As good glibertarians, I know none of you actually touch pocket change unless it is a gold coin minted in Galt’s Gulch. However, I also know all good glibs have an orphan with them at all times to carry your coinage in a monogrammed satchel. This short piece may give you tips to convey in your “Daily Instructions” to your change orphan on what coins to save and which to circulate.
Coinage is as old as the concept of money itself. In fact, it is thousands of years older than script, and until relatively recently, the most valued script was tied to specie. “In Specie is a Latin term describing the provision of an asset in its physical form rather than in the cash value of the asset.” (Merriam-Webster) The most common forms of coinage since ancient times have been gold and silver with copper reserved for small denominations. The same was true for the United States from 1793 until 1933 when FDR withdrew gold coinage and the death blow was in 1965 when LBJ effectively killed silver coinage. Today all general circulation US coinage, except for the nickel is clad. Some “real” money is still in circulation and I have given my change orphan “Warty strict” instructions to locate it and present it to me so I can remove these coins from circulation for the bullion value.
The US does still mint some silver and gold coins for collectors, but that coinage is not designed for general use so I will not discuss them. These gold and silver coins have nominal denominations making them legal for use- but if they enter circulation it is because of a FU in a bitter divorce or family members not knowing what the recently dead relative had saved.
I also won’t be covering obsolete coinage, it is still legal tender*, but your orphan won’t be getting any 2 or 3 cent pieces handed to them at your local store. So bellow for your orphan to “Bring me my change satchel most ricky-tic and then get prostrate in front of me NOW!” Let’s examine what we may find.
The cent has traditionally been made of copper and Abe Lincoln has been going strong on the obverse (front) of the cent since 1909. Your change handling orphan will see plenty of these. The three versions are the Wheatback (1909-1958), Memorial (1959-2008), and the Union Shield (2010-date). There was a special 4 different design issue in 2009 for Abe’s 200th birthday. Most cents can be just put back into circulation without a second thought. Cents were copper from 1793 on, but since 1983 they are a minted with a very thin copper plate over a zinc (spit) core.
However, I advise you inform your coinage orphan to save all copper cents. The test is easy. All cents minted in 1981 and before are copper (with exception of 1943). Also test all 1982 cents by dropping them on something hard and listening to the sound made. A dull sound means it is zinc, a good clear ring means copper. If you can’t tell the difference- drop a cent from a copper year with any post 1982 cent-after a couple of drops, the difference will be clear. A copper cent has a $0.018 melt value so copper cents have almost doubled intrinsic value. (All melt values are from Jun 26, 2019)
Wheatback cents have an even higher numismatic (coin collector) value than their intrinsic (bullion) value. Older Memorial cents in a shiny copper state and with little wear also have a higher numismatic value. Among the zinc (spit) cents, only the 2009 series have any numismatic value.
Your orphan will probably not find a 1943 cent in circulation since they were steel with a shiny zinc covering. If one is found it will be nearly black. The War demanded required lots of copper and this was an experiment on saving copper which failed. The coin was hated by the public because of the similarity to a dime when new and turning dark quickly. This bad idea was ditched before the end of the year. In 1944 and 1945 cents were partially made with melted down shell casings from training ranges in the US in order to free up “fresh” copper. It doesn’t make them more valuable, but are interesting to see. If your orphan finds a 1943 copper or 1944 steel cent you are doing very well since these rarities are worth north of $1,000,00 for a 43 and over $100,000 for a 44. I will be called a softie for suggesting it, but you might consider giving your change orphan an entire White Castle burger for finding such a rarity for you.
The melt value of the current cent is 0.0067¢, but today the cent costs almost two cents to make, so make of that what you will.
TJ, the man and not the store, has been rocking the front of the nickel since 1938. The nickel has remained a 75% Copper and 25% alloy since it was first minted in 1866. The exception is during WWII. Then the nickel was minted with 35% silver and 9% manganese. More about this later.
The modern nickel hasn’t changed much with two exceptions. During the Lewis & Clark bicentennial years (2004-2005) each year featured two different reverses for the Corps of Discovery. They have a slight numismatic value so you might want your orphans to hold them out for you, but then again you may not. In 2006 the traditional Monticello reverse returned but the obverse changed to Jefferson facing the observer. This didn’t change the value but changed the look.
Have your orphan hang onto all 1942-1945 war nickels they encounter since their bullion value is $0.86. They are easy to tell since they have large mint marks (P, D or S) above Monticello’s dome on the reverse. (See picture above) War nickels also have what I would call a streaky or greasy look from their alloy. Your orphans may want to follow metal prices since the nickel may get the content changed because the bullion value hovers around the 5¢ face value. The mint has experimented with several designs but can’t get one that meets lifespan tests while being recognized by vending machines.
When I was a kid in the 60’s you would find an occasional “Buffalo” nickel (1913-1938) in the change. If your orphan finds one you might want to pretend to smack them for having a counterfeit, but then smile at them since the coin is real. But odds are the date is worn off and it is only worth face value. (You would think that with 120 years of minting experience the mint would have known not to make the date the highest point on a coin, but with government employees watchya’ going to do?)
The “Clads” or Former Silver Coinage
From 1793 until 1965 dimes and larger denominations were minted with a 90% silver content. The debasement of coinage in 1965 stemmed from the value of the silver exceeding the face value of the coins starting in 1963. By 1964 there were severe shortages of coinage since people were saving the coins for their bullion value and not using them. When the same issue happened in the 1800’s Congress just made the coinage slightly lighter. The new lighter coins were the same design but with arrows by the dates. The “with arrow” coins returned to a face value slightly greater than the bullion value so they remained in circulation-problem solved. In 1965 Congress went a new direction and just debased the hell out of coinage. Henceforth dimes and quarters would be cupronickel and the half dollar was debased from 90% silver to 40% silver. In 1971 the half dollar was further debased to cupronickel.
The most important thing about the older bullion coins is that they still have an intrinsic value that far exceeds their face value. Currently it runs about 11 times face value. Your change orphan can tell these coins at a glance because of two key qualities: 1) they have an obvious different color of real silver vice the current cupronickel tone which should attract their eye. (If there were any libertarian women they could instantly tell you the difference in look between silver jewelry and “silver” jewelry and be happy to explain it while beating you for trying to give them junk.); 2) silver coins have a single color side and cupronickel coinage looks like a copper sandwich. If your orphan’s eyesight is less than optimal (why is he your change orphan then?) just note the date. Save any dime or quarter minted 1964 or before. Again, silver is worth 11x face value and clad is worth 5-8% face value.
If your vending machine orphan notes a young lass running a coin through a vending machine over and it is rejected each time have them be a gentleorphan. They should approach the lass and ask if they could be of assistance. Have the orphan examine the coin and offer to trade the lass a shiny new coin to replace the icky old silver coin that stands between them and their stale vending machine Poptart. One of the last silver quarters I found in the wild was obtained with precisely this bit of generosity. (Yes, I told her, and yet her hunger was more important than silver to her.) That is correct, vending machines may take a credit card but do not recognize legal silver coins.
While it is tempting to demand your change orphan never let you see the obverse of the FDR dime, scratch that. I advise you to tell your change orphan to never let you see this coin. The likeness of FDR has been polluting change drawers since 1946 without a significant change- boring. Have them save all dated 1964 and before since they have a bullion value of $1.11, the rest should be kept away from your gaze and returned to circulation.
“Two Bits” or the Quarter
George Washington has had his slave owning, cis-heteronormative face on the quarter since 1932 but the reverse of this denomination has been a palette of history in 1975-1976 and since 1999. This is the most interesting coin currently minted by the US. It is very common and you will need to give your change orphan clear instructions on which quarters to save and which to place back into circulation. The first instruction for your change orphan I recommend is to save all minted in 1964 and before since their bullion value is $2.77. Now the instructions will become more personal. The Washington quarter is on track to have over 100 different reverses since 1999. On one extreme is “Fey! All coins minted since 1965 shall be immediately returned to circulation less the cruel stench of cupro-nickel befoul me.” The other extreme is, “Save and classify each quarter then lay them before me on baby seal skins so I may admire them as I snack upon a bald eagle egg omelet and quaffing champagne.” I recommend having your orphan identify any quarters you may like and circulate the rest.
The first change was for the Bicentennial celebration. Special quarters, halves and dollars were struck with 1776-1976 on the obverse and a bicentennial themed reverse- the quarter had a drummer boy. Then in 1997, over the objections of the Treasury Department, the Congress mandated the 50 State Quarters program. Five states were featured each year, in the order of entering the Union. The program was later expanded to include the territories and DC. Congress liked the program so much it basically repeated the program with the “America the Beautiful” featuring natural highlights (national parks etc.) starting in 2010 and running through 2021. There are too many images to show, but here are links to the various reverse sides.
The interesting thing about the state program is that each state developed and nominated the design for “their” quarter. The mint then tweaked the design to meet the demands of mass production. Some states clearly put effort into it, others not so much. (I’m looking at you Michigan, Texas, and Wyoming.) The current quarters run to lots of damn birds looking pretty much the same, but the Louisiana quarter has a very good image of a wild turkey in flight. My only advice to my fellow glibertarians is that if a particular reverse is striking to you, go ahead and have your change orphan save your choices and keep the rest in circulation. In addition, you may want to have your orphan quickly check to make sure no silver proofs are in your change satchel. Proofs are struck in silver on specially prepared blanks and double struck to bring out all the details. No proofs are released into general circulation, but my orphan found a proof Iowa quarter which I kept. Evidence once again of a bitter divorce or a family not realizing what grandpa left to them in his will.
This coin is rarely encountered in the wild. Because of that, it is one of the easiest denominations to find bullion coins when your change orphan gets one. I really dislike the Kennedy Half Dollar because it is an unapologetic suck up to the cult of the imperial presidency. The reverse is nothing more than the presidential seal. The Bicentennial version at least has Independence Hall on the reverse. The 1964 mintage were HUGE because of the recent assassination and were saved by the millions. I recommend saving them because they are 90% silver and contain $5.54 in silver. From 1965-1970 the coins were debased to 40% silver but are worth a respectable $2.26 in bullion. From 1971-2001 the coin was struck in cupro-nickel. Since then it is no longer minted for general circulation. If your orphan finds a recent year half is from a cut apart uncirculated set (matte finish) or a silver proof.
The half dollar was a popular coin and in wide circulation until the 1963 coin crises. The large quantity of silver made this denomination the first to leave general circulation. Then millions of the new Kennedy dollars went straight into collections for several years. With the shortages of half dollars in daily use Americans grew out of the habit of using them. The lack of coins in circulation meant vending machines stopped accepting them and the coin withered away. But this long term lack of use is a good situation for a glibertarian. When your minions do actual in the bank banking have them ask for a roll of half dollars. Chances are decent your help will identify some silver coinage. My monetary orphans have even found earlier (Ben Franklin and Walking Liberty) halves in a roll handed over by unsuspecting bank tellers as recently as three months ago. If there is nothing but Kennedy Halves in the roll, enjoy watching clerks look at your orphan with WTF? faces when they use these coins to purchase goods and services.
Dollars or “cartwheels”
The true “silver dollar” of lore was last minted for general circulation in 1935 (melt value $11.84) and will not be found in your change from the “Mexican Pot and Ass Sex Shop”. Your orphan might approach you with an Eisenhower Dollar (1971-1978). This coin features the patch from the Apollo 11 mission on the reverse (except for the Bicentennial version). Make a quick check for of the side to see if it is a 40% silver collector version and smile benevolently since your orphan found a $4.84 bullion coin; if it is a copper sandwich, curse them mightily for wasting your time.
If your change orphan has been hanging around Post Offices, NY, SF or DC subways and other suspicious locations, get them deloused and their rags promptly replaced before checking the change satchel. Inside you may find the modern small dollar coins. There is actually a law mandating that PO’s and transportation systems accepting Federal dollars must have vending machines able to accept and disburse dollar coins. Among the usual coins there might be some coins that look like a slightly oversized quarter with an angry woman on the front and dated from 1979-1981 and 1999. These are the Susan B. Anthony dollars. The “Susie” is one of the stupidest outpourings from the government. The vending machine and casino industries desperately wanted a dollar coin that was better sized for their customers and the government responded by making 1,500,000,000 or so coins that were almost exactly the same size and color of the quarter. Casinos, merchants and the public were not amused and the coin was rarely seen. Even today store clerks curse me when my change orphan offers Susies in exchange for a good or service.
Congress told the Treasury Department to try again with a “gold colored” coin and in 2000 the Sacajawea Dollar was released. Unfortunately, it is a clad coin of little intrinsic value. Fortunately, the mint designed well and this coin is quite striking. It is easy to use and tell from smaller coinage, with smart designs on both sides of somebody besides a president. In the 18 years since the Susie was thrust upon the American people the vending machine and casino industries developed other solutions to the shortage of dollar coins so the new dollar coin never became popular. Since this was an attractive coin, Congress mucked around again and decided to change the reverse each year starting in 2009. Now this dollar is the most PC coin the nation produces. Each year a new Native American theme is on the reverse. While none of the designs will make your orphan gag from ugliness (yet), they aren’t as striking as the original eagle in flight. (2019 features “Native Americans and the space program”) But the law since 2007 requires that 1/5th of dollars produced each year must be in coins- so these dollars are stacking up in vaults by the many tens of millions annually since demand does not meet supply.
The final coins that might emerge from the satchel are the Presidential Dollar coins. Why were these coins made? Because if a striking coin like the Sacajawea dollar isn’t being widely used it must be time to double down.** In 2007 the new coins were released with four presidents a year until they caught up with the last dead president. The reverse features the Statue of Liberty. The new coins caught fire like a water balloon and by 2011 there were 1, 400,000,000+ uncirculated coins stockpiled. So Washington (1) to Garfield (20) were released for circulation. From Chester Arthur on the mint struck only smaller numbers (still around 10,000,000 each) for collectors. These later coins are legal tender and occasionally found in general circulation as well. Reagan was the last president on a coin. To satisfy my Glib heart, Jimmy Carter was never on a coin because of the requirement that the ex-president be actually dead. My orphan has found an occasional proof version of a presidential dollar and brought it to my attention. They are worth about $2 each. So go ahead and circulate them freely since your tax dollars purchased hundreds of million extra.
The GAO has published a report that if the Bureau of Engraving stopped making $1 bills and the country switched to dollar coins it estimates a savings of at least $5.5B over thirty years. With the billions of coins sitting in vaults and already produced I think that estimate is probably low. The vending industry is now fighting retiring the dollar bill because it invested heavily in adding bill readers to vending machines.
That’s About It
One other place that I have found silver coins for face value or less have been estate sales. Families often don’t know what grandpa was saving so coins appear in a variety of ways. I once picked up eleven Standing Liberty quarters for five cents each because they were in a bowl as “movie prop money.” The selling agent clearly did not know what she had in the estate. Another time my ex came home from an estate sale with a few minor purchases. A few days later I needed some change and found two silver quarters that she just got as change at the sale. Of course it was too late for me to go back and get more real quarters in change.
The story of America’s money changing from representing Liberty as an ideal to a collection of small scale tokens of presidential worship is an interesting one and perhaps the subject of another article in the future. Now please excuse me while I go swim in my collection of gold coins.
Oh yeah. Here are a couple of websites to help you determine the melt value of your American coinage.
*The Trade Dollar (1873-1885) was a dollar minted for overseas use, primarily in China. It was demonetized by Congress in 1876 to prevent their use in the US. Congress re-monetized the Trade Dollar in 1965 when it was too late to matter.
** Not really. The dollar and quarters programs rely upon seniorage to “make” money for the Treasury. Quarters cost around 4 cents to make, but the Treasury sells them to the bank for 25 cents. That means the Treasury has a reserve of 21 cents per coin which in theory reduces the amount of funding required from Congress. Collectors also create seniorage by removing coins from circulation and then they are not turned in as damaged for replacement. During the quarters program alone collectors have created an estimated $6B in seniorage.