Archivist’s News: An ANS Die-Cutting School

by Joseph Ciccone

Recently, I was arranging documents in the archives from the first decade of the twentieth century. As I sifted through these archival records, I came across correspondence and other documents related to an early, albeit unsuccessful, effort of the Society to promote medallic art in the United States—the creation of the Society’s School for Coin and Medal Designing and Die-Cutting.

Establishment of the School

The origins of the school date back to March 1900, when the Society’s membership gathered for their annual meeting in the Society’s rented room in the New York Academy of Medicine building. During the meeting, Andrew Zabriskie, president of the ANS since 1896, gave his annual address, in which he reviewed the accomplishments of the past year and made proposals for the upcoming one. Chief among the latter was the establishment of a school for die-cutting. In making this recommendation, Zabriskie first commented on the “lamentable backwardness” in the United States with regards to the medallic arts, opining, “the remedy to me seems plain: a school for die-cutting should be established, under the charge of this Society, conjointly, if deemed best, with one or other of the artistic bodies in this city. The beginning might, and doubtless would, be modest, but I fully believe there are to-day in this city youths and maidens—for this pursuit can be equally well engaged in by women—who would become equals of the Sharfs, the Rotys, and the Lea Ahlborns of the old world.”

Andrew Zabriskie, ca. 1903. Zabriskie was a leading proponent and financial backer of the school. (ANS Archives)

Zabriskie ended his address with a challenge to the Society’s membership: “Let us not, my friends, leave this room to-night until a Committee has been appointed to take up this great work, which cannot fail to be the most important ever undertaken by this Society.”

The membership agreed and authorized Zabriskie to appoint the committee. By May, an exploratory Committee on the School for Die-Cutting had been appointed. Its chair was Woodbury Langdon. A wealthy New York City banker and real-estate investor, Langdon had been a member of the ANS since 1885 and had served as the Society’s second vice president since 1897.

Even before this exploratory committee was formed, local New York City newspapers were commenting on the proposed school. By July, the press was even reporting that the ANS had joined forces with the National Academy of Design to cosponsor the new school as a branch of the Academy’s operations. (At the time, the Academy’s offices were located at 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.) There was one problem, however—the Society hadn’t yet officially agreed to participate in the collaborative venture.

Zabriskie, ever enthused by the project, nonetheless wrote to Bauman Belden, the Society’s recording secretary, and asked him to limit communications with the press for the time being—“no information should be given to the papers before the Die Cutting School has been authorized by the Soc.”—but stated his intent to hold a special meeting of the Executive Committee in September to quickly consider the matter. In any event, “if we decide to go ahead the school must be under way in Nov.” The anticipated September meeting, unfortunately, was delayed, so the exploratory committee was unable to issue its report until November, which, in turn, necessitated a delay in the start of school operations.

At that November meeting, Langdon, speaking for the exploratory committee, formally reported that the Academy had “offered a room for the use of the school during a part of each day.” Langdon recommended, on behalf of the exploratory committee, that the new school be started as soon as possible, with a target of eight to ten students initially attending classes three times a week. Langdon also recommended that two teachers be hired, one of whom would lecture on “the practical application of the art of drawing to designs for dies,” while the other would lecture on “the preliminary steps connected with the modeling of designs and the incising of metals.” In the second year, a third teacher could be hired to teach an unidentified “advanced course.” The committee estimated that the cost of operating such a school would be $800 per school year (about $18,500 in 2005 dollars, according to the Consumer Price Index). And while the school would be subject to the rules and regulations of the Academy, it would be managed by a joint committee of the Academy and the ANS.

The Society’s membership adopted the exploratory committee’s recommendations and, as a result, established two operating committees: one to solicit donations to fund the school and a second to manage the school once enough funds had been received. Both committees were to be chaired by Langdon, although the composition of the two differed. While the membership of the (temporary) solicitation committee included members from the exploratory committee, on the management committee Langdon would be joined only by the school’s chief supporter, Andrew Zabriskie, and another prominent supporter of the Society’s medallic program, J. Sanford Saltus.

Fundraising commenced almost immediately, and by the start of 1901 almost $1,250 had been pledged by fourteen members of the ANS. The leading contributor, not surprisingly, was Zabriskie, who pledged $300 (about $7,000 in current dollars).

The Abbreviated 1901 Session

The school opened in January of 1901, with one instructor, Charles Pike (who was identified as a student of Augustus Saint-Gaudens), and two students. Its official title was the cumbersome “School for Coin and Medal Designing and Die-Cutting, under the joint direction of the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society and the National Academy of Design.” By all accounts, this first, abbreviated session (lasting from January through May) was a success. By March, Zabriskie was able to speak of his “especial pride and satisfaction” in the success of the school. And the Society’s Executive Committee boasted that the school had “attracted much attention among those who feel an interest in the improvement of medallic art in this country.”

Proponents of the school had reason to be pleased. For instance, although only two students were in attendance when the session started, by the end of the session in May there were seven—close to the eight-to-ten-student range targeted in the exploratory committee’s report. In addition, costs for this first session were only $200—significantly less than anticipated. An enthusiastic Langdon even offered $100 as a prize for “the best work done in the school, to be awarded at the close of the school year” in May. Langdon would repeat this prize for each of the school’s four remaining years.

Thus, as the school’s first session concluded, the officers of the ANS could correctly think that they might actually succeed in their attempt to create an “American school” of die-making.

Developing Problems

Despite the good feelings, however, there were problems that became increasingly evident, especially an inability to hire enough instructors and recruit enough students. For instance, a chronic problem with the school was the Society’s inability to locate enough qualified instructors, in particular ones trained in die-sinking. As originally envisioned, the school would commence operations with two instructors, but only one could be located. And while the management committee would later comment that Pike’s performance was “altogether satisfactory,” they lamented that “he does not profess to teach” die-sinking. As a result, during that first abbreviated session of 1901, coursework had been limited to modeling and designing in clay.

Victor D. Brenner, undated. Brenner taught at the school during its second year. (ANS Archives)

To correct this deficiency, after the abbreviated 1901 school year concluded, the ANS laid off Pike and hired the noted medalist Victor Brenner to begin teaching when classes resumed in the fall of 1901. As Langdon later explained: “Mr. Brenner’s appointment in Mr. Pike’s stead was due only to a desire on the part of our Committee to provide instruction in die-sinking, as well as in the preparation of designs in a proper form from which to cut dies, etc.” For unexplained reasons, however, Brenner only lasted one year—at the end of the 1901-1902 school year he resigned, effectively forcing the ANS to rehire the previously terminated Pike.

After Pike’s return, the Committee briefly had hopes of locating a second instructor (Pike thought he knew of a die-sinker who would be willing to serve), but, by January 1904, they acknowledged that their attempts had been in vain, “owing to the unwillingness of practical die-sinkers to teach their art, because of the fear of competition from graduated students of the School.” “The problem,” they continued, “is to find a man willing to teach and sufficiently elevated in mind to understand that the instructor of this class is founding an ‘American School’ which should eventually be an honor to the United States; not a simple ‘trade competition,’ dangerous to foreign-born workmen.”

A second problem was the persistent lack of students. Although the management committee had set a modest goal for the first year, presumably they expected the student population to increase substantially. As a result, the committee made additional modifications (in addition to hiring a new instructor) for the 1901-1902 session. For instance, in an effort to increase the popularity of the school when it reopened under Brenner’s instructorship in the fall of 1901, a new course was also added—Instruction in the Designing and Modelling of Ornamental Decoration and Artistic Jewelry—“as it was thought that this would tend to attract pupils who might, later, direct their attention to the Medallic branch.” In addition, courses that had previously been held in the day were now conducted in the evening, which the committee hoped would be more convenient for potential students. Their hope was not realized: only six students attended the 1901-1902 session, and only seven attended the 1903-1904 session. For the school’s final session, in 1904-1905, the number had risen to nine—slightly larger, but nothing substantial.

These two problems—an inability to locate enough qualified instructors and low attendance—would plague the school throughout the remainder of its brief existence and ultimately lead to its downfall.

Demise of the School

As 1905 began, Langdon reported at the Society’s annual meeting that classes had begun once again at the school, with nine students in attendance and “a most promising outlook.” Langdon’s assessment, unfortunately, proved to be overly optimistic. The school’s chief sponsor, Zabriskie, had resigned from the presidency in December 1904, after his ill-advised attempt to merge the ANS with the New-York Historical Society had been defeated. And by May 1905, Langdon himself would quit both the school’s management committee and the ANS. Thus, by the end of May, as the Society’s new president, Archer Huntington, was about to meet with the Society’s Executive Committee for the first time, the school’s two chief backers were nowhere to be seen.

“We had a delightful evening,” Bauman Belden later wrote of that first meeting between Huntington and the Executive Committee. “[Huntington] seemed much pleased with things.” Not surprisingly, the new administration had new priorities—locating suitable facilities and invigorating the Society’s limited publications program were high on the new president’s agenda. Maintaining the die-cutting school—a struggling initiative of his predecessor—was not. As a result, at that very first meeting the Executive Committee decided to discontinue the school. As the Executive Committee simply reported later, “it was felt that the results obtained were not sufficient to warrant the expense of keeping it up.” Unspent donations were applied to pay off the school’s existing expenses; the remainder was added to the Society’s permanent funds for the purchase of coins and medals.

The School for Medal Design and Die-Cutting was an honorable, albeit unsuccessful, effort to stimulate the medallic arts in the United States. In a way, it represents one of the last major projects of the ANS prior to the infusion of Huntington’s funds—funds upon which the Society would rely for the next five decades to support its major initiatives. The school was, however, only part of the Society’s efforts to support the medallic arts in America. In fact, J. Sanford Saltus, the one member of the school’s management committee who remained active with the ANS, would eventually become the leading proponent of the Society’s other efforts to support American medallic art in the coming decades.