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Fun with Obsolete US Coin Denominations

By Victor Bozarth for PCGS ……
Having fun with our hobby isn’t hard if you’re open-minded. We have the freedom to collect what we want when we want it if we can pay for it.

When I’ve been asked “What should I collect?” by a person new to our hobby, I’ve most often responded with, “What do you like?” This exchange is often a rabbit hole. Are they really interested in the hobby or is their query merely a disguised attempt to find out what their coins are worth? Although some might argue that any interest is a good thing, I’ve found that if an individual doesn’t have an interest past the monetary reward, you’re probably wasting your time. There are exceptions. I’ve had inquiries into value only that did inspire an individual to collect.

Three Cent Silver, 1869 3CS, CAM, PCGS PR67+CAM. Image: PCGS.

Some folks have put some thought into the question already. They’ve narrowed their interests down to several different coins. Their interest is piqued. They’re excited and they want to pursue the coins they like. It doesn’t matter how they got interested, the desire is the key.

Do you remember how excited you were when you first saw some early U.S. coins? I do. I can picture in my mind seeing Two Cent and Three Cent pieces for the first time. My grandfather had them. Sure, I had seen them in the “Red Book” (formally known as A Guide Book of United States Coins), but I hadn’t physically handled them yet. I remember the thoughts racing through my mind as I held these coins for the first time. Are they real? Why did they make these? What are they and what are they worth? Most importantly, I had the realization I was holding coins in my hand that were in circulation 100 years prior to my birth.

I believe if you asked yourself more than a couple of these questions, there’s a good chance you’re hooked. What catches your eye? Seriously, the difference in motivation between collectors and dealers looking for coins isn’t large. The dealer is trying to make a buck. They’re looking for coins that catch their eye because they know that if these coins caught their eye… You get the picture. A collector is also looking for something that catches their eye.

The difference, really, is “focus”. Dealers are going to resell the item while collectors are going to keep the item. I find the similarity between the two amusing. Regardless of whether it’s a seasoned dealer or newbie collector, there is an immediate reaction when a nice coin is viewed. It’s a “tell”. Some are better than others at masking their desire for an item, but they know.

Do you remember learning in school that when tested your first reaction is more likely to be right versus more contemplation? I believe we know, almost immediately, whether we like something or not. Trust your gut!

OK, back to the original question. What should I collect? Personally, given the time and means, I would collect several items. My reasoning behind this recommendation is to avoid disappointment. Frankly, collectors lose interest when they can’t locate items for their set(s) or collection(s). If you collect two or more things, then you expand your options. At the least, I would recommend pursuing a less-expensive collection concurrently with a more-expensive collection.

I also recommend researching a new collection when you are closing in on completing a current set. How many collections are assembled missing only a few of the (more than likely) key dates to complete before being set aside out of boredom? Having coins to pursue in a second or third set offers a great way to keep your interests up while you wait for the desired coins, the ones that you’re missing, to come on the market.

Obsolete coinage has always fascinated me. Why did they make these denominations? Did they serve a purpose? Why doesn’t the United States Mint make them anymore?

For the most part, we consider denominations we no longer use as obsolete, but I’m including Large Cents and Half Dimes because their planchet sizes are obsolete. Half Cents, Large Cents, Two Cents, Trimes, Three Cent nickels, Half Dismes (Dimes), and 20 Cent pieces comprise the seven minor obsolete U.S. coin series or types. Part of the fascination with these obsolete series is their absence from circulation for many decades. In fact, many merchants wouldn’t have recognized most of these coins as legal tender 100 years ago in the early 20th century.

Classic Head Half Cent, 1809 1/2C, BN, PCGS MS66BN. Image: PCGS.
Braided Hair Cent, 1851 1C, RB, PCGS MS66+RB. Image: PCGS.
Two Cent, 1864 2C Large Motto, BN, PCGS XF45. Image: PCGS.

Even 50 years ago, casual collectors looking for coins out of circulation were unlikely to find any obsolete coin denominations. In the 1970s, one of my earliest collections was a type set. Most of the 20th-century coins were easy to find. Many of these coin types were still available in circulation, but when I started to pursue the coins in a 19th-century type set, I hit a wall.

I thought I had a pretty good start when my grandpa gave me an old leather purse with a couple of Half Cents and Large Cents, several Two Cents, and some Three Cent silvers and nickels. I picked out the best of each and put them in my Whitman album, and that’s where the project stalled. At 11 or 12, I wasn’t ordering stuff out of COINS Magazine yet. My coin budget was lawn mowing money. To make matters worse, my next possible trip to a coin shop or coin show was weeks away. Wow, what a bummer! Many would have lost interest. I just continued collecting what was available.

A couple of years later, I bid against a local jeweler on an About Uncirculated 20 Cent piece with a big cut on the obverse. I won the coin and despite the cut, it was the nicest coin in my type set for about three weeks. The $75 I had paid for the coin was, at that time, a lot of money for me. When I was offered a $50 profit by a Kansas City dealer, my set had another hole in it. Pragmatically, I made 67%, and the coin did have a cut…

Twenty Cent, 1875-S 20C, PCGS AU50. Image: PCGS.

As collectors, our interests evolve. I’ve always appreciated my early type collections because of the exposure they gave me to the U.S. minor coin denominations. This exposure to “new” coins often ignites the passion for a new set. Indeed, having a type set allows you to decide what you like best (and possibly want to collect by date) from your own type set.

Just as an example, below are listed two possible obsolete coin sets. The basic set includes one each of the seven obsolete coin denominations, including the Three Cent in both silver and nickel. Since you’re building the set, you can stop or start where or when you want, but most importantly you can expand your set(s) in myriad ways as your interest grows.

Three Cent Nickel, 1889 3CN, PCGS MS67+. Image: PCGS.

Maybe you’ve put together the seven different obsolete denominations and you’re fascinated by the Half Cents and or the Large Cents. Now you can pursue the five different Half Cent design types or the five different Large Cent design types with the possible goal of completing all 28 different obsolete minor coin design types.

Below I’ve listed the seven and 28 coins in both the basic and major obsolete coin type sets.

Basic Obsolete Denominations:

  • Half Cent (1793-1857)
  • Large Cent (1793-1857)
  • Two Cent (1864-1873)
  • Three Cent silver (1851-1873)
  • Three Cent nickel (1865-1889)
  • Half Dime (1794-1873)
  • 20 Cent (1875-1878)

Major Obsolete Coin Types:

  • 1793 Liberty Cap Left Half Cent
  • 1794-97 Liberty Cap Right Half Cent
  • 1800-08 Draped Bust Half Cent
  • 1809-36 Classic Head Half Cent
  • 1840-57 Braided Hair Half Cent
  • 1793 Flowing Hair Large Cent
  • 1793-96 Liberty Cap Large Cent
  • 1796-1807 Draped Bust Large Cent
  • 1808-1814 Classic Head Large Cent
  • 1816-1857 Liberty Head Large Cent
  • 1864 Small Motto Two Cent
  • 1864-1873 Large Motto Two Cent
  • 1851-53 Type One Three Cent Silver
  • 1854-58 Type Two Three Cent Silver
  • 1859-73 Type Three Three Cent Silver
  • 1865-89 Three Cent Nickel
  • 1794-95 Flowing Hair Half Dime
  • 1796-1805 Draped Bust Half Dime
  • 1796-97 Small Eagle Reverse Half Dime
  • 1800-05 Large Eagle Reverse Half Dime
  • 1829-37 Capped Bust Half Dime
  • 1837-73 Liberty Seated Half Dime
  • 1837-38 Liberty Seated No Stars Obverse Half Dime
  • 1838-1853 Liberty Seated Stars Obverse Half Dime
  • 1853-55 Liberty Seated Arrows at Date Half Dime
  • 1856-59 Liberty Seated Stars Obverse Half Dime
  • 1860-73 Liberty Seated Legend Obverse Half Dime
  • 1875-1878 20 Cent

Whether you are happy to start with a couple of coins toward completion of a seven-piece set or you’re an advanced collector who wants a challenge, you can “pick your poison”. Many of these series, including Half Cents and Large Cents, are quite challenging when dates and varieties are included. Indeed, the grade level of the coins you pursue for your sets will determine both what is available and what you will have to pay. The best reason for collecting obsolete minor coinage is that there’s something for everyone.

1794 Flowing Hair Half Dime. PCGS AU58. Image: PCGS.

As an example, a seven-piece obsolete type set including the most common of the seven design types in circulated grades of F12 to VF20 will currently cost you less than $500 USD, while the seven-piece set in MS65 will cost you roughly $6,500 total (BN-Brown color on copper coins). Regardless of your budget or preferences, I think you will agree these “strange” obsolete coin types are always interesting!

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Vic Bozarth
Vic Bozarth
Vic Bozarth is a member of the Professional Numismatics Guild (PNG), the ANA, the CSNS, FUN, and many other regional and state coin clubs and organizations. Vic has extensive experience buying and selling coins into the mid-six-figure range. Both Vic and his wife Sherri attend all major U.S. coin shows as well as most of the larger regional shows.

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