In light of yesterday being Independence Day, we thought that it would be appropriate to take a brief glimpse of the U.S. Mint and the history and value of U.S. coinage. While many pre-colonial and post-colonial coins and tokens exist, the first coins produced by the U.S. Mint for general circulation were copper cents minted in 1793. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. began minting gold and silver coins. The first U.S. minted gold coins were produced in 1795 with the Capped Bust gold coin, which are approximately the size of a quarter ounce gold eagle. The first silver coin minted in the U.S. was a silver dollar from 1794, which is referred to as the Flowing Hair silver dollar. It is believed that George Washington donated silver from his personal silverware collection for the mintage of the first U.S. silver coins.
While the face value of copper cents from 1793 is one cent, the collectible value of these coins is much higher; typically in the thousands of dollars. High end examples of these coins can be worth upwards of the high five figures. Examples of the aforementioned gold and silver coins are even more valuable and scarce. Uncirculated versions of the 1795 Capped Bust gold coin can be as much as $100,000, while uncirculated versions of the 1794 Flowing Hair silver dollar are valued in the high six figure range, or even more.
As you would expect, the first issue of any type of coin is quite valuable, but it should be noted that there are plenty of other extremely high valued U.S. coins, such as the 1804 silver dollar, which is among the most valuable U.S. coins ever minted. Many other highly valued U.S. coins exist, including this partial list.
The metal content used in the mintage of the first copper, silver and gold coins remained much the same for over a hundred years. In fact, pennies were minted with 95% copper content until 1982; nearly 200 years after the first cents were minted. Gold coins produced for general circulation were minted until 1933, after which time FDR unilaterally made it illegal for U.S. citizens to own U.S. gold bullion coins. The use of silver in U.S. coinage outlasted gold by over 30 years. The last 90% silver coins minted for general circulation were produced in 1964, while half dollars minted from 1965 – 1970 contained 40% silver content.
The reason why our coinage was debased of precious metals over the years, and in the case of copper, industrial metals, is because the price of these metals eventually exceeded the face value of the coins. This is due, in part, to inflation, which has resulted in the debasement of the U.S. dollar by approximately 95% since the formation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. While it took a number of years for this to occur, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see coinage minted again with these metals for general circulation.
In summary, the United States has had a long and interesting history with respect to U.S. coinage. Some of the first coinage minted has great historical significance, and as such, is quite valuable. Collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars for a piece of history; especially specimens that are in high end condition. While the use of gold and silver, and to a lesser extent, copper, isn’t currently being used for the mintage of coins for general circulation, many fine examples of previously issued coins exist for the investor and collector alike.