How Coins Are Made and Used As Currency

Coins are pieces of metal or, rarely, other materials that a government certifies as having a particular intrinsic value. They are used as money, or a medium of exchange, to buy goods and services. Coins may carry a monetary value only, or they may have symbolic value as well. They may also carry a mixture of metals or alloys. The coins of many cultures and civilizations were widely accepted as currency, and their discovery in great numbers reveals much about the past.

In the United States, new coins are produced each year to replace worn ones and enter circulation. The mint also produces bullion coins in various precious metals, as well as commemorative coins.

The Mint makes round discs of metal called blanks, which are heated to make them softer and then stamped with the coin’s design. A die is then struck against the blanks to make them into coins. After they’re minted, workers inspect them for flaws and put them into bags to be sent all over the country.

When a coin is withdrawn from circulation, it can be sold for its metal content or even melted down for industrial purposes. However, it is illegal to melt down and export any coin for fraudulent reasons. The Treasury Department often regulates the amount of silver and copper in each coin to prevent surplus production.

Most modern coins are made of an alloy of copper and silver. The older ones, from the time when copper was more valuable than gold, were usually much heavier and had a higher monetary value than their current counterparts. For example, a 1923 mark coin (the highest denomination in the Weimar Republic at that time) was worth only about half of its metallic content at the time of its demonetization. The nickels minted during World War II were also reduced in their metallic content, so that they could be diverted to the production of war supplies.

Although the Mint produces millions of dollars worth of coins each year, most of them never enter circulation. The monetary value of the coins in our pockets, piggy banks and change jars comes from their use as money over and over again (Circulate). People pass them from store to bank, and back again. They’re also reused in vending machines, and the banks and stores send them to the Federal Reserve, which distributes them to depository institutions (Deliver).

Coins tell stories that go beyond their monetary value and metal content. They can reveal the wealth and power of cities and states. They can indicate trade links that span continents and oceans. For example, finds of 3rd-century ad Athenian coins in the Levant and Corinthian silver in Magna Graecia attest to established trade routes. Discoveries of the uniform gold dinars of Philip II of Macedon in India and Scandinavia help define the physical extent of his vast empire, as do findings of the heavily-alloyed coinage of Caracalla’s Roman empire in Europe.