Like most coin collectors, I began the with humble cent. From age three, my father and I had a nightly routine. He would get home from work, and I would “check his change.” Checking meant extraction of all things copper. Some years later, I had a cloth bank bag full. Then I got serious about sorting out the contents.
I think I was about nine years old when I counted out about three thousand items. One third were minted in 1959 or later. Those were easily identified by the edifice of the Lincoln Memorial on the reverse side from President Lincoln. Those got rolled and cashed out into spending money. (“Thanks, Dad, for the unofficial allowance supplement!”)
The remainder were identified by twin ears of wheat bracketing the very prominent “ONE CENT.” I lined them up by year and mint mark and checked the size of the piles against the reported mintages in my 1968 Red Book. The best looking of specimen were slotted into one of my two Whitman coin folders (1909-1940) and (1941-date). The former was a bit more than half-full; the other had no gaps. Coins with mintages under about five million had avoided my dad’s pocket. In my adult life, I resorted to purchasing those from dealers and at coin shows. Today, I have two gaps in my collection, the rarest and most expensive of the series.
My sense is that a young collector today would start out pretty much as I did when I was a boy. There are nearly sixty years of coins to assemble for a complete set. It might be somewhat easier to amass a cent from every year and mint mark* as the scarcest of these issues were produced on the order of a hundred million. In contrast, the “gem” of my collection only had about 866,000 companions that year.
A few fun activities for kids:
Collect some cents minted before 1982–as many as you can find. Ten is a minimum, but thirty would be good. Then count out the same number of cents dated later than 1982. Which weighs more? In 1982, the US Mint shifted mid-year from a coin made of 95% copper to a piece fabricated from zinc with just an exterior plating of copper. The coins look mostly the same but there is a noticeable difference when you hold them.
In the first activity, skip the 1982 dates. If you have a few saved, you can bring out a scale, and sort out the copper ones from the zinc. If memory serves, they made about 6 billion of one variety and ten billion of the other, so a diligent hoarder might be able to sift through enough of that date to determine which is likely more common in change, and therefore, likely the one with a higher production.
Compare the numbers of cents with a “D,” minted in Denver to those without a letter under the date. The mark-less coins were produced in Philadelphia. Which do you find more common in your area? then check your distance from either city. Did you find any with an “S”? See if your kids can guess what city that letter might represent.
With the held of a magnifying glass, notice how the font of the date numbers has changed over the years. You may not need every year represented, but if you have some coins from the 60’s, it is noticeable to a careful observer.
Did you know the 16th president appears twice on coins made in the years 1959-2008? Flip the cent over to the building. This is known as the reverse side. (Lincoln sits on the obverse.) With a magnifier, see if you can find the depiction of that magnificent statue between the columns.