Collecting Proof Sets, 1936-1964
By Dr. Sol Taylor
The previous era of proof coinage had mintages from a low of 800 to just over 4,000 (the 1910 proof cent). Unlike the more modern proof sets, the Mint sold the coins singly.
No official packaging or holder is known for the five-coin sets although I do have a sturdy green cardboard holder with an acetate slide, pencil-dated 1937 which the late Amos House gave me. He said it was available at the Mint for an extra five cents if you bought all five proof coins.
The published data for the proof sets issued in the 1936-1942 era does not indicate how many five-coin sets were sold, but rather listed the mintages for each denomination.
For example, the Mint record shows 3,837 proof sets issued in 1936. The actual number of cents minted was 5,569, nickels 4,420, dimes 4,130, quarters 3,837, and half dollars 3,901. These coins were sold singly over the counter and by mail; the price was 15 cents over face value for each coin. A complete set cost $1.89 (which probably accounts for the postage and insurance difference of 23 cents).
My father and I visited the Philadelphia Mint in 1940, and at the sales counter I asked to buy a proof Lincoln cent. I was asked what date I wanted. I replied, "What dates have you?" They had each date from 1937-1940 available for 16 cents apiece. I implored my father to let me buy all four coins but he balked at buying the nickels for 20 cents each.
Based on limited information, it would be safe to assume the early proof sets were not big sellers and the demand was not up to expectations since many of the coins of this era were still for sale over the counter as late as 1940 (but not the Buffalo nickels or the other 1936 coins). In a 1946 price list from Ben's Stamp & Coin Company of Chicago, proof cents from 1937-1942 were selling for 20 to 30 cents each.
The 1937 proof mintages showed the cent at 9,320, nickels 5,569, dimes 5,756, quarters 5,542, and half dollars 5,728. The Red Book ("A Guide Book of United States Coins," published annually by Whitman), shows the total number of proof sets for the year at 5,542. The surplus coins were for sale over the counter. The list price for a set of five coins was $1.89. This price continued through 1942.
The differences in individual denominations also varied. Each year the mintage increased: 1938, 8,045; 1939, 8,795; 1940, 11,240; 1941, 15,287; and 1942, 21,120 (includes two varieties of the nickel).
No proof coins were minted during the World War II years of 1943-1945 and none until 1950.
In 1950 the Mint resumed proof coin production, but this time sold the coins only in full sets of five coins each one in a small cellophane bag stapled at the top and placed in a small, square, unmarked box with a piece of tissue paper. Such sets are referred to as "boxed" sets.
The price was raised to $2.10 per set. Production of the the 1950 sets was raised to a new high of 51,386 sets.
This time, no single coins remained for over-the-counter sales. The sales numbers were raised each year with the boxed format until early 1955. The sales data show: 1951, 57,500; 1952, 81,960; 1953, 128,800; 1954, 233,300; and 1955, 387,200 (most of which were in the newer flat-pack format with a small mint medal in the package.
In 1957, proof set production passed the 1-million mark for the first time at 1,247,952 sets.
In 1958, the number fell to 875,652 sets and in 1959 again passed the 1-million mark at 1,149,291.
In 1960, the first month's production of proof sets contained the small-date version of the Lincoln cent and the remainder contained the large-date version. A total of 1.691 million sets were minted.
With the coin boom starting in 1960, the demand for proof sets pushed the production in 1961 to a record 3.028 million sets. Similar mintages were recorded in 1962, 1963 and 1964.
Due to the popularity of the new Kennedy half dollar in 1964, the Mint increased its original mintage of just over 3 million sets to nearly 4 million still at $2.10 a set. Since the original production was oversubscribed by mid year and speculators were pushing retail prices up to $30 a set, the Mint announced an additional production of nearly 1 million more sets later in the year. Retail prices fell to $5.
The packaging of the boxed sets from 1950-1955 proved unsatisfactory for most collectors for several reasons, and most of these sets were broken down and the coins placed in various custom plastic holders. The flat packs also had problems with storage, as the sharp edges of the coins cut through the acetate, resulting in spotting and tarnishing of the coins.
Here too, many such flat packs were broken down and only the blemish-free coins were inserted into various plastic proof-set holders. The flat packs also were housed in Kraft envelopes, which contain chemical residues unsuited for long term coin storage.
Due to the coin shortage of 1964-1965, the Mint discontinued proof set production for the period of 1965-1967. However, to meet collector demand, in 1965 the Mint issued a novel set known as "Special Mint Set" which contained one of each coin supposedly selected for its excellence. Such sets were packaged in white envelopes and sealed as the previous flat packs. These sets sold for $4.
In 1965, the Special Mint Set, or SMS, featured coins of proof-like quality and was housed in a hard plastic holder. It also sold for $4. The same was done in 1967.
The 1966 and 1967 coins show all the features of earlier issued proof coins but are listed officially as "proof like."
Based on values in the current issue of the Red Book, the values for these proof sets are:
Retail prices may vary from these book prices.
Dr. Sol Taylor of Sherman Oaks is president of the Society of Lincoln Cent Collectors and author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Click here for ordering information.
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