Common Cents: Coins as Pedagogical Tools

Stamped with a date and designed with symbolic images, coins as pedagogical tools can be an effective method to engage student interest in history.

Humans have been using coins to sell, purchase, and trade goods for almost three thousand years. Often made of precious metals, they have been recognized as stores of value throughout the civilized world for millennia. Small and portable, coinage facilitated commerce as a convenient, standardized, and trusted medium of exchange.

Coins were also the first form of mass communication by a ruler or the state with which to portray itself and convey a wide range of messages to the masses. The borders of the Roman Empire were hundreds of miles apart at a time when few people (other than soldiers) traveled more than 10 miles from their place of birth. Without print media or traditional mail, a dominant method of informing the geographically and socially diverse Roman citizenry was through the dissemination of imperial messages via coinage issued under state authority. The emperor’s portrait galvanized the connection between economic power and the state while gods and goddesses would be used to signify peace and military themes to infer a current state of conflict/war. This combination of political, economic, and symbolic value through mass production and exchange made coinage the powerful and necessary medium it was in the pre-industrial world.

Like maps, drawings, and works of art, coins visually contextualize the past. Their symbolic imagery typically represents the cultural style and sentiments of the era and can provide for students tangible evidence of time and place. In 1916, when most of Europe was engaged in the First World War, the United States issued the Standing Liberty quarter (the predecessor of the Washington quarter). The design, epitomized by Miss Liberty’s confident, forward movement with a shield for protection and an olive branch for peace, reflected America’s increasing global involvement. In the words of Mint Director Robert W. Woolley in July 1916, the design seemed to typify “the awakening interest of the country in its own protection.” This sensory exposure creates for students additional associations with which to understand, remember, and recall historic events in a deeper way than rote memorization.

The United States has a rich variety of coinage dating from the Colonial Period to the present, aptly covering the chronological range of America’s timeline. Over many years, numerous denominations were made ranging from a copper half cent to a $50 two-and-a-half ounce gold slug, providing ample visual options from which educators can choose. The date (and in most cases, the denomination) is noted, and the composition, especially those dated through 1964, is typically some combination of just four metals — gold, silver, copper, and nickel. Pictures for all of these years and denominations can easily be searched for online and downloaded free of charge but many of these examples can be purchased inexpensively. Incorporating such artifacts into classroom learning is to literally put history tangibly in the hands of students.

Utilizing coins in the classroom can also support cross-disciplinary studies through intersections with subjects including mathematics for younger children as well as art, chemistry, and the broader study of personal finance and economics at the high school level and above. Folklore of the American West includes stories about 19th-century pioneer families traveling in wagon trains who kept a silver coin in each jug to prevent milk from spoiling on the arduous journey. Could silver coins hold antibacterial or antimicrobial properties to make this possible? It sounds like an interesting cross-curricular science class experiment with an 1846 Seated Liberty silver dollar! Synthesizing and reinforcing these interconnections can assist in fostering a deeper comprehension of each subject matter as well as how they interact with one another.

Supplementing history lessons with coins may also serve to educate and enlighten students with respect to money in their everyday lives, the larger philosophical, political, and pragmatic conversations about it, and its influence in local, national, and global economics. Gold has set the monetary standard of world currencies longer than any other material. Until the mid 1900s, many US-issued coins were made of gold, silver, and copper and were nominally valued nearly equal to their intrinsic metallic value. Today, our coins in circulation are mostly made of common and inexpensive metals and worth what the United States government deems them to be by fiat.

Although financial exchanges may be largely electronic today since the advent of credit cards, the creation of PayPal, the inception of Venmo, and the development of digital currencies such as Bitcoin, trillions of dollars worth of gold, silver, and copper continue to be utilized as stores of value and wealth protection by individuals and nations alike. By seeing coinage in their history classes, students additionally receive the ancillary benefit of learning how currency and the cost of living have changed and what that may portend for the future.

Presenting history in a way that sparks a student’s interest and deepens its relevance in their lives is ideally the first step. By supplementing lessons with coins, students are given additional opportunities to envision, relate to, comprehend, and remember history. These dated artifacts provide a tactile connection as well as a pseudo time-travel mechanism, putting students in direct touch with the past. While the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is a unique event of time and place, engaging student interest in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 with the aid of a 1793 copper half cent that could have been in George Washington’s pocket, can provide a tangible point-of-entry to learning how America dealt with this pandemic of the past. If utilizing coins as pedagogical tools in the classroom can assist in teaching American history, a noble purpose can be served.


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US Geological Survey

World Gold Council

Edward Van Orden was born and raised in Bergen County, New Jersey and received a B.S. in Accounting at Fordham University. He has played in bands in New York and Los Angeles, worked in royalties and finance at Universal Music and The Walt Disney Company, hiked Mt. Whitney, trekked in Patagonia, enjoys B&W photography and looking up on a dark evening. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association, American Numismatic Society, Glendale Coin Club, Los Angeles Astronomical Society, and Los Angeles City Historical Society.