Isn't it amazing how much we take for granted on our coinage?
Virtually every coin we encounter has a date, Mint mark, denomination, designs on two sides, edge reeding and denticles about the circumference.
How many people ever think about if some of these devices were removed from our coins. Would it really matter? How did some of these devices get to become part of the coins we are so used to seeing jingling in our pockets.
Dates did not always appear on coins. It wasn't until the 13th century that the first European coin displayed a Christian date. Dated coins didn't become a commonplace item in circulation until the 16th century. Even such early Colonial American coins as the Lord Baltimore issues for Maryland were struck undated. Massachusetts's Pine Tree shilling coins had their date "frozen" at 1652 regardless of when the coins were struck to get around an English law forbidding further production of the issue after that date.
Christian dates have always appeared on U.S. federal coinage due to a stipulation in the Mint Act of 1792. At the time this act was passed dating of coins served the purpose of making counterfeiting more difficult. If a coin was identified to have been counterfeited in large numbers it would be easy to isolate the year on the bogus coins and either find the culprits or withdraw the issue. (No issue has ever been withdrawn in American history for this reason, although 1933 $20 double eagle coins are illegal to own because of a presidential proclamation forbidding gold ownership during that year.)
Dates on coins were also handy when precious metal was used in circulating coins. The Assay Commission would meet to check samples of the annual coinage to ensure it had the proper weight and metal purity as required by law. Once again, had these coins not met the proper standards it would have been easy to identify and withhold the issue from circulation.
In the world of today where coins have been relegated to non-precious metal composition, the original needs for dating them has become passe. Can you imagine the uproar from collectors if modern countries including the United States decided to stop dating coins to discourage collecting and hoarding!
The need for a Mint mark follows similar reasoning. The ancient Romans not only identified the Mint of issue, but the workshop within the Mint as well. Now, that's quality control! Had anyone tried to purposely debase coins during that period their head would likely have been on the block.
Likewise, many medieval European coins identify the moneyer who struck them for the same reason. It is documented that in some countries stingy moneyers paid the price for debasing the king's coins.
Today, just as with dates, the Mint mark is no longer a necessary part of most circulating coins. It helps to bring more interest to collecting, but such a device no longer has a true function.
We take it for granted that there will be a design on the obverse and reverse of each coin. Originally this wasn't true when coinage was invented in sixth to seventh century B.C. Asia Minor. At first merchants produced coins with various scratch and identification marks on one side. This evolved first into a uniface coin with true design element on the obverse and a punch mark from where the blank had been placed on the anvil for the reverse.
Coins later evolved to include a true reverse design, again initially to make it more difficult for counterfeiters. It was later realized that in a non-technical and semi-literate society that designs on coins could be used as a communications and propaganda tool. It became handy to show a ruler or deity on one side of a coin with propaganda news telling you what a swell guy the local tyrant who made your life miserable really was.
How many people look at their pocket change today and remember the propaganda history lesson we get every time we look at George Washington on the obverse of the quarter dollar. How many people realize the eagle on the reverse was borrowed for our national heraldry from the personal heraldry of the same guy.
Edge reeding and circumference denticles were introduced to deter counterfeiters and clippers in an age when our coined money was made of precious metals. People had the bad habit of clipping a small (and hopefully undetectable if they valued their hands) amount of silver or gold from the edge of a coin, then spending the coin as always. Once you accumulated enough gold or silver from these clippings you could visit the local Mint and arrange to have more coins made. Edge reeding and circumference denticles brought this nasty habit to a screeching halt. Both continue as design elements today, but have no true further function.
Is our coinage redundant? Not really, but our coins are great examples of how inventions become taken for granted but continue to be used long after their original function is no longer necessary.
As coin collectors let's hope no government ever gets the bright idea of removing dates from coins simply because collectors remove too many of them from circulation.
Richard Giedroyc is a numismatic writer, researcher, auction cataloger and coin dealer. He has been in the hobby and business most of his life, now having more than three decades’ experience in this fascinating hobby field. During this time Giedroyc has been the owner of Paris Bergman Galleries, owner of Classical Coin Newsletter, international editor of Coin World and owner of Giedroyc-Anderson Interesting World Coins. He is currently a numismatic consultant. He has written more than 2,000 byline numismatic stories and contributed to several coin catalogs.