Coin Collecting's Mass Appeal
by Ed Reiter
In America’s formative years, coin collectors were almost as rare as the coins that they collected. In the young United States of the early and mid-1800s, most people found themselves working long hours, raising large families and generally far too busy for diversions such as coins.
In the late 1850s, U.S. coin collecting got a big boost from a small cent. The nation’s first small-size “penny,” the Flying Eagle cent, was introduced in 1857 as a replacement for the pure-copper “large cent” that had been a staple of U.S. coinage since 1793. The changeover triggered a burst of interest in the older, now-obsolete coins as thousands of Americans started to examine them more closely and set them aside by date.
The hobby grew steadily after that, but for three-quarters of a century it remained the province of dedicated specialists. According to a survey taken in 1900, there were just 21 full-time and part-time coin dealers in the country at that time and the American Numismatic Association, then not quite 10 years old, had only about 300 members. Today, by contrast, it has about 32,000.
In the early 1930s, coin collecting finally took root among the masses – thanks, ironically, to an innovation spawned by the Great Depression.
Millions of Americans turned to inexpensive pastimes to help them cope with the stress of those desperate years, occupying their idle hours with movies, crossword puzzles, miniature golf and other cheap forms of entertainment.
A Wisconsin entrepreneur named J.K. Post came up with a simple idea to serve this widespread need: He produced 11-by-14-inch heavy cardboard holders with die-cut holes in which all the U.S. coins of a given type and series could be displayed. Using coins from pocket change, the owners of these “coin boards” could then try to assemble complete sets – one for each date from every mint.
Coin boards launched many thousands of new collectors and laid the groundwork for much greater growth yet to come.
That growth began to accelerate during the 1950s, when postwar America found itself with more disposable income, more spare time and a zest for the leisure activities that World War II restrictions had curtailed.
Proof sets of U.S. coins, previously sold in very modest numbers, became hot items when the U.S. Mint resumed their production in 1950. They got even hotter as the decade wore on. In fact, their rapidly rising sales served as a barometer of the growth of the hobby as a whole: 51,386 in 1950 … 611,500 in 1955 … 1,149,291 in 1959.
Sales of proof sets peaked at just under 4 million in 1964. The following year, the hobby took a hit when silver was removed from the quarter and dime and drastically reduced in the half dollar. With worthwhile coins quickly disappearing from circulation, many collectors lost interest and drifted away.
The 1970s witnessed a fundamental shift in the marketing of coins. The emphasis moved from relatively inexpensive modern issues to older, much scarcer coins. Instead of just collectibles, they began to be treated as investments, and the new breed of buyers – many of them new to numismatics – stressed not only rarity but also top quality in making their buying decisions.
Truly rare coins in “mint-state” condition have dominated the marketplace since then, with a solid base of traditional collectors continuing to pursue more affordable coins and series.
That base has broadened exponentially since 1999, when the U.S. Mint introduced its 50 State Quarters Program. Under that program, the Mint began issuing special Washington quarters at the rate of five per year to honor the 50 states in the order they joined the Union.
The coins, which bear designs emblematic of the states, have become enormously popular not only with collectors but also with many millions of non-collectors. In 2007, as the program was edging close to its completion, the Mint estimated that 140 million Americans – almost half the total population – had collected all or some of the coins.
That figure no doubt includes a great many people who simply set aside one or two coins with personal meaning – perhaps home-state quarters. Still, there’s no question that the state quarter series has made Americans far more aware of the coins in their pockets and purses – and far more receptive to joining the ranks of coin hobbyists.
If they do, they’ll have plenty of company.
Ed Reiter is senior editor of COINage and executive director of the Numismatic Literary Guild. Reiter wrote weekly numismatic columns in the Sunday New York Times for nearly a decade.