Saw something from my past not too long ago: a collection of Western Publishing Company play money paper notes. My parents made me an instant millionaire when they took me to the local Ben Franklin 5 and 10c store and I came home with "a million bucks" in a nice cellophane wrapped bundle. When I saw some on eBay, I had to get some for nostalgia. I even posted about them in my "Collections" here on money.org.
It got me thinking of what may have influenced me to take such an interest in coin collecting as a kid, a hobby that would return to me later in life.
Aside from my collection of play money (with bills ranging from 1 to 100,000 in denomination), there were a few other moments in life I can remember that probably played a role. I'll list the numismatic items that accompanied them.
1. Germany 1950 Five Pfennig
I grew up attending a small church with my parents. A fellow congregant was a lady just a bit older than my parents who lived alone. She was my favorite person at church, because she had a purse that produced candy "for good boys". I don't know how good I actually was as a kid, but I believed I must have been because that purse just about always had a piece of candy or gum in it for me. She didn't drive, so sometimes after an evening service, she would ask my family for a ride home, and if we would "as a favor" stop at a local convenience store on the way, she would buy cold cuts, cheeses, kaiser rolls, and jars of pickled condiments for a relish tray. Once we got to her home she would light candles and create some ambience with soft music on the stereo, and turn a dinner of deli sandwiches into something no 5-star restaurant could match for hospitality. I think I learned the value of hospitality from this lady. She apparently had family in Germany and one year she had saved up enough money to go visit them. When she returned, she brought me some little gifts. The one I remember most (and still have) was a coin purse shaped like a small pair of lederhosen, and a handful of West German coins. These coins are the same type that dominate just about any world coin "junk box" at any given coin shop; they are often so plentiful that people scoff at getting them in a world coin collection. But a 1950 five pfennig coin will always remind me of my favorite church lady from my childhood.
2. Japan 1955-1975 Aluminum One Yen
My brother graduated high school when I was still very young. He worked in the area at a few different jobs until the Army caught up with him in the Viet Nam era draft. He ended up in a Finance Department role in Okinawa. He said it was OK because usually nobody wanted to mess with the guys who might have something to do with whether or not they received their paycheck. When he came back, he brought a few souvenirs. He was cleaning out his gear when he offered me a handful of Japanese coins. I enjoyed them all, but the one that was most prolific was the aluminum one yen. I found them most fascinating because I was not used to coins that size feeling so light. Like many kids I determined they "felt fake", since of course "real" coins were made of copper, nickel, and other metals that were heavier by comparison. Even foreign coins from countries like Canada and Germany were made from "real" metals. At the time, these were the only aluminum coins I'd known, so maybe that is why they made such an impression on me. Whenever I see them, I smile, remember my brother's military service, and how they were some of the first coins in my collection.
3. US 1971 Eisenhower Dollar
My brother is also responsible for another early numismatic memory. He had been out of high school a year and not yet drafted into the Army when the Ike dollar coins were issued. He recognized the significance of a new large dollar coin issue, and sacrificed what was a bigger part of his paycheck then than it would be today to give me one. I was amazed at the size of it. I didn't know much about President Eisenhower, but I knew about astronauts and loved the reverse motif of the eagle touching down on the moon. I can't see one of these coins without thinking of receiving one as a kid and remembering where I was, and where the country was in the "space race".
4. US Bicentennial Series: Quarter, Half, and Dollar
In 1975-76, US Bicentennial stuff was everywhere. Everything from ads to dishes to who-knows-what was red-white-and-blue and probably had "1776" on it somewhere. The fact that our nation's 200th birthday was significant enough of an event to change what (at that point in my life) was seemingly unchangeable-- the designs on our coinage-- made me feel like the Bicentennial was truly a big deal. Like a great many Americans, I collected bicentennial coinage like they were someday going to be worth big money just because they were a "special" issue, never thinking about how many millions of them were being made and subsequently hoarded in every grade by people just like me (and now I'm looking at YOU, State Quarters and America the Beautiful Series collectors). Still, I like the designs and can't help but like them when I see them. I'm happy to see them in 20th century American type sets.
5. US 1976 Two Dollar Bill
Another "bicentennial" issue, I don't think I realized two dollar bills existed until these were issued by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving with their new reverse design depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I remember you could get a special stamped issue from the bank, and I think my dad asked me if I wanted to get one of those. I said no, I'd rather have a brand new unstamped one, because I thought putting a stamp on it would "mess it up." I acquired several 1976 two dollar bills over the years and saved them in uncirculated condition. I think I not only liked the bicentennial aspect, but the curiosity of a not-often-seen denomination. (One year after high school I cashed my paycheck asking for a hundred dollar bill, 50 twos, and a roll of Susan B. Anthony coins as part of my cash. Then I bought $2.97 worth of food in the McDonald's drive-thru and paid with a two and a Suzie just to watch the cashier's response. I may as well have handed her a three dollar bill.)
6. US 1909-1958 Wheat Ears Reverse One Cent
My dad used to empty his pockets when he got home and put any pennies he had received in change into a repurposed plastic margarine container atop his dresser. When it was getting full he used to let me put them into paper rolls of 50, and they would get deposited into my bank account. Occasionally I would find "wheaties" in the mix, and would always set those aside. Thus began my year-and-mintmark cent collection. For a little while I saved nickels too, but anything higher in denomination than that was usually too much to regularly remove from my small economy (coin collecting is, after all, the hobby of kings, because kings were some of the few who could afford to not spend those coins for their day-to-day needs). I think for the same reasons, many people got started coin collecting by collecting cents as a youngster, and that is why in the club we lead as an after-school activity today, we also encourage kids to collect cents by year and mint.
I should also include in this category that very special one-year issue, the steel wheat cent of 1943. What an amazing coin! It must have been worth a fortune as it was only made for one year, and therefore rare, right? Come on, you know that was your first thought too when you first came across one. The biggest value in that coin (besides the wartime history and the face value) was the fascination it imparted to millions of youngsters who were then encouraged to collect them and start their journey into numismatics. In fact, it was the coin that launched the Legacy Knights Numismatic Society... but that's another story.
7. The Official Black Book of United States Coins, mid-1970s, published by House of Collectibles, Inc.
Back in the 1970s, one could go to any Woolworth's Department Store and buy coins and collecting supplies. Coin collecting had become mainstream by then, and retailers beyond the dedicated coin shops were getting in on it. Of course, stamp collecting was also a hobby recognized as having retail potential for selling bags of foreign stamps that would subsequently require mounting hinges, albums, and guide books... so these were all sold together at one collectors' supply display in the store. I remember visiting this display every time we went to the Woolworth's store that co-anchored our local shopping mall along with JC Penney, Sears, and Higbee's. I can't remember if I purchased this price guide with my own money or if it was a Christmas gift; but I'm pretty sure it would have been sourced from this Woolworth's store. I flipped through that thing quite a bit, marveling at some of the prices certain coins would fetch if offered to the right buyer. This is where I first encountered the concept of coin grading... although as a kid I assumed (not uniquely) that "proof" was just a really really good uncirculated coin. I want to say my guide was the 1977 edition, although it could have been the bicentennial edition from the year before.
8. Missionaries and their display table coins and currency.
Earlier I mentioned church attendance where I met my favorite church lady who gave me coins from Germany. Our church sponsored several missionaries to foreign lands, who would periodically return to the US to report on their mission work to the churches who supported them. Typically they would set up a display table of cultural items from the country in which they ministered that would potentially start conversations between congregants and the missionary and spark interest in the mission field and the work done there. Probably 90% of the time or more, the missionary would display samples of local currency and coinage, which were always of great interest to me. Even my brother-in-law, who participated in a missionary trip to Guatemala during his college years, brought me some coins. I always think of him whenever I see a 25 centavos coin from mid-1970s Guatemala. In some sense I really must credit my childhood church experiences for part of my numismatic interest and influences, as missionaries and family friends with different backgrounds incidentally helped create a cross-cultural interest in numismatics, among other things.
(Related story: I would often carry items of distraction in my pockets to church as a kid, so that, if the sermon got longer than my attention span could stand, I could entertain myself as long as I didn't distract other congregants or draw too much attention from my parents. Sometimes I'd bring along some favorite coins to study. That came to an end after I dropped one of those big ol' Ike dollars onto an empty metal folding chair in the row in front of my parents and me... not once, but twice in a five minute timespan. And it had to be an Ike, no less; not a quarter, or even a half dollar, but a huge Ike that may as well have been a manhole cover. It not only clanged as loud as a bell tower, it sat there and rolled around on its edge for what seemed like an eternity. I still remember the look I got from dad after the second time! I did get the Ike back... AFTER church was over, and after a warning about any repeat performances. Church attending tip for young numismatists: leave the coins at home, and listen to the sermon. If you can't stay focused any longer, a pad and pencil is much quieter.)
There may be more but these stand out and immediately come to mind. Hopefully you all have had time to reminisce about your early numismatic experiences and influences. If you care to share, feel free to list them in the comments. Happy collecting, and All the best!