Are you old enough to remember when the U.S. used silver coins? I am. U.S. coins used to contain 90 percent silver. In some ways, it was a sign of mutual respect between the people and their government. The people trusted the U.S. government to keep an honest currency. And the government trusted the people with the “national silver,” so to speak.
My dad always liked silver coins. I recall the late 1950s and early 1960s, when my dad kept a can of silver coins hidden I his bedroom closet. (Well, he couldn’t hide the can from me and my sisters.) My sisters and I used to crawl into Dad’s closet and play with the coins. We stacked them up and then knocked them over to hear that unique silver jingle. Back then, the U.S. had real money.
But by the early 1960s, the “real” silver money was competing with the nation’s paper currency. And as Gresham’s Law states, “Bad money drives out the good.”
Bad things were happening to the value of the U.S. dollar, although I was too young to appreciate the problem in the making. So in 1965, the U.S. stopped minting coins with silver. What a shame. I could tell that something was wrong. I remember my dad and other family members and friends just shaking their heads back and forth at the news. “Bad money is the sign of bad government,” said my grandmother, an Ohio schoolteacher.
It was sad when those silver coins went out of circulation. The country really lost something when in gave up silver money. And today we can appreciate the loss only in hindsight. Where would we all be now if the U.S. had kept both its industry and money strong?
Nowadays, you almost never encounter silver coins. They don’t normally circulate. But silver coins still hold exceptional value. The old dime contains over $1.40 worth of silver at today’s silver price. The old quarter is worth nearly $3.60. A 50-cent piece contained about $8 of silver. And a good old silver dollar is now worth more than 16 times its face value. And these are just the silver values of the coins. The coins themselves might be worth far more, depending on condition and rarity.
My dad always carried two old silver dollars in his pocket. Those silver dollars went everywhere with him. My dad said that the coins were the first silver dollars he ever earned, back during the depths of the Great Depression. So the silver dollars meant a lot to him. He never spent them. In fact, my dad flew with the coins in his pockets during World War II. He drove P-47 Thunderbolts on the European front. And those coins must have had some serious magic in them. My dad escorted bombers across Germany, dodging flak and Messerschmitt fighters. He flew over Normandy on D-Day, and later supported the U.S. armies that liberated France. Unlike a lot of his friends, my dad always brought the airplane home. It must have been those silver dollars.
After the war, those two silver coins stayed with my dad. There was no way he would part with them. They were his “lucky” coins. My dad even carried his silver dollars when he played golf. And my dad was a heck of a golfer. One time, he went head-to-head with Arnold Palmer in a Pro-Am event, and I won’t embarrass Arnie by saying who won.
By the time my dad died, in 2000, his silver dollars were pretty badly worn from all the jingling in his pocket over the years. They looked almost blank. But on close inspection, you could tell that they were U.S. currency from the 1920s. Those coins had been with my dad during his lifetime. So before we closed the casket, I put the coins into his hand, just in case my dad needed some silver to pay Charon for the last voyage across the River Styx. Really, you never know what is on the other side.
And this illustrates a point. In both life and death, it’s good to have some silver.
Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
May 16, 2008