What Coins Have Silver in Them?
Published on 8/27/2020 by APMEX
Silver has been one of the most commonly-used stores of value for millennia. Ever since the 4th millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, Silver was used as currency. Even today, these coins are among the most popular assets for both bullion buyers and collectors.
But not all Silver coins are pure Silver.
The first ancient coinage was minted in Lydia of electrum, an alloy of Gold and Silver that naturally occurred in Anatolia. Both metals have been commonly used since, and often are mixed with other metals to increase their durability. Most Silver coins are made of an alloy. The amount of Silver in the coin varies by time period and minting authority.
Silver coins are among the most common coins in the world, particularly U.S. Silver coins with their high mintage numbers. There are several variants for both investors and numismatists to be aware of.
Pre-1964 90% Silver U.S. Coins
The Coinage Act of 1792 established United States coinage guidelines, and Silver was part of them from the beginning. There were several points established, but the important ones for Silver coin composition were:
- Gold and Silver were established at a 15-to-1 ratio in terms of value, regardless of the market price.
- Silver coins were to be made from 89.24% Silver and 10.76% Copper. But that requirement was only in effect for most U.S. Silver coinage until 1836, when the percentage of Silver was changed to 90% and Copper was set at 10%.
- The standard coin denominations were set as eagles, half eagles, quarter eagles, dollars, half dollars, quarter dollars, dismes (dimes), half dismes, cents and half cents.
- Dollars, half dollars, quarters, dismes and half dismes were all to be made of the specified Silver alloy. But dollar coins became an exception, as all U.S. Silver dollars since their inception in 1794 have been composed of that 90% Silver and 10% Copper mix.
Because of the set ratio of Gold to Silver and the value Silver was assessed at, coin size determined value. Though modern quarters and dimes have no Silver content, they still keep similar proportions, though they changed slightly when the alloy was changed to 90% instead of 89.24% Silver. A dime is a tenth of the size of a Silver dollar of the same era — it is smaller than a penny because the penny was made of Copper, and a cent’s worth of Copper was bigger than ten cents of Silver.
Though the amount of Silver changed incrementally from the original Coinage Act, it stayed close to the same for almost every coin through 1964 (with some notable exceptions we will explore).
There are some non-circulating coins, including proof and mint sets that include 90% Silver, but these are not as common as they were struck for collectors and not for circulation. Commemorative and non-circulating Silver versions of many of these coins are available even in the present day.
Silver dollars for U.S. circulation include the Flowing Hair, Draped Bust, Seated Liberty, Morgan and Peace dollars. Trade dollars were made for overseas trade and not governed by the same rules of coinage as U.S. Silver dollars, as they were not meant for domestic circulation and traded at a lower price. Morgan and Peace dollars are the most common variants available.
All these dollar coins had 90% Silver content.
Half DollarsSilver half dollars include the Flowing Hair, Draped Bust, Capped Bust, Liberty Seated, Barber, Walking Liberty, Franklin and Kennedy half dollars. In the case of the Kennedy half dollar, only 1964 was struck from 90% Silver, as it was the last year that composition was used in circulating coinage. There have been subsequent collectible half dollar releases made of 90% Silver (including Kennedy proof sets from 1992 to now), but none that circulate.
Though the 90% Silver versions of the half dollar ended in 1964, there was still a reduced amount of Silver in the composition for a few years afterward (as we’ll cover later).
QuartersSilver Quarters include the Draped Bust, Capped Bust, Seated Liberty, Barber, Standing Liberty and Washington designs. The Washington quarter is still made today, but after 1964 the metal changed to cupro-nickel (an alloy sandwich made of a copper core with copper-nickel alloy wrapped around it).
There are collectible Silver Washington quarters still being struck in the America the Beautiful series, but they are not minted for circulation.
Dimes and DismesThe dime, originally called the “disme” in the Coinage Act of 1792, was made of Silver through 1964. “Disme” coins are not common as they were only minted in 1792.
Silver dimes include the Draped Bust, Capped Bust, Liberty Seated, Barber (or Liberty Head), Mercury (or Winged Liberty) and the current Franklin D. Roosevelt design. Roosevelt dimes were 90% Silver until 1964 and were struck afterward in cupro-nickel. Since 1992 the U.S. Mint has struck proof sets, including 90% Silver dimes, but they are not made for circulation.
Half Dimes, 3 Cents and 20 CentsAll half dimes were composed of 90% Silver (or .8924 for very early issues). Designs include the rare 1792 half disme, Flowing Hair, Draped Bust, Capped Bust and Liberty Seated.
3-cent Silver pieces, occasionally called “trimes,” were struck for circulation from 1851 to 1872 with a brief issue as a proof coin in 1873. 3-cent Silver coins were struck in 75% Silver and 25% Copper.
20-cent Silver pieces were struck very briefly for circulation from 1875 to 1876, then as collectible proofs for two more years.
Pre-1964 Silver for Bullion Buyers
Some people who buy Silver for its bullion value prefer pre-1964 U.S. coinage. These coins are small and more easily divisible than larger denominations of rounds or bars. The designs are easily recognizable and pegged to a value.
These coins are often available in rolls or bags, and the varieties include dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollars. They are more available and at slightly lower prices in the newer issues like Roosevelt dimes, Washington quarters and Franklin half dollars.
Older (usually pre-1916) and rarer issues have a higher premium above their Silver value but are available in bulk the same way. Key date coins are also usually absent from these bulk purchases.
40% Silver U.S. CoinsAfter U.S. coinage moved away from high Silver alloys in 1965, half dollar and dollar coins still kept some of their Silver content for a few years. There were two circulated coins that were struck from 40% Silver planchets.
40% Silver is exclusively the province of Kennedy half dollars and Eisenhower dollars. There are some 1975 to 1976 mint and proof sets that include Washington quarters made from the same alloy, but these were not made for circulation.
These coins are sometimes collected for their bullion value but are not as popular with bullion buyers as the pre-1964 90% Silver issues because of their higher premiums.
35% Silver U.S. “War Nickels”
Nickels were named after the base metal that made up 25% of the coin. But for a few short years, this coin was actually struck from a Copper, Silver and Manganese alloy.
When the United States entered World War II, nickel became a precious resource for the war. That necessitated a change in coin construction, and in 1942 Congress authorized the U.S. Mint to change the coin alloy. The Mint found that an alloy of 56% Copper, 35% Silver and 9% Manganese would still work with the counterfeit detectors used in vending machines, and they struck coins from this alloy from October 1942 through 1945.
War nickels are easily distinguishable by the large mint mark above Monticello on the reverse of the coin.
World CoinsSilver has been commonly used in coinage around the world for thousands of years, and it would be almost impossible to cover every occurrence down through history. But there are some foreign circulating coins that are available even within the United States that deserve mention.
Pre-1968 Canadian Silver CoinsIn 1858, the Royal Canadian Mint began striking Silver coins. Like Great Britain’s Silver coins, these were made from 92.5% Silver (often called sterling). These coins included the half dime, dime and 20-cent piece. The 20-cent piece was later phased out, and the quarter and half dollar were added. This occurred in 1870.
In 1920, the Silver content was changed to 80% Silver, and the half dime was discontinued a year later. Most of the earlier sterling coinage is harder to find and carries a numismatic premium. Bullion buyers primarily concern themselves with the period from 1920 to 1967, when the dime, quarter, half dollar and dollar (first struck in 1935) were all struck from these 80% Silver planchets.
Canada began to phase out 80% Silver coins in 1967. All half dollars and dollars were still 80% Silver through 1967, but dimes and quarters were variable. In 1967 they were available in both 80% and 50% purity, and in 1968 they were either 50% Silver or nickel.
Other World Coins
Henry II of England established the sterling Silver alloy standard of 92.5% Silver and 7.5% Copper for coins, but it was often debated that it was not wholly honored until the reign of Edward VI. From 1582 to 1919, sterling was standard for all British Silver coins. There is a wide variety of coins that were used through this time period, including crowns, shillings, farthings, sixpence, Silver pence and more, and due to the breadth of the British Empire, these exist across the entire globe. In 1920 all British coins were changed to 50% Silver content, and in 1947 everything but special non-circulating issues had their Silver content largely removed.
The Mexican real and peso had some Silver issues, but Silver content varied greatly over time, making them less consistent for novices to assess. There are still 20, 50 and 100 peso coins currently available that have sterling Silver content, though the 50 and 100 peso coins are less common due to the value of their Silver.
Bullion CoinsThere are a wide variety of Silver bullion coins that are struck by governments each year. These include U.S. Eagles, Canadian Maples, U.K. Britannias, Austrian Philharmonics, Australian Koalas, Mexican Libertads, Chinese Pandas and more.
These coins are struck in a Uncirculated condition for bulk investors and may be struck in Proof condition for collectors. They are not intended for circulation, though they may have a face value — the amount of Silver in the coin makes them more valuable than their denomination.