Stamps licked by time; coins make change


Curtis Kinney’s fascination began when his wife started saving quarters to buy a bike in 1968.

"She never did buy the bike, and we were looking through the quarters when we realized we had some pretty old ones," Kinney said.

Kinney and his wife, who live in Fargo, N.D., have been collecting coins, mainly quarters, ever since. A trip to the mint in Philadelphia peaked their interest. While they say they aren’t serious collectors, they frequent auctions in the hopes of finding something rare. "The 1932 quarter can go for as much as $200," Kinney said. "You just have to know what to look for."

Coins and stamps are tangible reminders of years gone by. Yet, while coin collecting is flourishing as a hobby, stamp collecting has gone by the wayside. The group of men that make up the Fargo-Moorhead Philatelic Society are part of the last generation of this hobby. Their collections are a testament to how life used to be. Many families who inherit stamp collections are more interested in getting the collection appraised than continuing the tradition. "You can’t collect something you don’t know what it is," said James Olsen, secretary of the F-M Philatelic Society.

His statement carries an undeniable truth. Stamps are rarely used as society becomes more dependent on e-mail and cell phones as ways of communication. To most, collections have become about monetary worth rather than sentimental value.

Stamp collecting dates back to 1840, when the first stamp was issued in England. One of the earliest indications of stamp collecting is an advertisement from an English newspaper in which a young woman sought used stamps as a way to wallpaper her room. Soon, post offices discovered stamp collectors as good sources of revenue. From there, an unprecedented surge began.

"There are no rules about stamp collecting," Olsen said. Some people collect stamps from a certain country while others focus on a motif, such as flowers, ships or buildings. "Stamp collecting is a wonderful hobby because (the people) vary from those who have next to nothing to millionaires," said Kent Knutson, president of the F-M Philatelic Society.

Unfortunately, "stamp collecting has simply lost its appeal to younger people," he said.

Coin collecting, on the other hand, is at its peak popularity. Rare or modern coins offer history that collectors can hold in their hand, and every period during the past 2,500 years is reflected in coinage.

"Stamps disappear and become part of the ground," said Bob Hanna, member of the Red River Valley Coin Club. "A coin can be dug up and, while new varieties of stamps are not really being discovered, new types of coins from all over the world are still being found."

Coin collecting has been said to be the hobby of kings and scholars. Coins are regarded as mirrors of history; portraits of contemporary monarchs—some famous, others scarcely known except for coins—and the inscriptions and designs often refer to important events. Even analyzing the purity of the metal from which a coin was made can provide insight into the economics of its time. The first coins in the United States were silver three-pence, sixpence and shilling pieces. From the 1650s to the 1790s, state governments, merchants and individuals issued their own coins. In 1793, the Philadelphia Mint issued its first coins.

Today, coin collecting is one of the world’s most popular hobbies. Amateur collectors enjoy coins for their beauty, rarity and the stories behind them. Added to this is the excitement of searching for and finding specific coins and the challenge of identifying unfamiliar items. Collectors are likely to start with coins from their own countries due to their availability.

The introduction of the new state quarters rejuvenated the hobby. Collectors make it a point to look through the change they receive so as not to spend the newest quarters. Grandparents give state quarter books to their grandchildren so they too can participate. Gerry Netzer, who has been involved with a Bismarck, N.D., coin club since 1982, has noticed the rejuvenated interest.

"(The state quarters) have really created a huge increase in the number of people who collect coins, and it is a good hobby for younger people," he said. Fourteen- year-old Brock Schmeling of Mandan, N.D., agrees. "I got started (collecting) because I like money," he said. "You can start with less expensive coins and work your way up."

For many adult collectors it's the education, usually on all subjects of the coin-collecting hobby, that keeps them interested. Collectors normally remain with the hobby for the benefit of camaraderie and their own collecting interests. "The tendency is to collect coins from your childhood," Hanna said. "It’s like a walk down memory lane—you get hooked on that nostalgia and away you go."

For youngsters, subject matter must be entertaining and interesting in order to hold their attention. So how can the older coin collectors make sure their tradition is carried on by younger generations? The American Numismatic Association offers a scholarship program for youngsters around the country to become educated in numismatics, the collection and study of coins, paper money, tokens and medals. The scholarships, worth up to $1,000, take the students to Colorado Springs for a week in the summer to study at the Colorado College campus. About 25 to 35 scholarships are offered each year.

"This has been a tremendous help in cultivating youngsters in the hobby," said Jim Majoros, chair of the Young Numismatic committee, a branch of the American Numismatic Association. "Youngsters have so many avenues of possible interests, such as sports, school activities, etc. It is difficult for them to continue in the (coin collecting) hobby for a consecutive period of time. We look upon it as the seed that has been planted, and they may come back."

Why is coin collecting thriving and stamp collecting dying? "Coins are still being used and are still fascinating," said Carl Zachmann, Minnesota State University Moorhead student and casual coin collector. "It is an investment as well as a hobby." Coins continue to go up in value while many stamps are at the peak value they will ever receive. Furthermore, many are going down in value.

While these two hobbies were once both quite popular, coin collecting is more identifiable to today’s society. Money is used every day and is still an important aspect; therefore, the interest in this hobby continues to grow. However, the future of coin collecting is uncertain at this point. Who knows, maybe one day, coin collecting will meet the same fate as stamp collecting. With the increased use of checks and credit cards, collecting pocket change may become a thing of the past. Only time will tell.