73 Cents In My Pocket

By Leon Castner, ISA CAPP

I just came back from the store.  My habit is to empty my pocket of change and place it in a container on my dresser.  This I did, without thinking, adding it to the mixture of coins already piling up from a couple of weeks worth of unloading pockets.  Soon I’ll have to empty it at the supermarket at one of those coin counters, providing some extra cash for an unplanned dinner or surprise.  Isn’t it nice to have a pile of extra cash?

I don’t usually even look at what I put in my dresser change container.  It doesn’t really matter.  Today, however, I stopped and examined my slight handful (it was less than usual).  It consisted of two quarters, two dimes, and three pennies—73 cents in all, probably from a lunch out and a stop at the grocery store (although I used a debit card).  Where does it come from anyway?  (When was the last time you put change in your pocket to start the day?)

I decided to look at the dates on the coins, something I very rarely, if ever, do.  I was surprised.  Only one coin was dated within the past five years and two were from the 1960’s—almost fifty years old.  Although none were classified as “collectible” or of numismatic value (a snobbish phrase meaning having a book  value based on type, year, or condition), they did provide me with a few tips that I’d like to pass on to you, particularly if you have never collected coins, except for using jars or containers like I do.

The first thing I discovered in my little stash was that I had three of the five designs or types currently issued for circulation by the US Mint.  I had two pennies (no one in the know refers to these as pennies) depicting the face of Abraham Lincoln and the Lincoln Monument.  This design was started in 1909 to commemorate Lincoln’s birthday.  The first back (reverse side or “tails”) had two clusters of wheat, hence it was known as the “wheat cent.”  This design was revised in 1959 by replacing the wheat with the Lincoln Memorial.  Almost any wheat cent is worth more than face value, even in terrible condition (two times a small amount is still a small amount).  The key dates for Lincoln cents are usually those from the earliest minting (1909-1943) with S or D markings (these are the stamps on the coin right under the year).  They designate coins made in Denver or San Francisco.  The rarest of all Lincoln cents is the 1943 copper (which you will never find).  Almost all cents from that year were made of zinc (some people call them silver because of the color).  Don’t get excited.  They’re fairly common.

My three cents were from 1971, 1973, and 1980.  Their value was three cents.

The other type of coin I had in my pocket was a dime, ten cents.  It depicts Franklin D. Roosevelt on the head side (obverse) and a torch on the reverse.  It was first minted in 1946 and replaced something called the “mercury” dime, a female profile with wings coming out of her head, kind of like a girlish “iron man.”  (The coin was supposed to depict liberty with the wings symbolizing liberty of thought.  So much for symbolism!)

I had two dimes.  One was dated 1993.  The other was 1967.  (That’s getting pretty close to a key date so I took a second look.  Sure enough.  It was 1967.)

In 1965 the US Mint changed the composition of dimes and quarters (and half dollars) from silver (90% pure) to “clad” (an ugly term meaning a sandwich of copper and nickel (the nickel is on the outside looking like silver).  Except for the Kennedy half dollars, the quarters and dimes are only worth face value (what it says on the coin).  The Kennedy halves, by the way, from 1965 to 1970 have a sandwich of silver and copper, worth more than face value, but not enough to lose sleep over.  They are worth putting in a separate jar, however.

Coins made out of metals that have intrinsic value, like silver and gold, have an inherent problem, particularly when economic times are tough.  The metal content may be worth far more than the face value and even though they are used as normal currency, someone will give a lot more for those to melt down and sell to a refinery.  A silver dime from before 1965 can be worth as much as two or three dollars, depending on the current price of silver in the marketplace.  A quarter even more (2.5 times more).  So 1965 (or 1964, depending how you look at it) is the key date for silver coinage.  I missed by only 3 years, which means I almost made nearly $3.00 by emptying my pocket!

The other coins found in my pocket were quarters.  These are significant today because these are the coins I will stoop and pick up if I see them in the street or on the floor.  (The pennies, nickels, and dimes are left in peace.)  They can be useful since parking meters still use this denomination and they often work well to pay for any odd number caused by sales tax.  (Less than that amount usually ends up in the “save a coin, take a coin” bowl.)

The interesting thing about quarters is that people actually want to look at them, not because they have intrinsic value (except for 1964 and before), but because the US Mint made a game of them by producing “state” quarters in 1999.  Five different designs were issued each year from 1999 through 2008.  Entrepreneurs issued state quarter game boards and the game was on to see who could collect the entire set the fastest. I think the enthusiasm dried up around 2003.  People discovered that a mintage of 300,000,000 for a coin did not make it rare.  Sooner or later they would find Iowa or Wisconsin and that it really wasn’t worth more than twenty-five cents, despite what they might be selling for on eBay.

The most memorable thing about a quarter is not a state, but a person.  Dear old George still appears on the face of each quarter, a fact since 1932.  (This was intended to be a commemorative marking the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth.  It was intended to be minted for one year.)  The fact it has lasted so long is quite ironic since Washington refused to have his image on coins, stating that it “smacked of monarchy.”  (Where was he in 1932?)

Both of the quarters in my pocket were Washington ones (not surprising).  One was dated 1976 (a Bicentennial design with a run of about one billion) and the other 2007—BINGO…I just found Wyoming.
(Since I don’t collect state quarters, Wyoming didn’t really do anything for me.)  Anyone want to offer me a dollar?

The only types I didn’t have were the lowly nickel and the half dollar.  (I can’t remember the last time I actually got a half dollar when someone handed me change.)  The nickel of the 20th Century (the Jefferson from 1938) have little interest, except for a very short time during World War II when they were made out of 35% silver (we needed the nickel to make weapons of critical destruction).  The half dollar is the same old Kennedy and the one you’ll probably see is the bicentennial.

Although someone will say I forgot to mention the dollar as another current type coin, I must admit that I have not received a dollar coin in change in the past ten years (maybe even twenty).  Eisenhower’s (1971-1978) are usually hoarded by unsuspecting novices (they are only worth a dollar). Anthony dollars (dear old Susan) have evaporated or been thrown away since they get confused with the quarter, and Sacagawea one’s are just too odd.  There’s also a brand new presidential dollar that started in 2007, but I have never ever received one as change or payment.   (What you really want is a Morgan or a Peace Dollar—the ones that date from 1878 or the 1920’s.  They are silver and worth a “pretty penny” --actually they are worth about $30-40, depending on the market.)

So there’s almost all you need to know from a pocketful of loose change, at least from the coins I threw in the jar today.  Let’s call it my two cents, plus 71 for good measure.