U.S. Coin Trivia ! FAQ about US coins
Frequently Asked Questions about coins
“What is the origin and meaning of the phrase “E Pluribus Unum”?”
This phrase appears on every U.S. coin, and its story begins with the design of the Great Seal of the United States.
Shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of three—Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams—to design an official seal for the United States.
Jefferson wanted a depiction of “The Children of Israel in the Wilderness”; Franklin suggested a representation of Moses parting the Red Sea; and Adams wanted a picture of Hercules standing between two allegorical figures representing Virtue and Sloth. Seems they couldn’t agree, so they hired a Swiss-born artist named Pierre Eugene du Simitiere to come up with a compromise design. Du Simitiere combined the three themes, then added his own flourishes. Of course, they hated it.
Frustrated, they hired a Philadelphia lawyer named William Barton to come up with something better. Barton proposed a mishmash of symbols, including an eagle and crest on one side of the seal and an unfinished pyramid on the other. But that wasn’t right either. Finally, Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson stripped away everything except the eagle and the pyramid and added a shield over the eagle’s chest, an olive branch (symbolizing peace) in one of the eagle’s claws, and a bundle of arrows (symbolizing war) in the other. This is the seal that was finally adopted, and you can see it on the $1 bill.
In the end, two elements of du Simitiere’s original design did make it into the final seal: the all-seeing eye of Providence, which was placed atop the unfinished pyramid; and the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (“From Many, One”), which is printed on the banner the eagle holds in its mouth.
So, where did du Simitiere get the motto? Believe it or not, historians speculate that he borrowed it from the masthead of The Gentleman’s Magazine, a popular publication in the late 1700’s. The editors of the magazine, in turn, took it from “color est e pluribus unus,” a line in Virgil’s poem “Moretum” that “refers to making a salad.”
“When did the words “In God We Trust” appear on U.S. coins?”
Congress passed a law in 1955 mandating that all U.S. coinage bear the phrase, but the actual words “In God We Trust” first appeared on the two-cent piece back in 1864.[/su_spoiler]
“How did the motto “In God We Trust” originate?”
It all began on November 13, 1861.
With the nation embroiled in civil war, a small-town Pennsylvania preacher named N.R. Watkinson sat down to write a letter. It was addressed to Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln.
Rev. Watkinson was concerned that “recognition of the Almighty God” had been overlooked on the nation’s coinage. He believed that proudly declaring such recognition “would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism” and “place us openly under the Divine protection that we have personally claimed.”
The letter read as follows:
Ridleyville, Pa., Nov 13, 1861
You are about to submit your annual report to Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances. One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form in our coins.
You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were now shattered beyond reconstruction. Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation. What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words “perpetual union”; within this ring the all-seeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words “God, liberty, law.”
This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection that we have personally claimed. From my heart I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.
To you first I address a subject that must be agitated.
(signed) N. R. Watkinson
Minister of the Gospel
NOTE: The “all-seeing eye” Rev. Watkinson suggested is exactly the same used on the Nova Constellatio silver coinage of 1783 (and subsequently used on the Nova Constellatio copper coinage of 1785).
Exactly one week later, on November 20, 1861, Secretary Chase wrote the following letter to Mint Director James Pollack.
Treasury Department, Nov. 20, 1861
No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.
You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.
(signed) S. P. Chase
Chase declined to forward Rev. Watkinson’s more specific suggestions, but instead gave Pollack general instructions to devise a new motto without making any particular recommendations.
In a lengthy letter dated December 26, 1861, Director Pollack responded to Chase, suggesting that the most appropriate place for the new motto would be on the reverse of the coins, above the eagle.
At first the motto OUR TRUST IS IN GOD was suggested, but it contained too many letters to comfortably place on smaller coins. “We therefore, selected for greater brevity the words ‘GOD OUR TRUST’ which carries the same idea.”
Pollack had his staff prepare four pattern dies containing the proposed motto: reverses of the silver half dollar and ten-dollar “eagle” gold coins, with and without a scroll. The new dies were paired with the regular obverse dies and struck in both copper and the regulation metals (silver and gold, respectively). Thus a total of eight different GOD OUR TRUST pattern coins dated 1861 were struck.
With more pressing matters such as the financing of the war effort occupying his time, Secretary Chase had not responded to Director Pollack as of June 16, 1862.
On that date Pollack wrote to Chase noting that it was now time to prepare dies for the 1863 coins. Chase’s delay apparently accounts for the fact that no new dies were cut with the proposed motto in 1862—instead, a total of six patterns were struck using the same four motto reverse dies and new 1862 obverse dies. None were struck this year in gold.
1863 was a year of great experimentation at the U.S. Mint. Patterns were produced for the proposed copper one-cent, two-cent, and three-cent pieces, plus the ten-cent “postage currency” pattern, as well as other coins. A total of twenty-nine pattern coins bearing some form of the new motto were produced. In addition to the initial GOD OUR TRUST motto, GOD AND OUR COUNTRY was used on a two-cent pattern, and the ultimately adopted motto IN GOD WE TRUST appeared on two-cent, quarter-dollar, half-dollar, and dollar patterns.
As part of a long letter to Secretary Chase dated December 8, 1863, Director Pollack recommended the coinage of the bronze one- and two-cent pieces.
United States Mint
I also propose for your consideration the coinage of a two-cent piece, same material and double weight of the cent, and with such devices and motto as may be approved by you. This piece would be a great public convenience, and its coinage, in my opinion, should be authorized. The devices are beautiful and appropriate, and the motto on each such, as all who fear God and love their country, will approve. I prefer the “shield and arrows” to the “head of Washington” on the obverse of the coin. They are submitted for your consideration. If you approve the change of material, and the coinage of the two-cent piece, or wither, I will, if you direct it, prepare a supplement to the existing laws, to be by you submitted to Congress for their action.
Director of the Mint
Chase consented and Pollack drafted proposed legislation, which was later passed as part of the Mint Act of April 22, 1864. Chase approved the pattern two-cent piece with the shield design and motto IN GOD WE TRUST.
“What is the difference between Proof and Uncirculated coins?”
The method of manufacturing. Proof coins are specially made for collectors, distinguished by sharpness of detail (due to their being stamped twice) and, usually, a mirrorlike surface with frosted design elements. Uncirculated coins are those coins produced for general use but not yet put into circulation. They show no signs of wear; however, they may show “bagmarks” or contact marks and may lack some luster.
“What was the first coin minted in the United States?”
The silver dollar was minted in Philadelphia on October 15, 1794. Total mintage was 1,758, with no Proofs. The coin was designed by Robert Scot and had a metal content of 90% silver and 10% copper. The edge of the coin is lettered HUNDRED CENTS ONE DOLLAR OR UNIT with various ornaments between the words. There is no mintmark, as all dates of this type were struck at Philadelphia.
“What year was the dollar established as the official currency of the United States?”
“Why do some U.S. coins have ridges around the edge?”
Perhaps you noticed that U.S. dimes, quarters, half dollars, and silver dollars have ridges, or grooves, around their edges. They were not put there for decoration, but had a very important purpose at one time in history.
During our country’s earlier years, all coins were made of gold or silver, and did not have ridges. Each coin’s value was based on the amount of gold or silver in it. For example, a $10 gold piece contained ten dollars’ worth of gold, and silver dimes contained ten cents’ worth of silver.
But some dishonest people sought to make an illegal profit from these coins. They filed bits off the edges and sold them for their value in gold or silver. On the smaller-sized coins it often went unnoticed, but this dishonest practice decreased the value of the original gold or silver coin.
To prevent this, the government began milling, or grooving, the edges so a coin could easily be identified if it was trimmed.
Coins today are no longer made of pure gold or silver, but the milled edges remain on most of them because people are accustomed to seeing them that way.