The Quick 10: 10 U.S. Coins You Won't Find in Your Pockets

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The change pocket of my billfold is full of pennies. Just pennies. I pilfer dimes, quarters and nickels for the vending machines at work, or sometimes parking meters. But pennies? I never use them. Half pennies would be even worse, so I'm really glad those went out of production more than 150 years ago. Here are a few more coins you're unlikely to find jingling in your pockets... and if you do, I'd definitely avoid using them in Vendoland, no matter how strong your Diet Coke craving is.

1. Large cent. Unlike the currency of most countries, our coins don't get larger with a larger denomination. That pesky dime just screws everything up. But it was even more out of order from 1793-1857, when the cent piece was about an inch in diameter. That made it slightly bigger than a quarter.

2. The half-cent. Production of this coin of little value was during the same time frame as the large cent - 1793-1857. It was made of pure copper and was just slightly smaller than the large cent. The 1797 variety had "Two hundred for a dollar" etched into it, which really puts it into perspective.

3. The two-cent piece. The two-cent piece had a run of less than 10 years "“ 1864-1873. Its design contributed to the coins we use today: it was the first piece of U.S. coinage to have "In God We Trust" on it. There was some talk of bringing the two-cent coin back during the 1970s, but it obviously went nowhere.

4. The three-cent piece. When there was a rare postage decrease in 1851, taking the price of a stamp from five cents to three, people demanded a three-cent coin. I guess they really believed in super-precise change. There were two three-cent coins, actually - one was called a three-cent silver, which was the lightest coin ever made by the U.S. It was even smaller than a dime and, in fact, was given the nickname "trime."

5. The half-dime. I know what you're thinking: "Um, you mean the nickel?" But no "“ the half dime was totally different. Made of silver, it was smaller than the dime and was doing just fine as our five-cent piece until people with investments in the nickel industry lobbied for coins to be created with their metal of choice instead. Their arguments were successful and the first nickel five-cent piece was minted in 1866. Since the half-dime wasn't phased out until 1873, that meant U.S. citizens had a couple of five-cent coin options for a few years. By the way, should you ever come across an 1870-S half dime, don't let that thing out of your sight. The "S" stands for San Francisco, and up until the late 1970s it was unknown that any of these coins were minted in San Francisco. They're extremely rare "“ selling one would net you at least $425,000, which is what the one discovered in 1978 sold for.

6. The 20-cent piece. If you find yourself in possession of a 20-cent piece, you're in luck. This particular coin was minted for an extremely short period "“ one of the shortest in American history "“ and was not very widely circulated. On top of that, it was minted in the Carson City Mint, which was only open from 1870-1893. So what does all of that mean for you? It means if you have one, your measly 20-cent piece could be worth a cool $460,000, which is what an 1876-CC piece went for just last year.

7. The three-dollar piece. There was a method to the madness of the three-dollar coin. You see, at the time, a stamp was a mere three cents. So with a three-dollar piece, people could easily buy a sheet of 100 stamps just by forking over one of these heavy gold beauties. It didn't prove to be very popular, though, and it was discontinued in 1889. Today, one is worth at least four hundred dollars and possibly up to $4,000,000 for an extremely rare 1870-S version of the coin. How rare? So far, only one is known to exist.

8. Stella. Then there's the four dollar coin, AKA the Stella. It was made when the U.S. was thinking about joining the Latin Monetary Union, a movement that was kind of like the creation of the Euro in modern times. All currency would contain a certain amount of silver or gold so it could be spent in any country and still have the same value. As you've probably noticed, the LMU fell apart after WWI and was never implemented. The Stella went with it. What I find most amusing about Stella's story is that when the whole plan went kablooey, the unused coins were sold to Congressmen as collector's items. You can imagine what a scandal it was when the coins showed up as jewelry on some of the most famous bordello madams in Washington.

9. Fractional currency. When times get rough, people hoard precious metals. We're experiencing that to a certain extent now. But during the Civil War, people refused to spend coins, believing the value of the metal might be worth more than the actual coin sometime in the near future. To try to counteract this, the government issued paper money in tiny amounts - three, five, 10, 15, 25 and 50-cent notes.

10. The Eagle. I think it's a good thing the eagle never really took flight "“ imagine how mad you would be when you discovered that a hole in your pocket caused you to lose $40. The eagle was a 10 dollar gold piece that was in circulation until 1933; there were also quarter eagles and double eagles. And if you think losing one of those would be bad, imagine if a denomination called the Union had been put into circulation "“ it would have been worth 10 eagles.

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August 16, 2010 - 1:26pm
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