It’s becoming increasingly rare, but once in a while it is possible to find interesting coins in your pocket change. Professional and amateur coin collectors tend to snap these up so the coins are taken out of circulation, and many of the most interesting coins are aging and damaged.
I do not use cash on a daily basis, so it’s infrequent that I can sift through pocket change looking for circulated versions of the more rare coins. Here are a few things that are still common enough to find in pocket change, although I haven’t had much luck with any of these.
Although I occasionally consider myself an amateur coin collector, the fact that I have very few of the below proves that this is not a hobby that I’ve put a lot of effort into. I don’t use cash enough to be able to sift through a significant amount of change. I’ve occasionally picked up boxes of coins from the bank for sifting, but it’s rare that I find anything that’s not already accounted for in my Whitman coin collecting holders.
1. Mercury dimes. From 1916 through 1945, the front (obverse) of the dime featured the profile of a woman representing the concept of liberty. The wings on her cap evoke the image of Mercury, the Roman god of commerce. The back (reverse) of the Mercury dime features fasces, symbols of strength in ancient Rome, with an olive branch, symbolizing peace.
I have no Mercury dimes in my collection.
2. Buffalo nickels. In 1913, the nickel was redesigned to feature the profile of a Native American on the obverse and an American buffalo (bison) on the reverse. So far, even with sifting through a box of nickels from the bank, I’ve only come across one buffalo nickel. But if you have more luck than I have, you may come across a 1936 or 1937 coin in which the buffalo is depicted with three legs rather than the expected four. This variety is rare and would be worth money, perhaps $1,000 in exceptional quality.
The buffalo nickel was replaced by the more familiar Jefferson nickel in 1938.
3. Wheat cents. To honor the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, in 1909 the cent became the first coin to depict an American politician. Victor D. Brenner designed the obverse of the coin using a portrait of the former president as a guide. In that first year of the new design, one version of the coin included the designer’s initials on the reverse. If you find V.D.B. on the reverse of a 1909 coin, it could be worth from a few dollars to over a thousand.
When I was six or seven years old, I had a book of wheat cents almost half full. Unfortunately, some time in the past three decades I misplaced that book. Now, I have only a few wheat cents in my collection.
The wheat cent was replaced by the familiar Lincoln Memorial cent in 1959. The obverse remained the same but the reverse received a new design.
There are other interesting coins out there. In fact, there are errors and varieties within the above categories that increases their interestingness, and in some cases, value. But even a casual collector has a good chance of coming across Mercury dimes, buffalo nickels, and wheat cents if paying attention.
Updated January 26, 2011 and originally published December 7, 2009.