If you’ve ever taken a good look at the coins that pass through your hands each day, then you’ve probably noticed there’s a lot to see. Obvious features will likely catch your eye first, like portraits of presidents and historical figures, and illustrations of landmarks. Coins also often contain quotes and phrases with significance to our country and its values. If you look closely, however, you’ll also notice less obvious details, like much smaller numbers and letters that, at first glance, don’t appear to mean anything.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the mint mark — one such small and seemingly insignificant detail that appears on the surface of most coins, both the everyday coins we use in our daily lives, and the rare and commemorative coins we might keep in our collections.
What Is a Mint Mark on a Coin?
A mint mark is a way to easily identify where a coin originated. While all coins originate with the U.S. government, they don’t all come from the same geographical location. The U.S. Mint is headquartered in Philadelphia and has been since it struck the very first U.S. coins there in 1793, but this isn’t the only mint in operation in our country today. As the country has expanded and demand for currency has grown, new branches and locations of the U.S. Mint have popped up around the country. Today, there are several official mints operating in the U.S., while others have since shut down.
Naturally, as more minting facilities and locations sprang up around the country, it became necessary to establish a way to determine which mint a coin came from. This is where the coin mint marks come in. Mint marks are tiny letters that appear on the coin’s surface, with each letter, or set of letters, corresponding to a specific mint. If you are familiar with these marks, you can use them to easily learn where a coin originated, simply by spotting and identifying the mint mark.
While we’ve only talked about mint marks in the context of U.S. coins, it’s worth noting that they aren’t specific to the U.S. currency only. Countries around the world and throughout history have also used mint marks to trace their coinage back to its place of origin. While every country has their own sets of identifying mint marks, they all essentially function in the same way that ours do.
What Is the History of the U.S. Mint Mark?
While mint marks are an easy method of identification, and a source of fascination for collectors and historians, this wasn't really the original purpose of mint marks. Instead, the U.S. Mint originally used them as part of their quality control system.
In the earliest days of the U.S. government, there was only one minting facility located in Philadelphia. However, other locations began to open not too long afterward, meaning that the government needed a way to ensure each facility was producing coins of the same quality. To gain this assurance, the U.S. Mint mandated that every facility other than the central hub at Philadelphia put their facility’s mark on the coin.
Every year, each location would send a sample of their coins to the Mint headquarters in Philadelphia. Here, officials would evaluate the coins from the different sites and check to make sure each coin was the correct thickness, diameter, weight, and composition. If any coin did not pass inspection, the officials had an easy way of knowing exactly which mint it came from.
These quality checks were crucial in years past when coins were made from precious metals, and their value was based on the amount of metal in the individual coin. The specifications had to be exact to make sure each coin had the correct value. In the present day, as technology has improved, and coins are no longer made of precious metals, we don't need to rely on mint marks for quality control. Instead, the Mint continues to use mint marks more as a matter of tradition than functionality.
How Do You Recognize a U.S. Coin Mint Mark?
It’s easy to pick out the mint marks on coins once you know what you’re looking for. To find the mint mark on a coin, start by ignoring the images and any long, complete phrases. Instead, focus on what you’re looking for:a single letter, or a set of two lettersif the coin came from Carson City (CC).
The letters should be set apart from any other writing or phrasing, and they may even look out of place — like they’re not a part of any other design or motto. If you’ve found this letter, then you can use it to identify which mint the coin originated from.
Where Is the Mint Mark on a U.S. Coin?
Looking to find the mint mark on one of your coins? Keep in mind that the location of U.S. mint marks on coins will be different for every style and denomination of coin. Here is a quick guide of where you’ll find the mint marks on the most common types of U.S. coinage:
- The Lincoln Penny: You’ll find the mint mark on a Lincoln Penny on the obverse, which is the “heads” side of a coin. Look just below the date to find the mark.
- The Jefferson Nickel: On a Jefferson Penny, look at the date on the obverse. On coins minted after 1968, the mint mark will always follow directly after the date.
- The Roosevelt Dime: On dimes minted in or after 1968, you’ll find the mint mark directly above the date on the obverse.
- The Washington Quarter: If the quarter dates after 1968, the mint mark will be at the four o’clock position on the obverse. Look just behind the ribbon in Washington’s hair, and you’ll spot it.
- The Statehood Quarter: Find the mint mark on the obverse of a statehood quarter just below “In God We Trust.”
- The Franklin Half-Dollar: On the reverse or “tails” side of the Franklin half-dollar, find the mint mark between the two bolts at the top of the Liberty Bell’s wooden yoke.
- The Kennedy Half-Dollar: The mint mark on the Kennedy Half-Dollar has changed locations over time. On coins from before 1964, you’ll find it on the reverse just beneath the eagle’s left talon. On coins dating from 1968 to the present, you can find it on the obverse just above the middle numerals of the date.
What Are the U.S. Coin Mint Marks?
There have been many different mints in operation in the United States over the course of our history. Some are still open today, and others have long since closed, but each of these mints has or had a distinctive mark that they stamp into the coin to identify it as having originated in that facility. Here are each of the eight different mint marks you might find on your coins:
- C: If you see a tiny letter “C” on your coin, it means the coin originated at the mint in Charlotte, North Carolina. This mint mark is quite rare, and you can only find it on gold coins that were minted between 1838 and 1861.
- CC: The “CC” mint mark denotes a coin from the mint in Carson City, Nevada. You’ll find it certain gold and silver coins minted between 1870 and 1893.
- D: Originating in Dahlonega, Georgia, this mint mark appears on certain gold coins minted between 1838 and 1861.
- D: Confusingly enough, there is a second “D” mint mark. This second one comes from the mint in Denver, Colorado, and it doesn’t show up until 1906.
- O: The “O” mint mark appears on coins that came from the New Orleans, Louisiana mint. These coins appeared in two separate waves, with the first wave consisting of gold and silver coins minted from 1838 to 1861, and the second wave coming after the Civil War on gold and silver coins minted between 1879 and 1909.
- P: This is the mint mark from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but there are several important caveats to note regarding it. While this mint has been operational for over 200 years, this mint mark has only been in use since 1942. Even after that, it didn’t appear on all Philadelphia-minted coins until 1980, when it became standard to include it on every coin greater in value than one cent.
- S: Coins marked with an “S” mint mark come from San Francisco, California. The mint has used this mark on coins of every type since 1854. In recent years, this mark has become nearly synonymous with proof coins, which largely originate in San Francisco.
- W: The “W” mark comes from the mint in West Point, New York. While this mint has been running since 1937, it didn’t use this mark until 1984, when it minted the $10 Olympic gold coins. Now this mark and this mint are mostly used for commemorative and bullion coins.
Today, there are only four branches of the U.S. mint in operation, and they’re located in Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, and West Point. This means for any newly minted coin you acquire, it will have the mint mark of one of these four mints. Any mint mark other than these four will belong to a historic coin.
While you can identify mint marks by examining your coins directly, there’s also a correct way to list them in writing. When reading about coins or browsing coin listings in a catalog, you’ll see the mint mark noted alongside the date. For example, you might see a coin listed as 1908-O. This code means the coin dates to 1908 when it was minted in New Orleans. This is the standard method for writing out this crucial information.
Why Are Some Coins Missing the Mint Mark?
What if there is no mint mark on a coin? Are you just looking in the wrong place, or not looking hard enough?
If you can’t find a mint mark, it probably isn’t because you just aren’t looking closely enough. Instead, you’ve probably stumbled across a coin that was genuinely minted without a mint mark. A coin that lacks a mint mark may sound impossible since we’ve just explained how important it was for coins to have this identifying mark. Despite this near-universal rule, however, there are a few exceptions you might come across.
1. Coins Minted From 1965-1967
If you’ve ever found a coin from 1965, 1966, or 1967, you may notice it doesn’t have a mint mark. The reason for this deficit is because during the 1960s, the United States was experiencing a coin shortage. The cause of this shortage was silver hoarders, who would remove silver coins from active circulation and hoard it, but the government at the time wasn’t aware of this problem. Instead, they theorized that coin collectors were responsible. To discourage coin collectors from removing coins from circulation, the government elected to remove all mint marks from coins.
The practice didn’t last long, and the government restored the mint marks in 1968. For every coin minted during those three years, though, it remains impossible even today to tell which mint the coin originated from.
2. Philadelphia Coins
Philadelphia was once the only location for the U.S. Mint. Even after other sites opened, Philadelphia remained the headquarters. Because it was the default site for the U.S. Mint, and it was where other mints sent their coins for evaluation, Philadelphia did not have its own mint mark. Rather, these marks were used to distinguish coins from other mints. For many years, if a coin didn’t have a mint mark, it was simply an established fact that this was a coin from Philadelphia.
It wasn’t until 1980 that Philadelphia gained its own mint mark. While the “P” mark appeared on a select few coins before this year, almost all coins coming from Philadelphia before 1980 did not have any mint marks at all. Additionally, Lincoln cents minted in Philadelphia continue to use no mint mark to this day.
Why Are Mint Marks Important for Collectors?
While anyone can appreciate the history that comes with mint marks, these tiny marks carry a much larger meaning for coin collectors. The knowledgeable coin collector can often use these marks to help determine the rarity of a coin. To see a prime example of how a coin collector can use this information, let’s look at the 1894-S Barber Dime.
The 1894 dime, known as the Barber dime, is not valuable in most cases, as the U.S. minted huge numbers of them that year. Over a million of them were minted in Philadelphia alone. Over 500,000 were minted in New Orleans. However, only 24 such dimes were ever minted that year in San Francisco and have the “S” mint mark. Because of this scarcity, the 1894-S Barber dime is incredibly rare and valuable today. By looking for this mint mark, a coin collector can tell the difference between a coin that’s worth over a million dollars and a coin that’s just another ordinary dime.
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