Afterthoughts: Mint Condition

A stash of old coins may not be worth much, but still feels precious.

Photo: Linny Morris

Our building has a coin-operated laundry system, so our wash cycles officially start with a trip to the bank for a roll of quarters. I recently took home a little paper pack, and was delighted to find inside a quarter that was minted in 1940.

It had been handled so much that the perimeter ridge was flattened and the coin almost completely smooth. George Washington’s features are blurry, rather than crisply embossed, his chin softened, the waves in his wig long gone.

I took out the next coin, which read 1943. And the next, 1941. The whole roll, it turned out, was a currency time capsule. I couldn’t possibly spend these quarters.

I was intrigued, though, and called First Hawaiian Bank. Were the coins being set aside for some purpose, perhaps to take out of circulation? No, said Gary Caulfield, the bank’s vice chairman, IT and operations group. As long as the weight of the coin is correct, it is still legal tender, even if it’s hard to read the face of the coin. As far as the bank is concerned, it doesn’t matter what year a coin was minted.

According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the average coin lasts about 30 years. In Caulfield’s experience, coins are pretty sturdy. “They’re very rarely damaged, unless, say, a coin was left in the bottom of a boat and sat in seawater for a month.” If a coin is too mangled to use, the bank returns it to the nearest Federal Reserve Bank; in our case, it’s in San Francisco. The feds send it to the U.S. Mint, which melts down old coins to create new ones. 

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

More than 20 billion coins pass through Federal Reserve Banks each year. So how did I get a stash of 70-year-old quarters? “It was just a coincidence that you got them; some customer had probably brought them in,” says Caulfield.

I started thinking of all the places these quarters have been, all the people that have touched them, and began making up little histories. The 1944 quarter, for example, bought a five-pound bag of flour for a Wisconsin housewife named Hazel. She made amazing apple pies and put a wedge of cheddar under the pie while it was still hot—it came to the table all melty. She’s gone now, but her kids are still talking about those pies, and I’m still staring at her quarter.

The 1941 quarter was spent carefully, after the attack on Pearl Harbor; 25 cents then was worth about $3.80 in today’s money. A 1948 quarter bought two cans of franks and beans for a curly-haired folk singer, who ate them onboard a train.

In 70 years, these quarters were flipped thousands of times to settle thousands of disputes. They slid through hundreds of vending machines, and were slipped under the pillows of dozens of 6-year-olds who had recently lost teeth. These quarters were bet on horses, and helped buy polio shots and Elvis records. There’s one in there that paid for milk shakes on a first date—a date that led to a second date, and eventually marriage and grandkids for one couple. Wouldn’t they like to have that quarter, the one that started it all?

Then a hush must have fallen over these busy coins. They were put aside and forgotten. Until one day, someone found a tin filled with old change and thought, “Eh, I should take this to the bank.”

I’m happy they found me, these quarters. I’m not a collector, but old coins fill me with glee. I love the idea that you’re having a normal moment, such as buying a coffee, and then you look down in your hand and realize you’re holding a little piece of history.

Maybe that’s why it’s called change.    

 See more Afterthoughts from Kathryn Drury Wagner.