On August 7, 1959, a new penny went into circulation in America to honor the sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. This penny still bore the same likeness of Lincoln that had appeared in 1909, but the reverse side now featured the Lincoln Memorial instead of the old wheat design.
Historians disagree on when and where the first coins were minted. Some suggest China, some Mesopotamia, some Asia Minor. Wherever the idea developed, it served a much-needed purpose: to replace bulky and perishable commodities as a means of barter. Prior to this innovation, different cultures made exchanges and measured wealth in items such as salt, cattle, and cowrie shells.
Coinage in America
Not surprisingly, the necessity for coins was taken for granted early in America’s history. Immigrants, merchants, travelers, and others introduced coins from all over Europe when they visited the original thirteen colonies. These coins circulated freely, without regard to their country of origin, but Spanish silver dollars (called “pieces of eight” because they were valued at eight reales) predominated.
It was not until the American Revolution began, however, that Americans began to talk of minting their own coins. The Continental Congress approved plans to mint a silver dollar, but nothing came of it. The fledgling states were too short on funds to take any action at that time.
The first public building constructed under the new Constitution, however, was a mint—the first mint in Philadelphia.
Current Mint Facilities
The United States Mint became part of the Department of the Treasury in 1873 and is headquartered in Washington, D.C. It operates mints at Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, and West Point, and keeps a bullion reserve at Fort Knox.
The mint at Philadelphia is the oldest of the U.S. Mint facilities. Besides producing circulating coins, it is also responsible for manufacturing the dies used to mint coins. In addition, the Philadelphia mint makes Congressional medals and collectible, commemorative, and uncirculated coins.
The mint at San Francisco opened in 1854 to meet the demands of the miners. It also served as a temporary bank in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. This mint does not produce circulating coins, but proof sets and commemorative coins.
The Denver mint opened in 1863 after gold and silver discoveries drew people to the area. The mint is still a storehouse for precious metals today. It also manufactures dies and collecting coins, although its primary role is to mint circulating coins.
The mint facilities at West Point were built in 1938 for the purpose of storing silver reserves. This role changed as the nation’s bicentennial approached. Because the other mints would be required to produce bicentennial coins in addition to the usual circulating coins, West Point took on part of the workload and began minting pennies in 1973. The next year it starting striking bicentennial quarters. After the bicentennial celebration was over, West Point began to strike gold medallions and coins, finally becoming an official mint in 1988. Today the West Point mint is still used to store precious metals, but it also strikes proof, uncirculated, and commemorative coins.
The Adaptable U.S. Mint
The U.S. Mint has come a long way since that first mint in Philadelphia was built. Over the years, it has molded itself to the needs of America — from its founding to supplying a growing nation to modern times. In a sense, its history is the story of America as a whole.
History of the Lincoln Cent
From the U.S. Treasury.
Historic Highlights Timeline
Timeline from the U.S. Mint from the time the Mint was created to the issue of the first curved coin in 2014.
Mint and Other Coin Production Facilities
Where they are and what they do from the U.S. Treasury.
Distribution of Currency and Coins
How the U.S. Treasury decides what we need when.
How Coins Are Made
How coins are minted. Explanation from the U.S. Mint aimed at kids.
The History of Money
Concise look at the various forms money has taken from PBS/NOVA.
United States Mint
A look at the mint in Philadelphia.
Including the metals that make up each coin.
How many coins do you need to make the correct amount to purchase an object? Interactive from the U.S. Mint.
Inside the U.S. Mint
Interactive from the U.S. Mint that explores the various mint locations.
Major U.S. Coins in Circulation
Lots of information and activities from EnchantedLearning.com.
Simple interactive from Harcourt where students add the coins in two sets and compare them.
Choose your currency and level of play at FunBrain.com, and then see if you can correctly make change for the item purchased.
Welcome to the One Dollar Store
Interactive where you purchase an item with exact change — all under $1.
Lincoln Cent Folder 1941-1974
These folders have been around for a very long time, and present an easy, inexpensive, and fun way to collect pennies from each mint from each year. A 1975-2013 folder is also available.
Robinson Crusoe’s Money by David A. Wells
A story by a former U.S. Special Commissioner of Revenue to illustrate in a simple way the ABCs of money and currency. A fun read with a purpose.
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
An Introduction to Coins
Lesson plan from the U.S. Mint for younger students learning about the penny, nickle, and dime.
Adding Pennies, Nickles, and Dimes
Lesson plan from the U.S. Mint for younger students that builds on the one above.
Story Hour With Lincoln
11-page unit study download from the U.S. Mint for younger students that uses a 2010 penny to learn about the man on the front. Nice printables included.
Pots of Coins
Cute lesson plan at LakeShoreLearning.com that uses a story to learn how to count coins.
Counting on Coins
Hands-on lesson plan hosted at the University of Houston that uses coins to practice skip counting.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
Coloring page from the U.S. Mint — great for notebook!
Coloring page from the U.S. Mint featuring the Lincoln Memorial back.
Money & Coins Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.