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Proof coins are different from the coins that are commonly struck for circulation in the United States. The term “Proof” indicates a method of manufacturing that is different from the circulation coins. Proof coins are struck for collectors and each coin receives special handling at the US Mint to ensure that the coin has a very minimal number of marks and well represents the coinage of the United States. Proof coins are generally struck on specially polished planchets with a higher amount of pressure in order to make the designs as strong and as visible as possible. Proof coins also have better and more protective packaging than uncirculated coins, which are often stored and shipped in rolls or loose in bags.
Since 1936, the United States Mint has struck proof coins for collectors and sold them in sets of one denomination of each current coin. In the 1850s, coin collectors would request that the Mint strike proof coins for them on an individual basis, which was often accommodated.
Form that time forward, the Mint would strike a very limited number of proof coins of each current issue for sale directly to collectors. This practice stopped in 1916, due to a lack of interest from collectors. It was restarted again in 1936 and continues on through today.
As coins for circulation changed, so did their proof counterparts. During 1942, the metallic composition of the nickel coin changed during the year from copper and nickel to Silver and manganese and the Mint was certain to strike a Proof version of the Silver Nickel. During this time, the proof coins were generally sold separately but in 1950 the Mint began selling “Proof Sets” – comprised of one of each denomination.
Throughout this entire process, only the Mint at Philadelphia struck and sold proof coins. No proof coins were struck at any operating branch mint facility. During the 1965 though 1967 period, no proof coins were struck but instead Special Mint Sets were issued. These coins were similar to the uncirculated coins, but they were treated to have a special satin finish on them.
In 19768, the San Francisco Mint began striking proof set coins and each bore the “S” mintmark to indicated that they had been struck at that branch mint.
Since 1975, the Proof Set was the major series of coins struck at the San Francisco Mint. Since that time, a variety of additional circulation coins have been added and removed from proof sets while the annual coins – One Cent, Five Cents, Ten Cents, Twenty-five Cents and Fifty Cent pieces have always been included. Some of the additions have been:
- Eisenhower Dollars
- Susan B Anthony Dollars
- Sacagawea Dollars
- Presidential Dollars
- Bicentennial Quarters and Half Dollars
- State Quarters
- Westward Journey Nickels
- Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Cents
- 50 State Quarters Proof Sets
- Territorial Quarters
- America the Beautiful Quarters
The Mint has also added a Silver Proof Set in 1992 and offered them on an annual basis. Between 1992 and 2018, the silver coin purity was the standard 90%. In 2019, the silver purity was increased to 99.9% to compete with silver bullion proof coins worldwide.
Additionally, the Mint has offered Limited Edition Silver Proof Sets which contain only the silver coins of the standard set and a Proof Silver American Eagle coin, and a Prestige Proof Set which contains the Commemorative Silver Dollar coin in Proof for that year.