skip navigation

Main Navigation Menu

Inspector Collector's Coin Course

Two:  Find the Clues

If you've never looked closely at coins before, you may think they're pretty much all the same.  You may think they're boring and don't have much to say.  If that's how you think about coins, boy, are you in for a surprise!

Coins tell a story.  The way they tell it is sometimes direct, sometimes indirect.  Some parts of the story are in the words and pictures stamped right into the metal, and some parts are in the scratches, nicks, and cuts.  It takes a good detective to put them all together and come up with an open-and-shut case.  The trick is knowing what clues to look for and what the clues mean when you find them.

Find the Hidden Coins

Activity Time

Here's a chance to practice finding hidden things.  Just click on the case icon.

Piece by Piece

As you pause your mouse over each part of the coin below, the name of the part may pop up.  If you click on each part, you'll get information about it.  See if you can find all the parts listed on the left.

Mint mark

Piece the Parts Puzzle

Activity Time

Let's break for a puzzle!  Case number 12 should be easy for you now that you know the parts of a coin.  Just click the case icon.

Missing Pieces

Not all coins have all of these features.  In fact, if a feature is missing, it can tell as much about the coin as if it were there—but that's where your detective work goes beyond the markings on the coin itself.

For example, take the mint mark.  Today's coins use four:  Philadelphia (P), Denver (D), San Francisco (S), and West Point (W).  But other branches have operated in our nation's past, including New Orleans (O), Charlotte (C), and Carson City (CC).  Denver's "D" used to stand for Dahlonega, Georgia (between 1838 and 1861).

But you may find some real United States coins that don't have any mint mark at all.  The reason is that the first branch, in Philadelphia, used to be the only branch.  A mint mark wasn't needed when there was only one place that made coins.  When others opened, Philadelphia's coins were known by having no mint mark, up until 1979 (except for nickels struck between 1942 and 1945).  In 1979, the "P" mark first appeared on the dollar coin, then on all coins minted there except the cent.

Most mint marks were on the reverse before 1965 and on the obverse after.

Clues Can Move!

When you look for clues, look carefully!  For example, the coin's date is usually on the obverse (front), including on quarter dollars.  But the quarters in the 50 State Quarters® Program have their date on the reverse!  If you only looked at the obverse, you might think the date was missing.

A special bill had to be passed in Congress to allow the quarters' inscriptions to change sides so that there would be more room for the special designs and legends of each state on the reverse.

A Material Witness

Materials play a part in the mystery of coins, too.  The kind of metals that are used tell you what raw materials were available at the time and place the coin was made and what was valuable at that time and place in history.

You can also guess the material from clues on the coin, if you know coin history.  For example, if you have a quarter that was made between 1932 and 1964, you can be sure it's made of silver.  After 1964, our dimes, quarters, half dollars, and dollars have been clad—that is, made like a metal sandwich—and none of those metal layers is silver.

Use the Clues

Sometimes coin markings raise more questions than they answer.  For example, look at the legend on this penny.  Why would it say "not one cent"?  Isn't that a strange marking!  If it's not a cent, then what is it?

Badly worn coin
Reproduced from the original held by the Department of Special Collections of the University Libraries of Notre Dame.

Well, we can't tell why the legend is there just by looking at the coin, but it's a clue.  Now we have to look at history to see why it was put there.  But you don't have to pore over your history books right now to find out.  Just click on the coin and I'll tell you history's secret.

Coins can give lots of clues about history.  They can show portraits that really look like the people they show.  They can have sayings on them that tell about the people's ideals, political views, and sense of beauty.  And of course, they show what the people called their money and maybe what language they spoke—though for many years most coin legends were written in Latin because that was the international language of educated people.

So you see that, by learning to speak the language of coins, you can uncover many of their secrets and mysteries.  But before coins can speak to you, you have to find them!  After all, they're not going to come looking for you!

The Great Quarter Quandry
Name the Presidents

Activity Time

Here are TWO activities to test your newfound numismatic knowledge.  You can click on either icon or both before you hurry on to Lesson Three, where you'll get some clues about how to find and save the coins you love.

Field Legend Date Inscription Legend Edge rim edge Relief Relief Relief Bust Legend Inscription Inscription Mint mark Inscription Field Field Edge Rim Field Obverse Obverse Obverse Obverse Reverse Reverse Reverse Reverse

Bottom Navigation Menu