COINage Magazine|February - March 2021
R.W. Julian

Although numismatics was a lively hobby by the mid–1860s, there was little in the way of a national push towards increasing the number of people involved. Collectors simply became interested on their own and then struck out to see what could be found in the way of interesting coins.

Before 1860 most collectors obtained their coins in one of the three ways. The first was a tried and true method, still widely seen today. One simply goes through pocket change, looking for old or somehow special pieces. However, the onset of COVID–19 in the late winter of 2019–2020 has put a slight crimp in this method. Increasing numbers of people have turned to credit or debit cards to avoid handling coins or paper money any more than necessary.

The next method, widespread before 1960 and still in force, was to visit a local bank and obtain rolls of a favorite denomination, such as a dime or half dollar. The budding collector then simply examines the roll, pulling the coins of interest, and replacing the empty spaces in the roll with fresh coins.

The last method, also still in use, was to order proof and uncirculated coins directly from the Mint at Philadelphia though the other mints were no doubt contacted as well. Today, all such sales are handled by the United States Mint, the present name of the old Bureau of the Mint. This method has increasingly become a problem as the Mint seems intent on raising prices to the point that only the really wealthy can afford the more expensive products.

(There is a fourth method of obtaining coins, but this is an internal matter and does not really promote collecting as such. This option is by auction, whereby collectors can obtain needed coins to finish out a set.) Until 1916 the Philadelphia Mint sold proof coins to collectors and was, in fact, the only source for this material. Some large dealers might order a fair number of silver and minor proof sets, but gold was too expensive to have more than a few pieces on hand for sale.

Prior to 1858, the Mint sold individual proof coins, such as an 1857 half dollar, directly to collectors, but in 1858, Mint Director James Ross Snowden ordered that entire sets of proof coins be ready earlier in the year. Individual pieces could still be purchased, but the point was to cut down the labor involved in dealing with such requests. Today’s numismatic references claim that the 1858 Snowden order was meant to increase proof sales, but this was not the case. It was merely to hold down expenses; no premium was changed on proof coins, and the government lost money when all of the necessary costs were figured.

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