Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

The Coins of my Childhood

We don’t use coins anymore. Not really. Most people today look at coins more as an inconvenience than as legal tender for purchasing goods. Maybe that is because the cost of everything has gone up so much that there aren’t many things that can be bought just with coins anymore. Coins are heavy and fill up pockets. Who wants that? I think the day will come when coins aren’t used at all. We aren’t far from it now.

As a kid, coins were worth a lot more than they are now. As a matter of fact, in the early 1960’s in the town I grew up in, it was rare for any of us to have paper money. Our allowances were generally anything from a nickel a week up to about a quarter, and measured by what we could buy with it. A penny could get you a piece of gum or a pack of Lik-M-Aid at the A&W root beer stand. Pictured below is the kind of penny we used back then, the Wheat Penny. It was made from 1909 until 1958. We of course used the more common with the Lincoln Memorial on the back too.

The Wheat Penny (1909–1958)

For a nickel, we could buy a pack of baseball cards (or football, depending on the time of year). A nickel could also buy 5 packs of Lik-M-Aid or 5 pieces of gum. It could also buy a bubble gum cigar. The most common nickel was the traditional one with Jefferson’s likeness on the front, but almost as common was the Buffalo Nickel. I always found the Buffalo Nickel more fun to look at and I was more likely to keep it because we all knew they didn’t make them anymore.

The Buffalo Nickel (1913–1938)

Once we were in possession of a dime, the purchasing power rose somewhat dramatically. A dime would net the owner a small root beer at the A&W root beer stand, 2 packs of football or baseball cards, or a small candy bar. The Roosevelt Dime was the the most common type of dime, though it was not that unusual to have a Mercury Dime either. We could trick smaller kids into giving us dimes in exchange for nickels because we told them nickels were worth more because they were bigger. Once the moms in the neighborhood got wind of that, the ruse was up. The Mercury Dime was replaced by the Roosevelt Dime in 1945, the year that Franklin Roosevelt died.

The Mercury Dime (1916–1945)

Quarters were level up from pennies, nickels and dimes. Quarters were the lowest denomination of the top tier of coins, and there were no major changes in the design during these years. They all had George Washington on the front, and a bald eagle on the back for as long as I can remember. There was a Standing Liberty quarter made prior to 1932, but I don’t remember ever having one. With a quarter, you could buy a pack of baseball cards, a small root beer AND a candy bar. You could plunk one into a pop machine and get an icy cold bottle of Coke (in a glass bottle). It was a lot of purchasing power for a single coin. Diamond Jim Brady never had it so good, or so it seemed to us when we had a quarter to spend. A quarter would net the owner a large root beer at the A&W, a sure sign of conspicuous consumption. The smart money, however, was to buy 2 small root beers on separate orders. By doing this, we got just as much root beer for 5 cents less, AND we avoided sales tax because we knew that a 1-cent sales tax kicked in if your purchase was over 13 cents.

We may have been young, but we were financially savvy.

The Franklin Half-dollar (1948–1963)

The high rollers among us would flash a half-dollar coin whenever they got the chance. THAT was serious money, and it was the rare day that any of us had one. These coins were big, so big that you could not plug one into a pop machine or a candy machine. They were too big to use for a coin toss too. More often than not, they also lasted for more than a day. It was easy to blow through a dime or two on a summer afternoon, or even a quarter, but with a half dollar, there was almost always dime or two, or a few nickels and pennies, leftover to be carried forward to another day.

The Liberty Half-dollar (1916–1947)

Before 1963, there were 2 types of half dollars in circulation — the Liberty Half and the Franklin Half. The Liberty Half was minted from 1916 to 1947, and the Franklin Half was minted from 1948 until 1963. One was a common as the other. I remember having more Franklin Halves, but liking the look of the Liberty Half more. Then on Nov 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and by January of 1964 the first Kennedy Halves were being minted. Jacqueline Kennedy wanted JFK’s likeness on the half-dollar because she did not want him to replace George Washington on the quarter. Ben Franklin quickly became yesterday’s news and production of the Franklin Half ceased immediately. Everyone rushed to get one of the new Kennedy Half-dollars, and in time the Franklin and Liberty Half-dollars disappeared from circulation.

The Peace Dollar (1921–28, 1934–35) and the Morgan Dollar (1878–1904)

Silver Dollars, while not unheard of, were unusual for us to have. The Peace Silver Dollar was minted until 1935. There was no replacement either, so the number of silver dollars in circulation was not great to begin with. These coins were the stuff of Christmas or birthday presents. They were a novelty. My maternal grandfather gave me an 1885 Morgan Silver Dollar as a present. Not knowing how rare this coin was, I simply did what any young boy would do — I spent it. I still regret that, and I wish someone had stopped me. My paternal grandmother gave me a 1922 Peace Dollar, which I kept until I gave it to my son a few years back. Those are the only 2 silver dollars I can recall having as a child. As I said, they were somewhat rare, and not terribly practical, at least not for a kid.

1965 — The Year That Changed Everything

In 1964, the price of silver had climbed so high that the value of the silver in coins was worth more than the coin itself. People had begun to hoard coins for their silver, and it cost the government more to strike a coin than what the coin was worth. This hoarding caused a coin shortage as people kept the silver coins in hope that the price of silver would keep climbing.

The Coinage Act of 1965 was passed to resolve this situation. The Coinage Act eliminated silver from dimes and quarters, and replaced it with copper and nickel. This resulted in a copper rim on the ribbed outside. The Kennedy Half-dollar had its silver reduced from 90% to 40%, and in later years the silver was taken out altogether. It too had the copper rim. As kids we thought it looked cool, and we all wanted the new coins. In a short time, our old friends the Buffalo Nickel, the Franklin Half-dollar and the Liberty Half-dollar disappeared from circulation, only to be found in the displays of coin collectors.

Today? Meh.

Coins have changed much since those hot summer afternoons where we tossed Mercury Dimes and Buffalo Nickels on the counter for a root beer or a pack of football cards. In the years that followed, coins seems to become less important, and the designs stabilized. Pennies didn’t change hardly at all, and to be honest, I am not even sure what a “modern” penny looks like. So too with the nickel. I have seen the nickel where Jefferson’s face is turned slightly, and the retro Buffalo Nickel, which simply looks as stupid as a modern drive-in restaurant with waitresses on roller skates. Half dollars? They stopped making those for circulation in 2002. Today they are only made for collector sets. There were a number of ill-fated attempts to resurrect the dollar coin. There was the Susan B. Anthony coin. There was the Sacajawea coin. I even have a John Quincy Adams dollar coin in my largely disorganized coin drawer. At the end of the day, no one really wants a dollar coin, and the attempts to resurrect it were almost painful to watch. I think they would have had as much luck putting Disney characters on those coins.

Today I still keep my eyes open for old coins when I get change. It’s been many years since I have found any silver coins. I still get an occasional wheat penny, and about a year ago I was shocked to find a 1907 Indian Head penny. But other than that, the only old coins I see now are in the display cases in antique shops and on the web pages of coin collectors. Like so many other things, they have become exhibits of a childhood lived long ago.

I am a teacher in an alternative school and work a small hobby farm in southeastern Wisconsin with my wife Kathy.

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