Dr. Sol Taylor

Coin Collecting in the Old Days, 1937-45

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
The Signal
Saturday, December 2, 2006

y early coin collecting days started in 1937 when I bought my first coin board. Albums hadn't been invented yet. The so-called "penny board" had spaces for all the Lincoln cents minted to date, plus extra, blank holes for several more years.
    Just by sorting through change, mostly from my father's nightly assortment of coins from his meat market, I was able to fill almost every slot in less than a year.
    By 1939, I had only one hole to fill — the very elusive 1931-S. The other key dates, I managed to find: two 1909-S VDBs in change, and a 1914-D in the sand at Coney Island. I also found a 1909-S VDB in a roll of circulated 1919-S cents. I guess whoever put that roll together didn't have 20-20 vision or very good glasses.
    By 1940, I had several coin boards, including other series of coins up to the half dollar — all with coins found exclusively in circulation.
    In early 1941, I was perusing the coins in the window of Albert Fastove's coin and jewelry shop in downtown Brooklyn when I noted a new addition to the display: a tray filled with mint-fresh 1931-S cents marked at 45 cents each.
    Apparently he had recently purchased a roll or two of these scarce coins and was offering them for sale. I picked out the nicest one and filled my missing slot. I proudly showed my mother the now completed coin board. She asked where I find the last coin. (I always told her when I filled a slot when I found a coin.) This time I had to admit to actually buying a coin.
    She asked how much it cost me. I told her, "45 cents." She looked aghast and tried to grab my penny board away from me (and spend all the coins at the market).
    I ran into the dining room and hid it under the middle leaf of our dining room table. In those days, 45 cents was a big price, especially for a lowly penny.
    By 1945, I had several friends who also were filling holes in their coin boards. My friend Ruben Spring offered me $7.50 for an uncirculated 1931-S cent, which at that time had a catalog value of $10. I sold it to him. When I told my mom how much I sold it for, she asked how much had I paid for it. When I said, "45 cents," she proclaimed, "So, how come you didn't buy more?" Moms are all alike.
    Collecting coins in that era was fortunate, since the Great Depression forced many coin hoards of the 1920s to come into general commerce.
    My dad often brought home such scarce coins as the 1897-O Barber dime, 1901-S Barber half, 1896-S Barber quarter, many 1931-S buffalo nickels, several 1921-(P), -D and -S half dollars, and about 90 percent of all the coins in the current coin boards of the time.
    Since condition was not a factor in collecting coins from circulation, most coins in my collection would grade as Good-4 or less by today's 1-70 grading standards.
    Many people who hoarded the newly issued Mercury dimes (1916-45), Standing Liberty quarters (1916-30), Liberty Walking Halves (1916-47) and Buffalo nickels (1913-38) were forced either to cash them in at the bank or spend them. I would often buy rolls of coins at my bank — East New York Savings in Brooklyn — and find some of these new issues, including the scarce 1916-D dime, 1913 nickels and 1916 halves.
    I also had a few bank tellers who set aside certain coins I had told them about. I had a list of such coins in the coin booth at the subway stations I frequented. By the time I entered high school, all of my coin albums — now in use, since the coin boards became obsolete — more than 90 percent complete due to my search techniques.
    To get the obsolete coins, I was forced to buy them at various coin shops or by mail from Max Mehl or Ben's Stamp & Coin Co. in Chicago. My favorite New York coin shop was that of Hans Sergl at 147 Fulton St. in lower Manhattan. I would spend many a Saturday in his shop and after a few hours find a few 19th-century issues to buy. This included two-cent pieces, three-cent pieces, a few half cents, large cents and various seated Liberty coins of 1838-91.
    Mr. Sergl's typical day would see me pile up a bunch of coins from his various trays, and he would add them up. Invariably the total was under $2. I indicated that I had only a dollar with me and that's what I could afford that week. He would say, "OK, $1." Then I would add, I still need 10 cents for subway fare." He'd reply, "OK, make it 90 cents."
    Thus, for several years, my weekly purchase at Hans Sergl's shop was 90 cents. I even bought a trade dollar for 90 cents!
    Mr. Sergl's good nature and willingness to allow a kid in his tiny shop for hours at a time to spend less than a dollar gave me the impetus to become a lifelong collector and spend a million times over what I eventually spent at his shop in the "Old Days."

    Dr. Sol Taylor of Sherman Oaks is president of the Society of Lincoln Cent Collectors and author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Click here for ordering information.