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A Brief History of U.S. Coins

Coins are ingrained into American culture. They’re a part of our daily life, our sayings, and our symbols. As much as we handle and reference coinage, have you ever thought about how our coins came to be? Do you know the history of U.S. coins?

Unless you’re a coin collector or know one, the answer is likely “no.”

Although coins have been a part of life for thousands of years, coin history in the United States is, of course, much more recent. Let’s take a quick look at the history of U.S. coins from the Colonial period until the present day. Along the way, we’ll also discuss denominations, coin design, and coin symbols.

Colonial Period and the Articles of Confederation

Before the Revolutionary War and the formation of the United States, people in the American colonies relied on foreign coins or bartering goods for currency. This mix of currency included coins from Great Britain, Spain, Germany, and even some made by the colonies.

After the Revolutionary War, the young country was originally governed by the Articles of Confederation. During this period, each state could make and assign value to its own coinage, which ended up causing great confusion and hampering economic growth. The Constitution was ratified in 1788, establishing our current form of government. Federal lawmakers soon decided that a unified national currency system was a better option than a jumble of state currencies.

Coinage Act of 1792

The new Congress passed the Coinage Act in 1792, which established the U.S. Mint. The first mint was located in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital at the time. The new currency would include coins in parts of 100, and the U.S. dollar and coinage would be like that of the Spanish milled dollar and its parts. This decision was made because most citizens of the new country were familiar with these denominations.

Thus, the first U.S. coins were:

Made of Copper

  • Half cent
  • Cent

Made of Silver

  • Half dime
  • Dime
  • Quarter
  • Half dollar
  • Dollar

Made of Gold

  • Quarter eagle ($2.50)
  • Half eagle ($5)
  • Eagle ($10)

You can also browse the latest U.S. Mint Silver Eagles or Gold Eagle Coins

In addition to the new U.S. coinage, certain foreign coins were temporarily allowed to remain as legal tender until the Mint could manufacture and release enough coins to handle the country’s demand.

Due to difficulties in production and distribution, foreign coins were not banned as legal tender until the Coinage Act of 1857.

The History of American Coin Denominations

Today, U.S. coinage consists primarily of the penny (cent), nickel, dime, and quarter, but as you can see from the previous section, this wasn’t always the case.

In fact, the U.S. Mint has experimented with 15 different coin denominations.

This table shows all of these different denominations and when they were produced.

Denomination

Years Produced

Half Cent

1793–1857

Cent (Penny)

1793–Current

Two Cent

1864–73

Three Cent

1851–89

Five Cent (Half Dime, Nickel)

1794–Current

Ten Cent (Dime)

1796–Current

Twenty Cent

1875–78

Twenty-Five Cent (Quarter)

1796–Current

Fifty Cent (Half Dollar)

1794–Current

Dollar

1794–Current

Quarter Eagle ($2.50)

1796–1929

$3

1854–89

Half Eagle ($5)

1795–1929

Eagle ($10)

1795–1933

Double Eagle ($20)

1850–1933

Coin Designs

Modern-day U.S. coinage honors past leaders, but it wasn’t always this way.

The Coinage Act of 1792 mandated that all coins have an “impression emblematic of liberty,” along with the inscription of “Liberty” and the year of coinage on the obverse side. Furthermore, the reverse side of gold and silver coins had to have an eagle and the inscription “United States of America.”

Obverse Designs

The dominating obverse design of U.S. coinage has been Lady Liberty, who appeared for more than 150 years.

Congress had debated featuring George Washington and future presidents on the first coins, but lawmakers decided that this practice would be too like Great Britain’s coinage practice of putting monarchs on coins.

Instead, Congress chose to represent the concept of liberty as a person. Lady Liberty had been used as a symbol during the Revolutionary War and was an obvious choice.

Abraham Lincoln replaced Lady Liberty on the penny in 1909, which began a series of changes in which presidents or other Founding Fathers eventually replaced Liberty and various other designs on all U.S. coinage. Washington took over the quarter in 1932, Jefferson the nickel in 1938, Roosevelt the dime in 1946, Benjamin Franklin the half dollar in 1948, and Eisenhower the dollar in 1971.

Susan B. Anthony was also featured on the dollar coin from 1979 to 1981 and 1999, while Sacagawea has been featured since 2000.

Reverse Designs

Despite Lady Liberty’s impressive run, the bald eagle featured on the reverse side of U.S. coinage has endured longer. In fact, this design is still featured on the quarter and the Kennedy half dollar. Another early and endearing design was a wreath.

The buffalo nickel (1913-38) was the first to deviate from the traditional eagle or wreath designs. Congress has occasionally authorized different reverse designs to commemorate events or places since. Examples of these design changes include the Westward Journey Nickel Series, America the Beautiful Quarters Program, and the Lincoln Bicentennial One Cent Program.

Coin Symbols

The history of U.S. coins is riddled with symbolism, including many with Greek and Roman origins.

Some of these symbols and their meanings include:

  • Liberty Cap: Stands for liberty and freedom; this cap was given to freed Roman slaves
  • Cap with Wings: Stands for freedom of thought
  • Wreath: Stands for victory
  • Union Shield: Stands for Congress and the original 13 colonies; taken from the Great Shield
  • Stars: Symbolizes America as a new nation and represents the number of states
  • Oak Branch: Stands for strength and independence
  • Olive Branch: Symbolizes peace
  • Arrows: Symbolizes war
  • Fasces: Stands for strength through unity; it’s a Roman symbol showing wood rods tied around an ax
  • Torch: Stands for liberty
  • Bald Eagle: The national bird
  • E Pluribus Unum: Latin phrase meaning “Out of Many, One”; our national motto

Precious Metals in Coins

Gold and silver have been used in the manufacture of U.S. currency since its inception, although the metal makeup of coins has changed drastically in recent history.

An executive order in 1933 was the beginning of the end for widely circulated gold and silver coins. This order made it illegal to hoard monetary gold in the U.S. due to the Great Depression, and the Mint stopped making gold coins and silver dollars. From this period on, no pure gold or silver coins have been produced at the U.S. Mint.

In the 1980s, the Mint began producing bullion and commemorative series featuring gold and silver coins that continue to this day. However, circulated currency is no longer made with precious metals.

Final Thoughts

The history of U.S. coins has seen many changes, and just like the country they are made for, they have adapted to those changes. Despite variations in denominations, designs, or materials, coins have persisted throughout our history and will continue to do so.

Which U.S. coins do you want to add to your collection?

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Michael Dinich
Michael Dinich
Contributing Author

Michael is a contributor to SD Bullion and the founder of Your Money Geek, where he is on a mission to make finance fun. He has worked in personal finance for over 20 years, helping families reduce taxes, increase their income, and save for retirement. Michael is passionate about personal finance, side hustles, and all things geeky.

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