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In ancient times, pieces of gold and silver were widely used in trade, being exchanged for other goods by weight. The weight and purity of the metal had to be tested every time it changed hands. In Asia Minor, sometime around 600 BC, the Lydians hit upon the idea of shaping electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, into bean-shaped lumps of fixed weight and purity and stamping them with official symbols. By 550 BC, the practice of striking coins was established in all the important trading cities throughout the known world. Although most Greek coins portrayed gods or goddesses, coins of the Roman Empire (from about the 1st century scaps bc to the 5th century scaps ad) offered portraits of the emperors. Because Islam prohibits graven images, Arabic coins (at least before the 20th century) were restricted to inscriptions, often from the Qur'an (Koran), the sacred scripture of Islam, on obverse and reverse.

From earliest times, silver was the principal metal for trade in the Far East. It was cast in cakes or ingots of various forms marked with inscriptions giving the name of the merchant and the denomination and purity of the piece of metal. Regular machine-made round coins of the Western type did not appear until 1870 in Japan and 1889 in China.

Except for the Orient, most coins throughout the world were handstruck until about 1500. The Italians are credited with devising mills for punching out uniformly round, blank metal disks, or planchets, and screw presses for impressing designs onto them. The discovery of the Americas, with their wealth of precious metals, led to greatly increased coin production, including large silver pieces. During this period almost every kingdom, duchy, principality, and free city in the Western world issued its own coins.

Minting of coins in the New World began in 1535 in Mexico City, after the Spanish conquest. The British government did not provide its North American colonists with a coinage of their own; therefore, although the colonists used British money, reckoning values in pounds, shillings, and pence, they also used French, Dutch, German, and assorted Spanish coins.

An official mint in the United States was established in 1792, and coinage began in 1793. In addition to the denominations still in use today, the mint over the years produced ½-cent, 2-cent, 3-cent, and 20-cent pieces as well as gold coins ranging from $2.50 to $20. The original 5-cent pieces were half-dimes made of silver. With a few exceptions, U.S. coins carry a year date and a mint mark to show where they were produced. The last regular issue gold coins were struck in 1933, and the last fine silver coins were dated 1964. Since 1982, however, the United States has issued silver and gold commemorative coins to mark certain memorable events such as the 23rd Olympic Games in Los Angeles (1984), the centennial of the Statue of Liberty (1986), and the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution (1987). Since 1986 the U.S. Mint has issued gold and silver bullion coins, principally for precious metal investors.

All early U.S. coins had a personification of Liberty on the obverse; on the 1859 cent this figure was depicted with a Native American in a feathered headdress. A design featuring a representation of a Native American came into use on the $2.50 and $5 gold pieces of 1908 and on the 5-cent pieces (made of copper and nickel) of 1913. The practice of picturing deceased presidents on U.S. coins dates from 1909, the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. A series of 50 types of special commemorative silver coins was issued between 1892 and 1954; many carried likenesses of historical figures other than presidents, including the explorer Daniel Boone and the showman P. T. Barnum. The first regular-issue coin with such a design was the Benjamin Franklin half-dollar (honoring the American statesman), issued from 1948 to 1963.

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