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US & Canadian Coins – Circulation Finds On Both Sides of the Border

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By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek.com ……
This morning I received 43 cents in change following a breakfast transaction at an Einstein Bagels restaurant in Central Florida. A pretty ordinary transaction, except for two things: a 1951 George VI Canadian cent and a 2011 Elizabeth II Canadian dime.

Sure, I’ve received Canadian coins in circulation before, but never two at once (this is the United States, after all). So why do Canadian coins turn up with any frequency here, anyway? Mainly because Canadian travelers regularly spend their native coins here in the states, and it’s pretty easy to do, too, when Canadian one-cent coins, nickels, dimes and quarters are similar in size to U.S. coins of the same denominations.

Also, Florida especially is a popular destination for many northerners, whom Floridians endearingly refer to as “snow birds”. I worked at the guest relations office of a major Central Florida theme park, and I had determined that about one in every 10 visitors to my window hailed from Canada–primarily from the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, or Nova Scotia. Why, I’ve even had family members who were Canadian. Florida lures many Canadians like a sunshine-driven magnet, and with them come their beautiful coins to co-mingle amongst their American counterparts.

My bagel transaction, sprinkled with Canadian coinage, made me wonder: How often do other coin collectors in the United States find Canadian coinage? Do Canadian coin collectors find U.S. coins in Canada, too?

There was only one way to find out: reach out to my fellow coin collectors on both sides of the border to see what they’re finding.

Do Canadians Find U.S. Coins in Their Pocket Change?

I know Americans find Canadian coins in their pocket change, because I’ve been finding them for years, and I know collectors and non-collectors here in the States who do, too. But I really wasn’t sure how many U.S. coins floated north into Canada’s channels of commerce. For some reason it seems rather difficult to find many Canadian coin collector forums, so finding my answer wasn’t as easy as simply Googling a few search terms and stumbling upon an answer.

Thankfully, my numismatic network is wide, and I knew where to start my search for answers. One of my coin collecting contacts is Jim MacKenzie, of the Saskatoon Coin Club in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He referred me to a few Canadian collectors who keep an eye on their pocket change for American coins.

One of these collectors is Kevin Day-Thorburn, who is an executive member of the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association (RCNA) and editor of its electronic publication, NumisNotes.

“I do find US coins in circulation and tend to pull them when I see them,” says Day-Thorburn, who collects U.S. coins. “Nickels, dimes, and quarters are all fairly common and they tend to be newer dates. To give an example on a small sampling of coins, the last time I did any coin roll hunting, I found 32 US nickels in $50 worth of rolls.”

Day-Thorburn lives in Saint John, New Brunswick, which is a small Canadian city about 50 miles beyond the border of Maine. He enjoys a variety of United States coins, but has a certain fondness for Lincoln wheat cents.

“I began collecting coins around the age of 10, and I distinctly remember some wheat cents being the most interesting to me. I’m not certain I have a favorite [U.S. coin] – it may be wheat cents because they’re still readily available and I really enjoy looking for varieties such as doubled dies and repunched mintmarks.”

Lincoln cents, along with Morgan dollars, are also a favorite of Canadian coin collector and novelist David Carpenter, who began collecting U.S. coinage in 2002.

“I find U.S. coins in my pocket change fairly frequently,” reports Carpenter, who has written more than a dozen books. “On average, perhaps 20 times per year, mostly pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. Once in a blue moon I will find an early Lincoln penny in Very Good or Fine [grade],” he adds, “but most of the pocket change is new materials. Old American coins are rare.”

Carpenter suggests the interest in collecting U.S. coins in Canada is relatively low, and characterizes the numismatic scene for American coins in the Great White North as something of a small niche.

“I know only a few collectors in my coin club who go after American material, and only one of them is as obsessed as I am to find quality coins,” Carpenter says. “Once in a while we strike gold in a private sale up here, but this is a rare and wonderful exception. The other collectors of American material go for the pocket change or mail order sales from the American mints.”

Buying U.S. coins from Canadian-based dealers also represents a challenge.

“I can find the odd dealer in American coins up in Canada, but only if I go to coin shows. Their coins are usually pretty sparse, and their key dates, if they have any, are usually in pretty rough shape,” Carpetner observes. “I’ve never shopped for coins online because I’ve read too many warnings about this. I rarely shop via mail order.”

Not surprisingly, he says he makes his best U.S. purchases in the U.S. Carpenter, who lives in Central Saskatchewan, enjoys taking a day’s drive south to North Dakota and eastern Montana, where there “are several good coin stores to be found just south of the border.” He says the large coin shows are where he makes his greatest finds.

“This is doubly true if I’m looking for key dates with nice eye appeal to round out my collection.”

Luck as a Function of Geography

According to National Geographic, about 75 percent of Canada’s 32.2 million people live within 100 miles of the United States border. However, most of the people living in the United States are more spread out across the land, with millions of individuals living in just about every major corner of the nation, with the exception of the relatively frigid state of Alaska and the far-flung island state of Hawaii.

It makes sense that Canadian coins circulate relatively well in Central Florida due to the large number of visitors from Canada. But how often do Americans find Canadian coins in the northern United States, closer to our nation’s border with Canada? What about out West?

Michigan State Senator Steve Bieda is perhaps most well known to U.S. coin collectors for creating the reverse design for the 1992 Olympic commemorative half dollar. Representing his state’s ninth district in the Northern Detroit area, just a stone’s throw west of the Canadian border, Bieda finds plenty of Canadian coins in his pocket change.

“I can tell you off the top, the most commonly encountered Canadian coins in circulation in the Detroit area would be the Canadian one-cent piece,” he says. “I’ve noticed since Canada stopped using the denomination, the frequency of Canadian one-cent pieces have dropped dramatically. Although older issues, still appear in change,” he remarks, recalling that Canada officially phased out production of its one-cent denomination in 2012.

5- and 10-cent coins are next in frequency. I’d say the smaller 10-cent Canadian shows up in slightly greatly frequency than the larger-sized smaller denomination 5-cent coin, which is the same size as the U.S. 5-cent coin,” he adds.

25-cent pieces occasionally show up in change, usually for the higher denominations people ask the teller for U.S. change. Every so often I find myself stuck with a 25-cent piece, which I put in a separate bank that I use for pocket change when I go to Canada every couple weeks.”

Bieda’s Canadian finds are just confined to the usual cent, nickel, dime, and quarter.

“Dollar coins do not circulate here, although I’ve had bank rolls of Sacagawea/Presidential dollars occasionally have a Loonie in it.”

What other coins from the Great White North does he find in Michigan?

Toonies, Canadian $2 coins, are not normally encountered here, although occasionally when a U.S. store runs a promotion in Canada (where they treat Canadian currency on par with U.S.) you will see them in store cash registers. Ditto for seeing them near the border left as tips.”

Bieda, who estimates that about one in every 75 coins he encounters in circulation hails from Canada, is an active collector of Canadian coins.

“I collect Canadian commemorative dollars, and have a decent type set of Canadian coinage. I also collect Canadian test tokens (used by the Royal Canadian Mint (RCM) to test coinage materials and production techniques),” he says. “I’ve been somewhat turned off by the sheer magnitude of special non-circulating coins being issued by the RCM, which has lessened my interest in Canadian coinage in general. I do like the modern circulating commems issued periodically by Canada though, and I try to obtain them when they are released.”

While Bieda has relatively little trouble finding Canadian one-cent pieces and other denominations in Michigan, the situation is quite different for my fellow CoinWeek writer, David Schwager, who lives in southern California. While he doesn’t consider himself a collector of Canadian coins, he’s well aware of that few seem to pop up in circulation where he lives near Los Angeles.

“I used to search rolls, and a typical $25 box of 2,500 circulated U.S. cents would have about one Canadian cent. A $100 box 2,000 nickels usually had less than one per box,” he explains. “Not many appear here in the Los Angeles area so far from the border.”

Schwager’s daughter also notices how scarce Canadian coins seem to be in southern California’s circulation channels.

“A few years ago my daughter, about nine at the time, was excited to find what she called a “Queen Elizabeth quarter” in a Coinstar reject.”

It’s no wonder the sight of a Canadian quarter would delight his daughter, because according to Schwager, it’s the one-cent coins from Canada that normally appear in circulation.

“One-cent coins are the most common because of the similar composition (depending on the year),” he says, comparing the remarking on the compositional similarities between older Canadian cents and U.S. one-cent coins. “I’ve seen a few nickels and quarters, but can’t remember seeing a dime.”

One might note the contrast in Schwager’s comments here to the observations of Bieda, who said Canadian dimes appeared in circulation in Michigan perhaps more frequently than Canadian nickels do.

Meanwhile, Schwager says recent changes to the Washington quarter series may be opening doors for more Canadian quarters to enter circulation.

“Because of the many different U.S. quarter designs since 1999, it is easier for quarter-sized foreign coins to get into the U.S. stream unnoticed than it used to be.”

Tipping the Toque to Canadian Coins

My longstanding love for Canadian coins came from exposure to the nation’s coinage since I can remember. I’ve lived in Florida virtually all of my life, and it seems Canadian coins, especially one-cent coins, were popping up in my allowance change every once in a while. My own experience in searching through rolls of one-cent coins and nickels, something I’ve written about here at CoinWeek, provides me with some raw data to share with readers again. While looking through a $25 box of pennies from my local bank, I found seven Canadian cents ranging in year from 1955 through 1998.

Meanwhile, my search through a $100 box of nickels yielded just one 1984 Canadian nickel.

I wouldn’t say my Canadian circulation finds have been extraordinary, but it’s nevertheless fun to find and collect coins from Canada that appear in U.S. circulation. I save all Canadian coins I pull from circulation, and I’m always on hunt for those older King George VI coins, like the one I recently found and is mentioned near the start of this article. Of course, I could always improve my chances of finding some more great Canadian coins in circulation by taking a trek to Michigan or Nova Scotia, or just patiently wait out finding one again here.

Oh, how I love finding Canadian coins… Oh, Canada!

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  1. I live in Montreal and have a large collection of USA circulation coins (300+) (among my Canadian and world collection). I find US coinage quite often in charge. I received my first USA $1 President coin as change at a parking lot in the Old Port in Montreal, but makes sense as it is a tourist area.

    I also cycle vending machines for special Canadian circulation coins and found the last America the beautiful quarter (Guam) I was missing here in a Montreal suburb.

    We travel to both up state New York and Vertmont for family vacations and always work hard to find quarters I am missing for my collection in circulation and a few coin stores.

    My best Canadian find in the USA was a medallion that was given to addenties of Pierre-Elliott Trudeau’s Primisiter Dinner in March 1969 for a $1 USD.

    It’s a shame the USA has not embraced their beautiful $1 coins with their great design and I could then find them in circulation instead of buying them from coin collectors at a higher cost..

    • Hello, Grant!

      Your comments are appreciated. Yes, the U.S. $1 dollar program offers many interesting collecting opportunities, and it is therefore unfortunate these coins don’t circulate as well as they could.

      As you know, part of the success behind the Loonie dollar coins circulating so well was the withdrawal of Canadian $1 notes in the late 1980s. Unless and until a similar scenario unfolds in the states, dollar coins will likely at best experience only novel usage within mass-transit circles and among stores that specifically promote their usage.

      It sounds like you have an expansive US collection! All the best to you with your future circulation finds!

      Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez
      CoinWeek Feature Contributor


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