Know It All: Why Do Some American Coins Have Ridges Around the Edge?

Ever wondered why the edges of quarters and dimes look different than the edges of nickels and pennies? Well, wonder no more.

Everybody has that moment when they realize they don’t know about something that they should probably know about. Whether it’s history, language, science, or cultural phenomena, you’ve felt the stinging personal embarrassment of a moment wherein you realize there’s some common knowledge that isn’t so common. Don’t feel bad; nobody knows everything. Nobody, that is, except me and my sidekick, The Internet!

Somewhere in the world, a confused soul begs the question…

Why do some American coins have ridges around the edge?

Anyone who has had some spare change in their pocket and some time to kill has noticed that while the edges of both pennies and nickels are completely smooth, the edges of quarters and dimes have tiny little ridges all the way around. Why is this? Why make a distinction? Are different sizes, colors, and markings not enough?

According to the US Mint, there is a reason. Or… there was a reason. Originally, the quarter and dime – in addition to other “major” coins like the dollar and half-dollar – were made partially from precious metals like silver and gold. The special edge (also known as a “reeded edge”) served as protection against counterfeiting and, more importantly, fraudulent use.

How, exactly, does one “fraudulently use” a coin? Well, prior to reeded edges, people in need of money would file down the edges of the major coins in an attempt to collect bits of the precious metals contained within (aiming to sell any trace amounts of gold and/or silver for a sizable chunk of change). This filing scheme was not only illegal as defacement of American currency but it was also a practice that would ultimately negatively affect the value of that coin and, in turn, cost the government money (as it was essentially like slowly throwing their money away).

Since the 1960s, however, no precious metals have been used in the minting of any American coin (major or minor) and yet the ridges are still present. The US Mint rationalizes the continued utilization of this outdated security measure by saying that the ridges now serve as an aid to the visually impaired, helping them distinguish between similarly-sized coins like the penny and dime. Honestly, though, it seems like a good old fashioned case of “well, this is the way we’ve always done it” that we’re simply not meant to question.

Now you know.

Justin Brown is an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook

60 Comments

  • Reply September 15, 2009

    jcard21

    This practice of coin “reeding” began, I believe, in Roman times, because the Roman government was trimming the coins and minting new coins from the shavings (increasing the money supply = inflation). This is an insideous form of taxation.

    CAUSE: increase the money supply… inflation;

    EFFECT: 1) money is worth less;

    EFFECT 2) prices go up.

    Governments throughout history did this: increase the money supply (inflation).

    The fall of the Roman Empire was arguably caused by tax rebellion.

    When governments need more money than they have precious metals, they remove the precious metals from their coins.

    Read… For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on The Course of Civilization by Charles Adams (1993)

    • Reply May 20, 2018

      Brandy Weis

      The Roman emperors did debase their coinage, but it was done explicitly. And they almost never “trimmed the coins” by making a particular denomination heavier or lighter (and they never shaved metal off of old coins, for the purpose of using those shavings to create new coins). Most often, they would change the percentage of a precious metal which went into a coin. An emperor who faced economic problems might reduce the percentage of gold in a “solidus” from 90% to 88%.

      The idea of any taxation being “insidious” is problematic. Money is a method used by governments, to govern. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Systems of tender are arbitrary, and money is as extraneous as any other external possession. The state is the source of all money, and to the state all money must return. Money is a state instrument. Let the state do as it will, with money. And may our will be for a state without money and without property. A state of cooperation, not competition. A state of equality. Money is a fetter from the past. Soon the day dawns when we laugh at such trifles.

  • Reply July 2, 2010

    larry

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