A Brief History Of Coins
The history of coins can be a little murky, because so many coins have been found across the globe. Traditional opinion names the Chinese as the first to widely use cast coins, beginning around the 11th century B.C. The Shang Dynasty minted copper coins to use as currency, to replace the traditional shell currency. Many of these coins were stamped with characters from the Chinese language. Some fantastic examples of these ancient Chinese coins still exist in private and public collections.
The history of coins used primarily as currency in the Western world usually begins by mentioning Lydia, the neo-Hittite civilization that arose in the 12th century B.C. Coins dating back to around 643 B.C. in that region were found made of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver. These coins are generally considered the first real use of metal for money, because they were guaranteed by the Lydian rulers, and were manufactured consistently.
Since then, coins have held the attention of the major civilizations of the world and been traded for goods and services throughout the world.
During the fifth century B.C., the Greeks began to commission classical artists to design the faces and figures on their coins. They typically used the deities so prevalent in their mythology, depicting them as idealized versions of humans. Collectors of these ancient treasures claim that Greek coins are among the most beautiful, with their statuesque depictions of gods, goddesses, and mythical heroes.
Alexander the Great propagated the use of coinage in his conquered realms, and instituted the practice of using realistic designs on the coins instead of idealistic representations. These realistic portraits stand out as some of the only true renderings of the ancient leaders of yesterday. Indeed, coins from this point forward can often be used as an historical primer, as they typically honored the political leaders of any given time.
The forerunner to the modern die method, the planchet method for coin production was implemented by the Italians around the 16th century. Up until that time, coins were mainly hand-struck with hammer and anvil. The punch method made it practical and feasible to produce larger quantities of coins, and the practice quickly spread throughout the civilized world.
It is thought that the first coins in North America were minted in Mexico City, following the Spanish Conquest of the New World.
In the United States, coins were officially minted beginning in 1792, with the passage of the Coinage Act. This act legalized the United States dollar as the official unit of monetary exchange throughout the states, a standard which still stands today. The Philadelphia Mint was the first to manufacture US coins, starting in 1792 when it coined the US Silver Dollar. It was joined by the Denver Mint in 1906. The San Francisco Mint and the West Point mint also produce coins, mainly proof sets and gold coins. Each US coin is marked with a P, D, S or W, depending on the mint at which it is produced.
There are a number of hobbyists who collect only US coins, starting with the original silver dollars minted in the late 1700s, and right up to the shiny new coins being circulated today. Favorites include the Susan B. Anthony silverless dollar coin, the 1964 Kennedy half dollar, and the ever-popular State Quarters series, a big hit with the youngest collectors.
Because of the lasting power of the metals used to make coins, many very old and rare coins still exist today. And more ancient and not-so-ancient coins are constantly being uncovered thanks to formal digs and chance discoveries. For the collector of historic coins, these are exciting times!