Collecting US coins can be a rewarding hobby. Learning about history through coinage is perhaps one of the most efficient ways for people of all ages to enjoy history while holding something tangible which actually might rise in value over time. Beginning collectors often try to collect a type set of United States coins, might purchase Mint products to keep up to date with modern issues, or may simply buy some coins here and there because they enjoy the particular design. But after a while most (aspiring) collectors seek to make their collecting a little bit more structured or challenging.
Like many beginning collectors you might decide to focus on small cents, which will also be the focus for this article, but the general outline applies to any other denomination or series as well. Why small cents? First of all, they are well known, as most every American young or old has used them frequently in their lifetime (whether we like it or not). Second, the majority of later cents can be taken straight out of circulation for face value or in uncirculated condition usually for a little bit more, which can make it an inexpensive denomination to collect. And finally, with continuing discussion about the discontinuation of the cent, we might see the denomination eliminated within our lifetime, which would most likely lead to increased interest in collecting cents (just like in 1857, when the large cent was replaced with the small cent, which more or less started modern American numismatics).
Since small cents have been produced for circulation for over 150 years there are plenty of possibilities to collect the little fellows. Most of these sets, however, might seem daunting to the beginning collector, with perhaps the exception of the modern memorial cents (a full set of circulation strike coins still requires 104 coins, plus 50 Proofs). A full circulation strike set of Lincoln wheat cents requires 144 coins, of which two are well-known key dates and many others are very tough in higher grades. Indian Head Cents are even more difficult, although there are only a few true key dates, and a set is relatively easy to complete in lower grades, but anything higher than Fine requires intensive searching and deep pockets.
Fortunately enough for the beginning collector, one does not have to follow any certain path when it comes to coin collecting. This means that custom sets can be created without problems, adjusted to be in your price range and at a difficulty level that you know you can tackle. Coin collecting should be fun and one of the things that makes it fun is how much room there is to adjust your collection to your own wishes. That said, I’d like to make a few suggestions as how small cents can be collected, some of which might be familiar to you but perhaps others are new ideas. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any other ideas!
Collecting one per date
This is a method that is generally well known, but which only actually reduce the extent of a small cent collection after 1908, since prior to that only the Philadelphia Mint struck small cents for circulation. In such a collection, mint marks are disregarded and you only acquire one coin for each date. This means that for years where there are particularly tough issues, such as 1909 and 1914, you can choose to acquire the more common coin of that year. Although this type of collection would be easier to assemble than a full set by date and mint mark, early dates will still be tough in higher grades with original mint red surfaces.
Collecting one per type
This is another relatively well known type of collection, but which is open to a little bit more interpretation. Such sets are included in both the PCGS and NGC set registry, both a little bit different from each other, and perhaps neither of the two are exactly like you would like them. To me, such a small cent set would include a few more coins, simply because the general appearance of a 1959 Memorial Cent and 2006 Memorial Cent is so much different. That said, a basic small cent type set could include a Flying Eagle Cent, an Indian Head Cent, a Wheat Cent, a Memorial Cent, a Lincoln Bicentennial Cent, and a Shield Cent.
Most collectors, however, would also like to include the different metal varieties and reverse varieties of the Indian Head Cent, as well as a 1909 VDB cent and a Wheat Cent without VDB initials. To go even further one might decide to include other more minor varieties, such as without VDB on the shoulder and with VDB on the shoulder (the change which was made in 1918). Finally, one might even decide to include the different metal varieties, such as the 1943 steel cents, the cents struck from shell cases with brass around WWII, which often have a different color than earlier and later wheat cents, and the modern copper coated zinc cents.
Collecting one per decade
This set is more or less a combination of the two. It would include one coin from the 1910s, one from the 1920s and so on. With such a collection one would slowly see the small differences as the Indian Head and Lincoln Cent designs changed over time, including the different types automatically. Once again it is open to ones interpretation what coins such a set should consist of, yet it is still a very interesting set to work on.
These are just three ideas how to collect small cents, and obviously there are many more. You could decide only to collect first year of issue coins in your small cent type set, or to include one of each mint for each of the different types. Small cents and many other series are suited quite well for such collecting decisions, and this is exactly what makes coin collecting so much fun.