Why Do Coins Have Ridges?

iStock/tweetyclaw
iStock/tweetyclaw

The stylish rims you might have noticed on U.S. dimes, quarters, half dollars and some dollar coins are called reeded edges. They’ve been on American currency almost since day one as a way of keeping people honest.

The United States Mint built its first minting facility in Philadelphia in 1792. The following March, it produced its first batch of circulating coins - 11,178 copper pennies. The silver coins that soon followed were linked to a silver standard, per the 1792 Mint and Coinage Act. This meant the “major” coins were at least partially made up of the precious metal (the first dollar coin, from 1794, was 89.25% silver and 10.75% copper). Silver dollars contained about a dollar’s worth of silver, give or take, and the others – half dollars, quarters and dimes – had a proportionate metallic content and size. Half-dollar coins contained ½ the amount of silver as a dollar and were half the size, quarters had ¼ the amount of silver, and so on.

Reeded edges served a two-fold security purpose for silver coins. One, they added an additional, intricate element to the coins that made them more difficult to counterfeit. Two, they prevented fraud.

How do ridges prevent fraud?

For as long as coins have been made from precious metal, a fairly common way to make a quick, ill-gotten buck was coin clipping. Clippers would shave off a tiny amount of metal all the way around the rims of a bunch of coins, collect the shavings, then sell them. Working carefully, a coin clipper could trim enough off of coins to make a nice profit, but not so much as to make them noticeably lighter or smaller. A clipper could then still go out and spend his devalued coins as if they were unaltered. Reeded edges ruined this scheme, since a shaved edge would be immediately obvious and alert anyone who received one that something was wrong.

Why don't nickels and pennies have reeded edges? Nickels and pennies are mainly composed of inexpensive metals, so the chances that they would be tampered with are low.

Before their adoption by the U.S. Mint, reeded edges were also used in the UK. When the physicist Isaac Newton became warden of the Royal Mint in 1696, he used reeded edges, among other means, to combat clippers and counterfeiters. Other European coins from as far back as the early 1500s also feature reeded edges.

Wait, are people still clipping coins?

Due to the abandonment of the silver standard and a worldwide silver shortage in the mid-20th century, the Coinage Act of 1965 authorized a change in the composition of dimes, quarters, and half-dollars, gradually shrinking their silver content down to the present-day 0%. Coin clipping is no longer a problem, but reeded edges are still around, a centuries-old security measure hanging on in an age where people pay for things with their smart phones instead of digging out pocket change. The tenacity is admirable. But why are they still there?

Coins are made by stamping coin blanks with a metal tool called a die. The die is engraved with the negative of a coin’s design, and the positive image is transferred to the coin when stamped. When the coins are struck, a part of the die called the collar holds the blank in place and applies the edge. When the silverless coins were first produced, the government didn’t see any need to make or buy expensive new dies or collars. Keeping the reeding wouldn’t hurt anyone, they figured, so the new coins were struck from the same old dies as the old ones, and reeding continued to be used as a matter of tradition and backwards-compatibility. Newer coins with updated designs (state quarters, new portraits) also have reeded edges. The design element lived to see another day on the new dies because reeding is useful for distinguishing coins by feel as well as appearance, making them more user-friendly for the visually impaired.

I can't stand the suspense. How many ridges are on my quarter?

If you gather up a bunch of coins, you'll see that not all reeded edges are created equal. The number and size of reeds on coins is not dictated by law, so individual U.S. Mints were long free to make their reeds to their own in-house specifications, leading to distinct style differences between coins from different mints and eras. Rare dimes from the now-defunct Carson City Mint’s 1871-74 runs, for example, have 89 broad, widely spaced reeds. The dimes made by the Philadelphia Mint in those same years have 113 thin, tightly-spaced reeds. 

Things are a little more standardized now and the Mint lists its reeding specifications as follows: dimes, 118; quarters, 119; half dollars, 150; dollar, 198; Susan B. Anthony dollar, 133.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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