All I Really Needed to Know (About Coins) I Learned from Early Copper

February 10, 2012

by Kevin Vinton (Sam Sloat Coins)

In his well known book with the familiar title “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” Robert Fulghum presents the argument that it is often the first and most basic lessons that are most meaningful for handling the problems and complexities of life later on. Although numismatics probably isn’t on the same level of importance as dealing with the deepest philosophical and emotional issues of human existence, I’ve found the same to be true of the way I’ve gone about making sense of coins and the science behind them.

Early copper (a category including U.S. Colonial Coppers, Large Cents, and Half Cents) might appear at first glance to be a very basic and maybe boring segment of U.S. coinage. These were the lowliest of circulating money at the time, and as such, not much effort was put into the design of the coins being particularly pleasing aesthetically and a very utilitarian approach was implemented for their design as well as production. As far as Half Cents and Large Cents go, they were all produced at just one mint,Philadelphia, up through being discontinued in 1857. So, there are no mint mark varieties or other mint peculiarities within the series to interest collectors. Despite all its seemingly mundane characteristics (or perhaps because of them), early copper became one of the first truly specialized fields of U.S. numismatics soon after coin collecting became a popular and mainstream hobby around 1860. Many collectors focused only on the early U.S. copper coinage, especially Large Cents, and it quickly became one of the most well-researched and avidly collected areas of the hobby. This wealth of information and research was accelerated by the formation of the Early American Coppers (“EAC”) coin club in the 1960’s and now EAC is recognized as one of the largest and most active specialized coin clubs.

This article will highlight 3 areas central to the study and collecting of early U.S. copper coins that have significance in almost any other part of numismatics. I am not saying that early copper is the only place to start to gain a well-rounded and informed grasp of these concepts. That is certainly not the case, as by now almost all series of U.S. coins are very thoroughly researched and offer much to their respective specialists as far numismatic skills go. For me, though, I’ve found these principals to be especially well-developed and easy to learn from in the realm of those big copper coins.

Die Varieties 

Most series of U.S. coins follow the following framework for how they are researched and collected: Within any given “type” there are specific “issues” which are coins with a unique date and mintmark combination. Beyond this, there are specific coins within these dates and mintmarks that might have some kind of diagnostic oddities and these are known as “varieties.” These varieties may or may not be included in what is considered a “complete” set of any given series. Let’s take Buffalo Nickels for example. The most basic way of collecting Buffalo Nickels, other than having a single type coin, would be by date and mintmark. Then there are a few major varieties, coins within these dates and mintmarks with peculiar die characteristics that are often times included in a date and mintmark set. Namely, the 1916 Doubled Die, the 1918/7-D, the 1937-D 3 Legs, and the 1938-D/S. Three of these four varieties carry hefty price tags, but it is not known for sure, and would be difficult to figure out, whether or not these die combinations are any rarer than any other die pairs within those given dates that do not have such distinctive or noticeable characteristics.

Within the early copper series, however, there is not such a mystery. For Half Cents and Large Cents as well as the State Coppers among other pre-Federal Coppers, every die variety is sought out and given equal status as far as categorizing goes, and therefore every coin is a “variety.” It isn’t just the more distinguishable dies that are paid attention to, but every difference from die to die is scrutinized and collected separately. The most well-known example of this kind of organization is the “Sheldon set” of early date Large Cents, 1793-1814. Even though there are only 22 different dates within this short set, there are over 300 unique die varieties that are all collected separately, each with their own number. So, for Sheldon collectors it is just as meaningful to say you have an “S-266” as you have an 1804 Large Cent. This is just one of the 300+ unique varieties in the series. Again, this sort of organization by die variety is not unique to early copper, as all series of earlyU.S. silver and gold and now, the Seated Liberty series are being collected this way. But, I feel die varieties are all the more noticeable in early copper and easy to pick up, so it’s a good place to start.

So what are the benefits of thinking about coins in this way – every one as a distinct die variety? Not only is it interesting to think about the relative rarity of different die pairs within lesser researched series and to scrutinize coins for minute differences within dates and mintmarks. Being familiar with die varieties and die characteristics has some more practical applications as well. The one I will mention here as it is an important topic nowadays in the hobby – being able to recognize counterfeits. One well-known numismatist was fond of saying, “Recognizing die varieties is like recognizing friends’ faces.” That means, even without nitpicking the tiny diagnostics on a coin to figure out which set of dies it’s from, you can recognize and remember the overall “look” of the coin and have a good idea which variety it might be. The same thing holds true as the best way to determine a real coin from a counterfeit, even as the fakes are getting better and better. It takes a long time looking at lots of coins and familiarizing yourself with die characteristics, but after a good amount of time spent examining real examples of any given coin, seeing a counterfeit will immediately look “off” and from there, examining the diagnostics closer will confirm it.

Die States

One of the further specialized areas of study that happened pretty early on in the field of early copper was the categorizing of die states. That is, within the course of any die pair being used to turn out coins, one can recognize the deterioration of those dies by certain characteristics on the coin’s surfaces. These characteristics are familiar to many and include die polishing lines, die cracks, die breaks (cuds), die rust, flowlines, and loss of detail due to die refinishing. Die states are avidly collected within many early copper series and rare states of certain varieties, even if the difference seems trivial, can carry large premiums for interested collectors. Probably the most well-developed research in die states is that done by Bob Grellman for late date Large Cents, 1840-1857. So much work has been done there that within one line in the Red Book, let’s say an 1849 Large Cent, you can collect 30 different die varieties and within each die variety as many as half a dozen distinct die states! While that kind of specialization may not be for everyone, there have been several coins from other series that have become famous and valuable even though they are merely distinct die states of a certain pair of otherwise uninteresting dies.

Probably the best example of this will take us back to Buffalo Nickels where the 1937-D 3 Legs variety (as well as the less popular 1936-D 3 ½ Legs) is merely a late die state example of a particular die pair that had the reverse overly polished resulting in the loss of one of the buffalo’s legs. Another example of a famous die state is the 1922 “no D” Lincoln Cent where the obverse die was used so excessively that the peripheries of the die became weak, flowlined, and certain details, including the mintmark, became indistinct. While these definitely are remarkable die states and deserve the attention they receive, it is interesting to think of them merely as late die state examples of probably very common dies. Not only this, but understanding especially these two varieties as die states will again aid the collector in spotting counterfeits or altered examples. That is, since they are both extremely late die states where the dies had deteriorated to a great extent, they will not only show the missing leg or missing mintmark, they will also show other signs of deterioration such as the flowlines and roughness on the obverse and reverse of the 3 Leg and flowlines and specific weak detail on the 22 no D. Looking for these things and understanding the stage of the dies will make authentication much easier and more intuitive.


If EAC, the club, is known for anything in the broader coin community it is for its’ unique, very strict grading style that is as heralded as it is controversial and oft-debated. “EAC Grading” is essentially a method of net grading, that is, starting with a grade for the sharpness of a coin or the amount of detail remaining and then subtracting from that grade a certain number of points for any problems or condition issues the surfaces show. These problems can include corrosion, scratches, rim damage, cleaning, repairing, etc. or any combination thereof. The difficulty lies in determining how many points to subtract for different problems as certain condition issues will have a different level of severity from grader to grader based solely on personal taste. Though for as many disagreements and variations in grades that there are, the one consistency is that the “EAC” grade of any particular coin will almost always be lower than “commercial” or “mainstream” grade of the same coin – not just slightly lower, but sometimes to the extent of a 20 or 30 point difference. I point this out not to examine the pros and cons of the EAC grading system, but to show that the reason the EAC net grades almost always come out lower than the accepted commercial grades is that EAC grading takes surface quality and eye appeal very seriously. It is this distinguishing between a coin that is low end, average, or very high end and premium quality for any given grade that I want to glean from the EAC system and apply to the numismatic market in general.

In some ways, the rare coin market has always taken the quality of a coin within a given grade into account when determining desirability and value. Sophisticated buyers will always not only consider the grade a dealer or grading company has assigned to the coin, but will make their own assessment and also consider their own personal preferences as for the appearance, toning, originality, etc. of any coin. The general coin market has only recently begun to try to categorize and standardize this distinction between coins that are low end and high end for the grade. The introduction of CAC to the hobby has been shown to be a very effective way to make this distinction as the prices asked and realized for coins with CAC approval very often best those without. The major grading companies followed suit with the introduction of “Plus” grading and the market responded to this as well. These changes have occurred fairly recently, over just about the past 5 years, but the research and cataloguing of early coppers within the EAC fold has made attempts at standardizing and distinguishing quality to an even greater extent for several decades now.

Some might say that the plethora of descriptors used in 3rd party coin grading – including Stars, Plus grades, Green stickers, Gold Stickers, etc. – are a bit much, but those specializing in early copper have been using an even more sophisticated and sometimes complicated system for a while now. CQR (Copper Quotes by Robinson) is the price guide created by EAC member and long time collector and researcher Jack Robinson. It covers Half Cents and Large Cents, is the standard price guide and an indispensable resource for those collecting these series by die variety. It not only lists exhaustive condition census information and prices for all die varieties in all applicable grades, it lists prices for as many as 5 (!) different levels of quality within every grade. There are coins on the low end with serious surface problems (termed “scudzy”), 3 levels of mid-range coins with moderate to light amounts of surface issues (termed “average -” “average” and “average+”) and coins with virtually no imperfections (termed “choice”). While this seems like a lot of categories, it makes perfect sense to try to format an accurate price guide this way to take into account the price differences attached to coins of varying qualities. Consider that for coins in any series, you will rarely see the same coin in the same “grade” realize the same price time after time. There will be differences, sometimes significant differences, from coin to coin based on the quality, originality, and eye appeal of each specific piece. The field of early copper has emphasized these differences for quite some time and the coin market in general and third party grading will continue to do the same, probably to even greater extent in the future.


There are certainly several other important ideas from the world of Large Cents and Half Cents that have import for numismatics broadly, but these three are probably the more significant. While it was the early copper field specifically that got me started on connecting these concepts to other areas of the hobby, the moral of the story is to find the area or series of coins that appeals to you, read and learn all you can about it, and see where it takes you. Having that specialized knowledge will better allow you to make connections, discern trends, and find patterns in other areas of numismatics and lead to a more stimulating and enjoyable hobby overall.

About Sam Sloat Coins

Kevin Vinton, numismatist at Sam Sloat Coins Inc. since 2009, specializes in Colonial and early Federal copper coinage. He is a member of ANA, EAC, C4, JRCS, and other organizations.

Established in 1961,  Sam Sloat Coins Inc. has long been recognized as one of New England’s oldest, largest and most reliable coin shops.  Located in beautiful Westport, Connecticut for over 50 years, Sam Sloat Coins is a true brick and click store. We maintain a full service, secure internet web site, an eBay presence with over 15,000 successful auction sales and a 1,200 square foot showroom filled with a most diverse and eclectic inventory. You will find our representatives at most major coin shows and conventions. We are members of the Appraiser’s Association of America, Westport Chamber of Commerce, American Numismatic Association, American Numismatic Society, Bermanian Guild of Numismatists and all major numismatic associations.

Located at 606 Post Road East in Westport, Connecticut we invite you to visit when in our area. Our store hours are 9:00 to 5:00 Monday through Friday, Saturday 10:00 to 3:00.

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