A History of Transitional Coinage
Since the United States Mint began operations in 1792, the designs and compositions of coins have been in constant flux. There have been regular adjustments to the aesthetic and physical properties of our coinage, resulting in a fascinating category known as transitional issues. Put simply, transitional coins were intermediate steps between two major designs or formats. While the Mint tried to cleanly end production of one coin design before starting the new one, there are instances of holdovers, overlapping years and coins that share elements from both versions. This article will highlight some of the most interesting, valuable and collectible examples of this phenomenon.
In the mid-1850s, the US Mint decided to reevaluate its two copper denominations: the half cent and the cent. The former was in the process of being discontinued, as inflation had rendered the half cent unnecessary for day-to-day commerce. By contrast the one cent piece remained a vitally necessary coin, but the decision was made to reduce its copper content (and size). Thus, in both 1856 and 1857, the United States Mint produced both a “large cent” and a “small cent.” The large cent, produced since 1793, was between the quarter and half dollar in diameter. It derived its size from the copper tokens that circulated in America in the 18th century. By the 1850s this was deemed to be an excessive amount of metal, so the “penny” was eventually shrunk to its current size. Rather than completely discontinue the large cent before rolling out the smaller version, both formats were released in 1856 and 1857, making for an interesting and highly collectible set of transitional coins.
In other cases, multiple designs were produced in the same year. Examples include the Liberty and Buffalo nickels, which were both struck in 1913. There is one major difference between the two: a 1913 Buffalo nickel is a common coin (readily available for under $100) while the 1913 Liberty version is one of the most valuable and prized numismatic rarities. Only five specimens are known—some have traded for multiple millions. Perhaps a more affordable example of multiple designs struck in the same year would be the 1909 Indian and Lincoln cents, the 1916 Barber and Mercury dimes, the 1916 Barber and Walking Liberty half dollars, and the 1921 Morgan and Peace dollars.
Not all transitional issues have major design changes—some have very subtle differences. In 1853 and 1873, for example, the weights of the dime, quarter and half dollar were adjusted slightly due to spikes in the market price of silver. The Mint felt it was important to disclose these changes but did not want to drastically modify the coins’ designs. Instead very minor design elements were added. The post-adjustment 1853 coins show rays around the eagle on the reverse, while the modified 1873 issues display arrows on both sides of the date. These With/No Rays and With/No Arrows transitional coins have become extremely popular.
Whether they are multi-million dollar rarities or inexpensive items, transitional coins are highly desirable and collectible issues. Due to their interesting backstories, they are among the most popular of United States coins.