The History of the ANS: The First Ten Years

Abridged by Jennifer Mazurkie from Howard Adelson’s History of the ANS

The year 2008 will mark the 150th anniversary of the American Numismatic Society. In anticipation, we plan to publish a history of the ANS, in installments covering a decade each, over the next six years. In its first decade, the ANS was clearly characterized by the events of the time. In fact, it was a product of the social and an economic change taking place—and was shaped by the devastating effects of war.

The Great American Cultural Revival and the Birth of an Idea

Although an avid interest in the collecting and study of coins has been a passion for many almost since the advent of coinage, it was not until the mid 19th century that learned societies took the forefront of numismatic research. The American Numismatic Society, founded in March of 1858, was the second numismatic organization to be formed in the Unites States. The first—by only a couple of months—was the Numismatic Society of Philadelphia, founded in January of 1858. The seemingly sudden interest in numismatics in the mid-1800s has as much to do with the social and cultural milieu of that age as it does the changes to the U.S. monetary system that took place in the 1850s.

The end of the 18th century and early part of the 19th century witnessed the beginning of an American cultural revival that exploded between the 1830s and 1860. Great thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin had sparked an interest in learning and cultural pursuits that now trickled down to the general populace. This was the age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Longfellow, and New England—particularly Boston—was the center of this phenomenon. The popularization of knowledge so infiltrated daily life that the mill workers of Lowell, Mass., were encouraged to spend their free time reading, attending scientific discussions, or otherwise bettering themselves. The first public libraries came into existence mid-century, and the number of public schools and colleges in the country greatly increased. The large number of daily newspapers in existence by this time is testament to the rise in literacy rates—and not just for the upper classes.

Despite all this, the field of numismatic studies was fairly barren during the first half of the century. However, reforms to the U.S. monetary system were in the works—and these reforms would force people to look at their coins and notes in a new light. It all started in 1848 with the discovery of gold in the west, which dramatically changed the market values of gold and silver. In addition, silver had been flowing out of the country at a very rapid rate since about 1844. Much of what was left in the country was markedly underweight, and a significant amount of it was foreign currency. The introduction in the 1850s of fiduciary silver coins in all denominations (except the one-dollar coin) was intended to combat the unstable monetary system; it had the added benefit of driving foreign silver from the market. An 1857 law abolishing the half-cent and calling for the manufacture of a new type of cent, as well as declaring foreign silver no longer legal tender, rounded out the monetary changes of the decade. These were drastic; numerous changes in the circulating coinage that people handled everyday. With the realization that many coin types would no longer be available, a new breed of collector and scholar was born—the numismatist.

One avid numismatist was Augustus B. Sage, who in 1857 under the name of “Gus,” published a series of articles titled “Gleanings from Coins” in the New York Sunday Dispatch. Sage was a New York City coin dealer, and was an integral part of the founding of the ANS. In fact, for the first year, ANS meetings were held at his home at 121 Essex St. In early March of 1858, Sage hosted a few proposal meetings for a new society dedicated to numismatics. The first regular meeting of the ANS was held on April 6 of that year. The 12 founders present at that meeting were Sage, Dr. Thomas Dunn English, John Cooper Vail, James D. Foskett, James Oliver, Edward Groh, Alfred Boughton, Ezra Hill, Jacob J. Melber, Henry Whitmore, Dr. Isaac Hand Gibbs, and Asher T. Atkinson.

Invitation to establish The American Numismatic Society penned by Augustus B. Sage on March 8, 1856

Developing an Identity

For the initial meeting, Gibbs was elected president pro tempore, and Sage was named secretary pro tempore. At some point in March, Sage had drawn up a draft of the constitution and bylaws. This was discussed at the April 6 meeting. Attendees quickly reached an agreement on reworking the documents, English drew up a final version, which was unanimously supported and was adopted at the first meeting. This original constitution emphasized the society’s dedication to American coinage only—in fact, the ANS’s aims were “the collection and preservation of the coins and medals struck in this country.” However, later reflection upon the wording of the constitution and bylaws seems to have given many members pause; as soon as the documents were published, members began making proposals for revisions. Revisions suggested at the fifth meeting (July 13, 1858) would have altered the wording that restricted interest only to American objects.

At the second regular meeting (April 13, 1858), regular officers were elected. These were: Gibbs as president, Vail and Whitmore as vice presidents, Foskett as actuary (this was later replaced by the position of curator), Oliver as secretary, and Lawrence as treasurer. It seems that English, who ran against Gibbs for the office of president, was upset at his defeat—he never returned to another meeting, claiming disappointment that some members intended “to turn the affair into a machine for trading coins.” Standing committees were also formed at this meeting: the Committee on Coins, the Committee on Medals, the Committee on Transactions, and the Committee on Library.

In early 1859, the society members recognized that it was time to have the society incorporated by the Legislature. By April, the necessary steps had been taken to carry this out. However, it was discovered that one of the officers, the curator, William Legett Bramhall, was a minor and therefore ineligible to serve as a trustee or officer of an incorporated society. Interestingly, Bramhall served, with distinction, as a captain of volunteers in the Civil War two years later. Groh replaced Bramhall in his office so that the incorporation would go through. However, by the time of the last meeting prior to the end of the Civil War (Oct. 20, 1859), the incorporation hadn’t taken effect.

Another issue that began to plague the society, and which became a recurring problem for several years to come, was finding a suitable, regular meeting place. It soon became clear that an alternative to Sage’s home must be found, and the society bounced around from rented room to rented room during its first decade—never staying more than five months or so at any one location.

Outreach and Growth

For its first two years, the society managed to expand its membership beyond Manhattan. Notices about the ANS were placed in local newspapers in such places as Boston, Cincinnati, Maine, and Kentucky. One of the first corresponding members was Charles B. Endicott of Boston, who donated a pattern guinea of George III to the society. In addition, the group was becoming a model for other numismatic organizations across the country, such as the Boston Numismatic Society, the Rhode Island Numismatic Society, the New England Numismatic and Archeological Society, and similar groups in New Haven and Montreal. Clearly, the study of numismatics was taking off in America.

The society made no coin purchases during these years, but spent much of its time on scholarly research. At a meeting on Nov. 19, 1858, a member named William Frederick Mayers delivered a paper titled “The Literature of American Numismatics.” During the Dec. 2 meeting of that year, the secretary read a letter from a man in Cincinnati who requested information on a vase full of silver coins. The society’s conclusions were printed in the local Cincinnati paper.

1825 half-cent, ex Augustus B. Sage. The first coin given to the ANS.

Solicitations for donations to the collection and library were made during these years, and the nucleus of both was formed. The first recorded (in November 1858) donation to the coin cabinet came from David M. Balfour of Boston and was comprised of “several valuable coins.” Many institutions began to send the society copies of medals they commissioned, St. John’s College at Fordham sent copies of medals presented to the best student in each of their three classes.

Cessation and Rebirth

John Brown raided the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va., on Oct. 16, 1859, and it was clear that the country was on the brink of dramatic change. With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the secession of South Carolina later that year, it’s not surprising that the last meeting of the society for almost five years was held in October 1859. Several of the society’s members were young men of military age. The society’s first meeting following the war was held in February 1865 at the home of George Perine at 6 E. 22nd St. In addition to Perine, five other pre-war members were in attendance.

The revitalized society seemed intent upon picking up where they left off in 1859. However, they were ripe for some changes. At this point, the group called itself “The American Numismatic and Archeological Society.” The constitution and bylaws were completely revised and republished. However, some of the old problems still presented themselves: the society had no suitable meeting place, had not been incorporated and had no seal. Two of these issues were soon cleared up. The matter of incorporation was revisited in November of 1864 and an act dated May 16, 1865, was finally signed by seven society officers and was accepted by the state.

Attempts to create a seal and certificate of membership had been started before the war, but got nowhere. In 1865, members designed and approved the society’s first seal. Minimalist in design, the seal displayed only text: Running semi-circularly around the outside, along the edges and at top, was the inscription, “American Numismatic and Archeological Society.” “New York,” ran along the bottom edge. In the center of this was a six-line inscription: “Founded / 1857 / Reorganized / 1864 / Incorporated / 1865.” Although informative, the seal was not visually appealing. In 1867, a committee took up the seal’s redesign with Charles E. Anthon as catalyst. Anthon was a professor of history and belles lettres at what would eventually be known as the College of the City of New York. He spearheaded the endeavor that resulted in a seal similar to the one presently used by the ANS: an image of three oak leaves joined to a stem with four acorns; above the leaves in a semi-circle was the motto “parva ne pereant” (may the little things not perish), and the name “Soci. Amer. Numis. et Archeol.” ran in a semi-circle beneath the leaves.

The First Commission

Toward the end of the society’s first decade, another history-making event took place: Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed. The ANS, reeling under the weight of this news along with the rest of the world, realized yet another of its functions. A special committee resolved “that since it is the duty of this society to perpetuate the memorials of historic greatness, we will cause to be struck in bronze a medal, designed to commemorate the life and perpetuate the name of Abraham Lincoln.” This ambitious undertaking proved to be fraught with delays and mistakes—the biggest of which was hiring what turned out to be an inexperienced, or just very bad, medallist named Emil Sigel. Sigel was not a prominent medallist, and other than his work for the ANS, he is not known. At any rate, dies were eventually manufactured, and, in February 1866, George Perine actually presented impressions of the medal to President Andrew Johnson and George Bancroft, orator of the day. Press reports of the day indicate that the presentation was a success, and both Johnson and Bancroft were thrilled with the medal.

It was Sigel’s lack of technical knowledge in design and die creation that caused huge problems. Although the society planned to sell the medal struck in bronze, the dies were inferior. In April 1866, Sigel wrote to the society that the dies had broken during use and that he recommended the medal be issued in tin. Although it was decided to have Sigel recreate the dies and, indeed, issue the Lincoln medal primarily in tin, delays dragged out the matter for years. In January 1868, when the society thought they were making the final arrangements with the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia before striking with the second set of dies, they received bad news from William E. Dubois, superintendent of the mint. He called the dies, “a great blunder,” and said they were, “in violation of all rule.” Although the society had planned to sell the medals for $3, Dubois could not charge less than $4.25 for manufacture.

Immediately after receiving Dubois’s letter, an agreement was reached with Sigel: Sigel was to pay the ANS $720, either in money or in medals, in return for all stocks and ownerships of both sets of dies. Although some tin medals were struck and eventually sold (an 1874 report states that receipts for medals sold totaled $62.50), the society washed its hands of the whole business by January 1875. It appears that Sigel never fulfilled his part of the agreement by delivering $720 in money or medals.

The American Journal of Numismatics

The last two years of the ANS’s first decade also witnessed the development of a journalistic endeavor—one that exists today. During the March 8, 1866, meeting, society member Joseph Levick proposed establishing a monthly numismatic and archeological journal. Journals covering these topics already existed in abundance in Europe, but there were none in the United States. Just a couple of weeks later, at the March 22 annual meeting, the proposal was approved. Although the society recognized the potential financial problems, it was agreed that the society would guarantee publication for a year. However, after that, any expenses not covered by proceeds from the journal would be paid through “assessments on the members.” By May 1866, the first issue of the American Journal of Numismatics was ready.

The first issues of the AJN were in no way scholarly. They contained notices, the society’s meeting minutes, a question-and-answer section and articles of a popular nature. By the July issue, efforts to build up circulation resulted in the inclusion of the transactions of the Boston Numismatic Society. The minutes of the New England Numismatic and Archeological Society appeared in the August issue. The journal was clearly becoming a key means of communication for numismatic societies around the country—even in Canada.

At the end of the first year, it was clear that the AJN was far from a financial success—in fact, its subscriptions covered only half the expenses. Members were determined not to drop the project, however, and focused on building up circulation, as well as the length of the journal. Nevertheless, the uncovered expenses continued to overwhelm, largely due to the negligence of subscribers toward attending to their debts. Although the AJN had 200 subscribers by April 1868, many of them had not paid their subscription money. One issue of the journal even carried a plea for those who hadn’t yet done so to pay up “at once.”