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December 18, 2014

Cha-ching! United States coins

Welcome to a new series on The Final Wager: Fact Primers. In each installment, I’ll lay out some basic facts on something that might be useful either for Jeopardy! or for general life, with tips to help you to keep them straight – and readily accessible in your mind.

Dime, quarter, nickel, penny: for this first entry, we’ll take a look at U.S. coins in current circulation.

First, two terms you should know about the faces of a coin. The obverse is the front; typically, it features a profile of a famous person. The reverse is the other side.

Also, the formal name for coin-collecting is numismatics, which has a long derivation going back to the ancient Greek nomos, custom.

Without further ado, let’s get to it!

United States coin images from the United States Mint.

One-cent coin (1¢)

Obverse: Reverse:
Abraham Lincoln
2014 penny obverse proof
Union shield
2014 penny reverse proof

Not only does the penny (technically called the one-cent coin) have the largest circulation of any U.S. coin, its obverse design is the longest unchanged: over 100 years with minor tweaks. Since 1983, it has been composed of a 99.2% zinc interior covered by copper plating. The FJ! in Brad Rutter’s Million Dollar Masters quarterfinal suggested the zinc industry was “up in arms” over the proposed elimination of the penny.

From 1959 to 2008, the reverse featured the Lincoln Memorial; at that time, it was the only coin for which the same person appeared on both sides.

In 2009, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, a special series with four scenes from his life played on the reverse.

The penny actually costs more to make than it’s worth: 1.83 cents in 2013. This means it has a negative seigniorage, defined the difference between the coin’s cost and its face value.

Mnemonic: The penny can buy anything from Abe to Zinc.

Nickel (5¢)

Obverse: Reverse:
Thomas Jefferson
2014 nickel obverse proof
2014 nickel reverse proof

The nickel got a makeover in 2009, with a three-quarters profile of Jefferson replacing the side view. This profile is based on an 1800 portrait by Rembrandt Peale, when Jefferson was Vice President.

His home, Monticello, graces the back. In 2004-2005, it was replaced with scenes from the Lewis & Clark expedition to mark the excursion’s bicentennial. The present five-cent piece, therefore, is called the “Return to Monticello” nickel.

This coin is 75% copper and 25% nickel. At 1.75 mm, it has the greatest thickness of any coin other than the half-dollar and dollar, and a smooth edge.

Mnemonic: We might not have a buffalo nickel if Jefferson hadn’t sent Lewis & Clark out west.

Dime (10¢)

Obverse: Reverse:
Franklin D. Roosevelt
2014 dime obverse proof
Torch, olive branch, oak branch
2014 dime reverse proof

Whenever I think of the March of Dimes, for some reason I think of the torch on this coin’s reverse, as if people are leading an overnight journey. Indeed, FDR founded the March of Dimes in 1938 to fight polio, a disease from which he suffered, in children. (It’s since moved on to other causes for children.)

It’s also the smallest coin, for whatever reason, but that doesn’t stop it from having 118 notches, or reeds, along its edge. Reeding prevented counterfeiting in the time when coins were made of gold and silver.

The dime, the quarter, and the half-dollar are all 91.67% copper and 8.33% nickel.

Mnemonic: FDR founded the March of Dimes.

Quarter (25¢)

Obverse: Reverse:
George Washington
2014 quarter obverse proof
2001 Vermont quarter reverse proof

In 1999, the “50 State Quarters” program began. Five times a year through 2008, a new state would have a reverse minted in its honor, in order of admission to the Union.

That resulted in a $3 billion seigniorage profit for the U.S. Mint, so they kept things rolling. In 2009, D.C. and United States territories got their own quarters; now we’re on to the “America the Beautiful” series, which features five different national parks or sites each year. That will continue through 2021.

In 2015, we’ll see quarters for Homestead National Monument (Nebraska), Kisatchie National Forest (Louisiana), Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina), Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge (Delaware), and Saratoga National Historical Park (New York).

From 1968 to 1999, the reverse design was an eagle, with the exception of 1975-1976, which had a drummer for the nation’s bicentennial.

The quarter has 119 reeds along its edge, one more than the dime.

Mnemonic: When Washington became our first President, we had only a quarter of today’s 50 states.

Half-dollar (50¢)

Obverse: Reverse:
John F. Kennedy
2014 half-dollar obverse proof
Presidential Coat of Arms
2014 half-dollar reverse proof

Now rarely seen in the wild, the half-dollar is one of two coins that has been minted every year since the U.S. Mint was founded in 1794 (the penny being the other). The only place I’ve found half-dollars are at casinos so that the dealer can pay out a blackjack on an odd-dollar bet (e.g., $15 -> $22.50), but even then, they’re an unusual sight.

Why is that? One big answer: slot machines. Now that most slot machines are electronic, half-dollars are almost worthless. They’re too bulky to be of any use and vending machines generally don’t accept them. The Mint only prints collectors’ editions these days, because they have such a large inventory from past years.

The half-dollar has 150 reeds, and is the thickest coin in circulation, at 2.15 mm.

Mnemonic: JFK was shot halfway through his first term. Too bad he didn’t have a shield to protect him.

Dollar (100¢ or $1.00)

Obverse: Reverse:
2014 penny obverse proof
Native offering
2014 penny reverse proof

There are two versions of the golden dollar. The first came out in 2000, 19 years after the Susan B. Anthony dollar was removed from circulation. Its obverse features Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who served as guide and translator Lewis & Clark, carrying her first child, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.

The reverse changes from year to year; those minted in 2014 show “a Native American man offering a pipe while his wife offers provisions of fish, corn, roots and gourds,” and has a compass in the background showing NW.

2015 reverse
2015 dollar coin reverse line art
2016 reverse
2016 dollar coin reverse line art

2015 and 2016 will feature Mohawk Ironworkers and Navajo Codetalkers.

Mnemonic: Dollar coins are so heavy Sacagawea has to carry them over her back!

The other coins are part of the Presidential $1 Coin Program; a president (deceased at least two years) is on the obverse, while the Statue of Liberty graces the reverse. On the edge is E PLURIBUS UNUM, the year of minting, and the mint marker (see below).

Obverse: Reverse:
Dead President
2014 penny obverse line art
Statue of Liberty
2014 penny reverse proof

Both dollar coins are 77% copper, 12% zinc, 7% manganese, and 4% nickel.

Mint markers

You’ll often notice a letter next to the year on a coin. That’s the mint marker – it tells you where the coin was minted. “P” stands for Philadelphia, while “D” stands for Denver. (Unmarked coins are made in Philadelphia.)

San Francisco (S) and West Point, New York (W) also have coinage mints, although you don’t generally see their output in circulation; they’re mostly for collectors’ coins.

  1. I thought I remember reading somewhere (probably Wiki, so take with a grain of salt) that the Presidential dollar coin program was effectively dead due to low use, but they’re continuing to make them for collectors.

    That being said, I didn’t know they were coming out with new dollar coins in ’15 and ’16…or that the Sacagawea dollar got a new reverse.

    Hey, I like this series! When game theory gets too heady for me, this will be a nice change of pace.

  2. Karl permalink

    “Reeding prevented counterfeiting in the time when coins were made of gold and silver.”
    Not at all. Reeding is trivially easy for counterfeiters to replicate. It’s there to discourage clipping—scraping (stealing) precious metal without noticeably defacing the coin. These days, it serves the function of distinguishing coins by feel, specifically for blind people.
    That anti-counterfeiting canard is wiki detritus, endlessly repeated without checking sources.

What do you think?