A couple of items make Shield Nickels historically unique and interesting to coin collectors. It became the first coin actually called a nickel, and the first five cent piece to contain copper and nickel. It could also be said this coin played a role in the founding of the Wharton School of Business.
James B. Longacre designed Shield Nickels, and they went into production in 1866. The Philadelphia Mint produced it in varying quantities until 1883. The coin depicted a shield on the front or obverse side to represent the strength of a united country. The back or reverse side of the 1866 coin had the number 5 surrounded by stars with rays separating the stars. The 1867 design removed the rays leaving a circle of stars around the number. During 1877 and 1878, an over abundance of coins existed so only proofs exist for those years.
Prior to the Civil War, people called a 5 cent piece, a half dime, and they were made from silver. In 1866, Congress changed the composition to 75% copper and 25% nickel. This change came about due to the lobbying efforts of Joseph Wharton. After this, it became a nickel.
Wharton co-founded Bethlehem Steel, and in 1863 he started manufacturing nickel. He also controlled the nickel mines and refineries in Pennsylvania. He owned a monopoly, and sold his product to the United States to make coins, a fairly lucrative enterprise. In 1881, he donated $100,000 to the University of Pennsylvania to start the Wharton Business School.
Collectors looking for something different to strike their fancy may consider looking towards one of the more unusual designs in United States coin history. Whereas nearly all coins will feature design elements which are raised above the surfaces of the coin, the Indian Quarter Eagles featured a design and inscriptions which were actually sunken below the surfaces.
Designed by Bela Lyon Pratt, the coins received some negative press and criticism surrounding their original issue. Some people had incorrectly asserted that the coins were less sanitary than the typical designs since dirt and germs would get trapped in the recessed design elements more easily.
Modern collectors know better and have come to appreciate the coins for their innovative and beautiful design. Depicted on the obverse is a Native American chief wearing a ceremonial headdress. On the reverse is a bald eagle in repose, perched on arrows and olive branches.
The coins were issued for a number of years between 1908 and 1929. The series ended with the recall of federal gold within the United States. Nearly all issues can be acquired for reasonable premiums above the gold value. However, one issue stands out as an expensive key date.
In 1911, the Denver Mint struck only 55,680 pieces, which is far below the typical level. The reduced production makes the coin scarce across all grade levels. The coin represents a stopper for anyone seeking to put together a complete set.
Even for the less well heeled, a single example of this innovate design can be a welcome addition to any collection.
The Seated Liberty Quarter Dollar 1838 to 1891 was issued in eight different subtypes, and it is the dollar that has been issued over the longest period, after the current George Washington quarters.
The absence of any drapery hanging down from the Goddess of Liberty figure is a distinguishing feature of the original series, which was issued between 1838 and 1840. The drapery was added during the next few years and was kept throughout the series.
Because of changes in the weight of coins, some other features were added over the next few years. An 1853 design featured a background of rays behind the eagle and a set of matching arrows on each side of the date. The rays were then dropped in 1854, and the arrows were also dropped from the design between 1856 and 1865.
A scroll was introduced to the design in 1866, which contained the words ‘In God We Trust’ and the new design, introduced to coincide with the end of the Civil war, remained until 1873. In 1873, the arrows returned on the design, although were dropped again the following year.
The last change in the design was introduced in 1874, with the lack of arrows on the reverse of the coin, and the motto above the eagle. This change was in place until 1892 when the Barber Quarter was introduced.
There are actually over 50 years of issue for the coin across four different mint facilities, making collecting Seated Liberty Quarters fun and challenging. You may even be lucky enough to find one of six of the known 1873 CC-no arrows.
Anyone who has tried to assemble a complete collection of United States coins by date and mint mark will ultimately learn about the challenge of the key date coin. This refers simply to the coin or coins that are the scarcest and therefore generally most difficult to acquire for a given series.
When collectors used to seek to fill up albums or books by searching coins in circulation, the keys could take many months or years of diligent searching before they were discovered. Nowadays, there is less collecting from circulation, so acquiring the key usually entails spending a great deal of money. A list of some famous 20th century key dates can be found here.
Over time, the keys have come to attract their own sort of mystique. Some will simply acquire the keys and forgo the more common dates of the series. This has actually served to increase the demand for already scarce coins, thus putting more upward pressure on the prices.
Indeed, key date coins have performed very well over time, surpassing broader investments or general type coin collecting. There is no telling whether this trend will continue, as tastes and preferences in collecting have been known to shift over time. There is also the possibility that a new generation of important issues will emerge from the 20th century coins.
During his tenure with the US Mint as its Chief Engraver, Charles E. Barber created the design for the Barber Half Dollars. After approval in November 1891 by then President Benjamin Harrison, the Mint started issuing the coins in 1892 and continued until the Weinman’s Walking Liberty replaced the design in 1915. The coins are silver, and contain 0.36 ounces of the precious metal.
A competition for the new design did not produce a viable option because the entries received by the Mint failed to reach its standards. The coin’s obverse side features a Liberty head wearing a Phrygian cap and wreath while facing toward the right. Surrounding the head are thirteen stars with six points each.
The other side of the coin depicts an eagle with thirteen five-pointed stars floating over the head instead of arranged near the coin’s edge. The thirteen stars represent the original thirteen states. A ribbon bearing the phrase E Pluribus Unum is pictured behind the eagle instead of in its beak. The eagles wings obscure some of the letters with the tip of the right wing over the e in United and tip of the left wing covering the e in America. Clouds were included over the eagle in the coin’s original design. The clouds were eliminated by the order of President Harrison and members of his cabinet.
The San Francisco and New Orleans mints altered the marks on the coin. The entire collection includes 73 different coins.
One of the most popular coin series of twentieth century is affectionately named the “Mercury Dime.” However, the coin does not actually depict the Roman god Mercury. Rather it carries a depiction of Liberty as common for most other United States coins of the era. How did this misnomer come about?
The design for the dime was created by Adolph A. Weinman following a public competition to design the coins. Competitions had actually been held for three denominations- the dime, quarter, and half dollar. Weinman would win for both the dime and half dollar, with another sculptor Hermon A. MacNeil winning for the quarter.
On the obverse of the new 10-cent piece was a representation of Liberty wearing a winged cap. The wings were intended to symbolize liberty of thought. The reverse design contained fasces, which are sticks bundled together around an axe. A sprig of olive branch appears surrounding.
Upon release to the general public, the figure on the obverse was immediately misidentified as Mercury due to the wings on the cap. Perhaps no one gave the design a significant amount of thought, as they might have realized that the god Mercury had wings on his feet, not his head! Despite the misidentification, the name became the popular appellation for this series and is more common than the proper name “Winged Liberty Dime”.