The History of Coinage: Ancient Times to Now

Monday, February 25, 2013 - 9:25am

Coins have a good feel in the hand and produce a nice jingle in the pocket. They have been giving those that have held them a sense of security for centuries. For many, coins are a fascination that quickly becomes a full-blown hobby of research and collecting. There are many options for acquiring collectable coins which speaks to the worldwide and historic demand for them.

Why collect coins?

The highest demand comes from simple and/or sophisticated hobbyists. Most of them just enjoy the act of search and collect. More focused collectors see an investment in the future of coins marked by historic value and scarcity. There are also coin hoarders who grab and store with no special interest other than the spending value of the coins. And, then, there are speculators who buy coins for their precious metal content and a potential short-term gain. 

What do you know about coins?

  • In the beginning, mankind bartered (or killed) for things desired. Rocks, birds, spears - whatever - were traded for something of value. Because that proved a little subjective and inconvenient, tribes eventually settled on relying on specific commodities, like salt, spices, or jewels and metals.

  • As trade routes settled into civilized towns, it made sense to issue a standardized and regulated commodity called "currency," and the system grew as civilization spread between 5000 and 700 BCE. The Lydians apparently were the first to mint coins, and as the custom spread to other states, values were assigned to certain sizes, shapes, and metals in coins. Alexander the Great would spread the idea of coins engraved in honor of gods and heroes to the lands he conquered. 

  • Rome continued the tradition of portraiture on coins. The popularity of engraving historic figures and events remains today. As Rome eventually came under the power of Christianity, coins began to carry the images of church figures, saints, and people from old and new scripture. 

Fields of research are dedicated to the history and preservation of coins, as well as studies of coins of countries and cultures with narrower focuses of themes, images, and language.

Minting in ancient times

Even in the earliest times, if you go by the coins, they were minted with care. After all, they needed to be durable, mobile, and convenient. The minters had to produce blanks of a consistent weight and composition. And, they needed precision tools for marking or striking the coins.

  • In the earliest days of standardized coinage, blanks were formed by pouring electrum (a combination of gold and silver) into pre-shaped molds. There were positive and negative dies, and, once the blank is placed between the dies, the top is struck by a hammer.

  • In the Renaissance, silversmiths invented a screw press to replace the hammer. It pressed two plates onto the metal to desired thickness. It was not long before they could automate the feed with roller-mills and metal punches. 

  • The Industrial Age brought coin presses operated by lever, steam, and, finally electricity. The mechanics of a "toggle press" allows several hundred circulation coins to be produced per minute has evolved into fast moving presses and feeders in place today. 

Probably the most endearing part of coin collecting is the hunt, and the US Money Reserve can be a great source to find that desired piece.



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