Making sense out of cents

In the eight months she has been in the United States, Kim Salil Gokhale of India says, she has learned a lot about its people and culture.

One thing that has perplexed her about a country “so advanced and people-friendly,” however, is its not-so-friendly monetary system. Specifically its coins.

“I observed a very curious thing - that none of the U.S. coins has numerical denominations on them,” Gokhale said in a submission to Since You Asked. “In addition, the coin for a dime does not say how many cents make a dime.”

That surprised even some Americans for whom the penny, nickel, dime and quarter are, in coin-speak, their first language.

The penny is “one cent,” not “1 cent.”

The nickel isn’t helpfully identified as “5 cents” - or even “nickel” for that matter - but “five cents.”

The 10-cent piece, as our questioner rightly points out, is “one dime.”

And the quarter? Forget about it. It’s “quarter dollar,” not even “twenty-five cents.”

“Imagine being stuck in an international airport in Europe/Asia having to use a coin that would not tell you anything numerically, a coin that bears just the spelling of the denomination in local language,” Gokhale said. “Would it not be easier to understand ‘10 cents’ instead of ‘one dime?’”

Good question, one that was posed to Michael White, a spokesman for the United States Mint.

Why don’t U.S. coins have numerical designations, as coins in India and many other countries do?

“It is artistic choice in the majority of instances,” White said by phone from his office in Washington, D.C.

In the case of the dollar coin, he said, legislation that created it required it to be called “one dollar.” Of course, the dollar coin is so uncommon, it’s not likely to confuse many people.

Referencing the Web site, White said there are many examples among historic coins in which some type of number was used.

From 1809 to 1836, there was a half dollar imprinted with “50 C.” That was changed to “50 cents” for two years and then, in 1838, artistic choice deemed it should be called “half dollar.” It has remained so to the present, but the “half rock” - one of the slang terms for a half dollar - is even more rare in daily usage than the dollar coin.

For people not fluent in English, the quarter from 1838 to 1891 must have been a particular challenge.

It had no numeral and no full spelling of the denomination, just the abbreviation “quar. dol.”

That was a change from earlier, more user-friendly quarters. White said the number 25 - along with a “c.” - appeared on quarters from 1804 to 1837.

If Gokhale thinks today’s dime is curious, she’s lucky she didn’t have to deal with its earliest ancestor.

White said the first dimes from 1796 to 1807 had nothing to identify their denomination. They had an eagle, a busty Lady Liberty and the words “Liberty” and “United States of America,” but that was it.

“Then from 1809 to 1837, the dime had ‘10 c.’ on it,” White said. “From 1837 on, it was called ‘one dime.’”

There also was a “half dime” coin from 1794 to 1873, he said.

The nickel didn’t appear until 1866, White said. It debuted as a user-friendly coin, one that bore a big “5” in the center and the word “cents” below it until 1883.

The “5-cents” coin - not to be confused with the “half dime” - must have proved too functional for the mint engravers. They chose to change the “5” to its Roman numeral counterpart - “V.” It remained a V coin until 1912, White said, when it was changed to “five cents.”

The lowly penny has been a “one cent” coin since the first ones were minted in 1793 - the first year coins were made in the United States. There also have been half-cent coins - spelled out - a two-center (1864-1873) and a three-cent coin. The latter featured a Roman numeral - “III” - surrounded by a large “C.”

“There also was something called a ‘nickel’ three-cent piece,” White said. “It had just a “III” in the center.”

Thankfully, only coin collectors have to worry about that one.

Gokhale has found a way around coin confusion.

“The use of (a) credit card makes the handling of coins an infrequent way of exchanging money,” she said.

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