once followed in the mother country’s footsteps by minting huge pennies. From 1793 to 1857, America made one-cent pieces that were almost the size of today’s half dollars.
10. The Coin That Taught the Government to Recycle: Steel Pennies
While meat, sugar, and gasoline were in short supply during World War II, Uncle Sam was also having trouble getting his hands on enough copper. Turns out, the country’s entire supply was being used to mint coins. In fact, it’s estimated some 4,600 tons of copper went toward making pennies in 1942—enough to make 120 field cannons or 1.25 million artillery shells. So, in 1943, copper pennies were replaced with pennies made of zinc-coated steel.
Steel pennies were unpopular from the start. Vending machines read them as fakes; streetcar conductors mistook them for dimes; and, after the coins had circulated for a short time, the zinc began to wear off and the steel core began to rust.
By the end of 1943, steel pennies were on their way out. But, how would the government scrounge up enough copper for decent self-respecting pennies? Recycling, of course. Army and Navy personnel were ordered to pick up rifle and artillery-shell casings from firing ranges and even battlefields. The empty brass shells were then sent to the Mint, where they were melted down, mixed with a little more copper, and made into pennies.
The campaign worked. All U.S. pennies minted in 1944 and 1945 were made from World War II shell casings. Yet, the new coins presented their own problems. Sometimes, the brass shell cases and fresh copper weren’t mixed completely, giving some of the coins noticeable brass streaks. Also, the explosive residue in the shell casings often stained or discolored the pennies.