Dr. Sol Taylor

Kids Collecting Coins in the 1930s

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, August 18, 2007

oin collecting as many people understand it today is very different from coin collecting among us senior citizens who were active in the 1930s (and earlier, for some really old-timers).
    My first coin board — albums were a few years away — was purchased for 10 cents and was for Lincoln Cents. The board had spaces for coins all the way up to 1940.
    I started filling the holes from coins my dad brought home from his meat market, from change at the store, and from exchanging dollar bills for coins at the trolley terminal at Hegeman Avenue and Bristol Street. It was easy to fill most slots in the beginning, and by 1939 or so, I had only one hole left to fill: the elusive 1931-S. I found a 1909-S VDB right in front of my house, in the gutter. Yes, I still pick up coins from the street to this day.
    I found another 1909-S VDB in change at Schwartz’ candy store on Bristol Street. And I managed to find a third one in a roll of 1919-S cents I bought from a coin dealer for about 65 cents (for the whole roll). I guess people back then didn't use magnifiers when they assembled rolls of dated coins. My 1914-D cent — the only one I ever found — was picked out of the sand at Brighton Beach, Bay 4, Coney Island, around 1939. It was pitted but had a clearly readable date. I sold it to a dealer in Whittier, Calif., many years later for about $10.
    The stopper was that 1931-S cent. I visited a few coin shops in those days, and my second-choice shop was Albert Fastove's on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. My favorite was Hans Sergl on Fulton Street in Manhattan. One Saturday I looked in Fastove’s window and saw a tray of shiny, mint-condition 1931-S cents for 45 cents each. Since I resolved that I would never find one in change, I broke down and paid 45 cents for it and finally filled the last hole in my board.
    By that time, around 1940, I had several coin boards up to the half dollar and was well on my way to filling all of them right from circulation. My only coin-dealer purchases were obsolete coins such as half cents, two-cent pieces, large cents, and other 19th-century coins.
    The coin boards were giving way to the newer, three-page coin folders at the end of the decade, and my coin boards were being replaced as my main coin holders. The new folders had beveled slots so that when you pressed in a coin, you felt it snap into place so it would not easily fall out.
    The fault with the boards was that many coins easily fell out when the board was tipped forward. In addition, the early albums had glue strips in the slots so you could also moisten the glue and literally glue your coins in place — not a very good numismatic idea, and it accounts for so many coins with black stripes on the reverse today.
    However, as I found so many of my Barber dimes, quarters and halves in circulation, usually in the lower grades, it hardly mattered if my coins were even taped into place — some very worn pieces had to be taped or they would not stay put. Today, as some of these old collections come to light, coins with traces of tape and black stripes are reminders of that era of novice collectors.
    The highlight album of the era was the three-page "Type Set" album covering the era from 1793 to the 1940s with some pretty tough slots to fill, even at 1930s prices. I still have my Albert Fastove type-set album (it cost a princely 50 cents) with the type-set booklet in the back page pouch. I wrote in pencil what I had to pay for those obsolete coins to fill those slots.
    This album was the least complete of all my boards and albums. The 20th-century coins were all found in change, and they included the Type I Standing Liberty quarter, the obverse mint-marked Liberty Walking half, and all of the 20th-century types up to World War II. The album did not go beyond the mid 1940s.
    My coin folders were 90 to 95 percent complete from the Barber series, Indian cents, "V" nickels, buffalos, Mercury dimes, Standing Liberty quarters and Walking Liberty halves. I was missing more Indian head cents than coins of the other series and never found the key dates in change, although I did buy them many years later. I didn't bother with the new Jefferson nickels, as they were no challenge.
    Since coin condition was not a major issue, as long as the coin had a date visible and mintmark, if there was one, it fit into the right slot. That was the fun of collecting. And as many old-timers (many of whom are no longer with us) would say, coin collecting was more fun and educational than profitable. It wasn't until the 1960s when profit became a coin collecting incentive as millions of new collectors joined the fray and prices started their upward climb. And when grading became a real issue, prices rode the upward spiral on grades.
    At national conventions of the American Numismatic Association in the 1930s, perhaps 200 to 300 people — including the dealers — were all who attended. When collectors ruled, the U.S. Mint in the 1930s would sell perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 proof sets to collectors at $1.80 per set — and didn't even sell out! I was able to buy proof cents at the Mint in 1940 for 16 cents each, one each from 1937 to 1940. My dad wasn't about to spring for 20 cents each for the proof nickels.
    When I discussed this era with such old-timers as the late Charlie Ruby, Maurice Gould, Abe Kosoff, Dick Yeoman and Herb Bergen, their experiences were similarly skewed toward finding what was circulating at the time and buying what they could afford from dealers and other collectors who were around decades earlier.
    The decade of the 1930s was perhaps the last time collectors, few as there were, could really collect coins from circulation. I am fortunate to have been there at the time and interested enough to participate.

    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.