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What’s that letter “P” doing on my cent?

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This week, I thought we’d take a break from the Seventy at Seventy pricing history series and have a quick look at a bit of a break with longstanding numismatic history.

In celebration of the Philadelphia Mint’s 225th anniversary, they are placing their mintmark “P” on the Lincoln Cent for the first time. In fact, it’s the first time the “P” mintmark has ever appeared on our longest-running denomination. Let’s have a look at what led up to this landmark move.

The Philadelphia Mint began operations in 1793, striking copper half cents and cents, as the bond amounts the coiners were required to post in order to strike gold and silver coins were too high. Not until they were lowered the following year did the coinage of silver half dimes, half dollars and dollars begin. Gold coinage would have to wait yet another year.

For the first 45 years of its operation, all U.S. coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, which by 1833 had moved to a second, larger facility. With the discovery of gold in the southeast portion of the country (Georgia and the Carolinas), it was decided to open several branch mints – in part to avoid the dangerous transportation of large amounts of gold bullion by stagecoach over long distances.

So, in 1838, the first three branch mints went into operation. Mints at Charlotte, North Carolina and Dahlonega, Georgia struck quarter and half eagle gold coins, and a mint in New Orleans was opened and began by striking silver half dimes, dimes and a few half dollars. In the following year gold and other silver denominations were struck in New Orleans as well.


A group of our first mintmarked coins: an 1838-O Half Dollar and 1838-D & 1838-C Half Eagles

All three of these coins displayed a mintmark above the date on the obverse. Beginning in 1840, and for most of the next 140 years or so, the mintmark would be located on the reverse of the coin. An exception was the Lincoln Cent (beginning in 1909) that placed the “D” or “S” mintmark beneath the date on the obverse.

While all the branch mints, of which there were eventually six – including San Francisco (1854), Carson City (1870) and Denver (1906) – were required to place mintmarks on their coins, the original mint in Philadelphia did not use a mintmark. It was not until the silver nickels (made during WWII) that the "P" mintmark first appeared. This was done so that the new composition nickels could be distinguished from the older ones. A very large mintmark was added above the dome of Monticello on the reverse.


The first appearance of the "P" mintmark was on the silver "War Nickels" of 1942-1945

After the war ended and the nickel went back to its pre-war composition, the large mintmark vanished, and Philadelphia returned to making coins without a mintmark. Philadelphia would not mark their coins again for another 34 years, until the Susan B. Anthony Dollar appeared with a small "P" mintmark to the left of her portrait in 1979.


The 1979 SBA Dollar marked the return of the "P" mintmark for the first time in 34 years

Following this, in 1980 the floodgates opened, so to speak, and the "P" mintmark was added to all circulating denominations except the humble Lincoln Cent.


1980 marked the appearance of the "P" mintmark on most of our circulating coinage

For the next 37 years, the Lincoln Cent continued as our only non-mintmarked coin, but this year, in honor of the 225th anniversary of the mint in Philadelphia, they are adding the "P" mintmark to the cent for the first time ever. It will vanish again in 2018, perhaps never to be seen again.

According to the Mint's Director of Corporate Communication, Tom Jurkowsky, the new cent will be included in the 2017 Mint sets, and collectors should not pass up this opportunity to get this one and only "P" mintmarked cent likely ever to be issued.

Coin Collecting: Basics

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