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Learn About History with Your Small Change!

Learn About History with Your Small Change!

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Updated on May 14, 2014

Did you hear the news? Coin collecting isn’t just a quirky habit anymore. It’s a fun way to teach your child about American history. This year, the United States Mint releases the final state quarter in its 50 State Quarters Program—a ten-year endeavor to emboss a unique, iconic image of each state in the Union on a total of 32,356,000,000 quarters. From New York’s Statue of Liberty to Alabama’s Helen Keller to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, your wallet is a rich pile of history just waiting to be told. That’s why Jim Noles wrote A Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of AmericaOne State Quarter at a Time. The book outlines the story behind each state quarter design, unraveling the broad history of the United States.

Here are excerpts from 5 of those stories to get you and your child started on an exciting voyage through history, via your change purse:

Virginia

You’ve heard about the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria—the ships that brought Columbus to the New World—but what about the Discovery, Susan Constant, and Godspeed? They deserve similar respect, but they will have to settle for being featured on the reverse of Virginia’s state quarter.

That coin honors them for delivering the first colonists to Jamestown, a colonial settlement whose quadricentennial Virginia celebrated in 2007. That group of colonists, including a mason, several laborers, carpenters, bricklayers, a fisherman, a pair of surgeons, a preacher, a barber, and Captain John Smith left London on December 20th, 1606. Five months later, they reached Virginia.

Although Jamestown was destined to become the first successful English settlement in North America, such success seemed far from certain, due to Indian attacks, disease, starvation, and fire. Despite such troubles, tobacco offered some hope of the quick riches that had eluded the earlier gold-seeking colonists. In 1614, John Rolfe exported Virginia’s first shipment of tobacco in four barrels. Tobacco exports quickly climbed to nearly 50,000 pounds within four years. Stoked by such hopes, Jamestown grew to be home to 1,240 settlers in 1622, and remained the capital of colonial Virginia for another fifty-five years.

Louisiana

This state honors its official bird, the Brown Pelican, and a symbol of its jazz heritage, the trumpet, on its coin. Eighteenth-century naturalist and artist John James Audubon called the Brown Pelican one of the most interesting of the American birds. With a wing-span of up to seven feet, this bird can fly for many hours at a time, and catches fish by diving head first from high in the air. The resulting impact would kill ordinary birds. Pelicans, however, are equipped with air sacs just beneath their skin that cushion the otherwise punishing blow.

The choice to depict the pelican is reflective of the state’s plight to save the bird from extinction. The widespread use of pesticides such as DDT and endrin to kill insect pests ended up killing many pelicans. The chemicals found their way into the food chain, inexorably working their way up it, and contaminated the fish ingested by the brown pelican. Those fish, in turn, contaminated the pelicans themselves. By the mid-1960s, the population of pelicans in Texas and Louisiana had shrunk from some 5,000 birds to scarcely 100 pelicans fighting for survival along the Texas coast. The pelican was put on the list of endangered species and in 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT, and restricted the use, handling, and disposal of pesticides such as endrin.

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