Review: A Pocketful of History

Jim Noles
A Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of America—One State Quarter at a Time
Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2008. Hb., 324pp., b/w illus. throughout. ISBN 978-0-306-81578-2. $25.00.

In the acknowledgments to Jim Noles’s new book chronicling the history of the United States through the reverse types chosen for the U.S. Mint’s Fifty State Quarters Program (FSQP), the author refers to A Pocketful of History as the culmination of a “hare-brained scheme.” When the book first arrived on this reviewer’s desk, there were some concerns that this might be a fair summing up of the contents. Thus it was a relief and a pleasure to discover instead a well-executed attempt to use the current popular interest in images on pocket change as a means of fostering an appreciation of the American historical experience.

A Pocketful of History is not a numismatic book in the strict sense, nor is it really about the fifty state quarters. It is true that readers who are interested in the process of type selection for the FSQP will find brief anecdotes about the controversial decisions made by the U.S. Mint. Likewise, rare varieties in the series are mentioned very occasionally, but again, this is not a major area of interest. Instead, Noles takes the reverse type of each quarter as an excuse to present interesting vignettes of American political, economic, and natural history to the general public. Unencumbered by a strictly numismatic mandate, the author weaves impressively diverse stories for each quarter’s reverse. These range from tales of heroism in the Revolution, to the discovery of natural wonders (particularly in the West), to studies of technological and agricultural ingenuity. While this may seem like a relatively straightforward task on the surface, it is made difficult by the frequent tendency of the reverses to feature iconic (e.g., the Georgia peach, the magnolias of Mississippi, the star and state outline of Texas, etc.) rather than historical images and the occasional duplication of iconography (buffaloes on several reverses; the Wright brothers’ airplane on the North Carolina and Ohio quarters). Despite these obstacles, Noles is exemplary in his ability to take the iconographic straw at his disposal and spin it into literary gold.

Several of the chapters take staid and unassuming types and use them as springboards to tell brilliant stories only thinly connected to the images on the quarters. For example, the depiction of Longs Peak on Colorado’s quarter mentions the bunker of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) hidden in the Colorado Rockies, then segues into the story of Colorado’s Camp Hale, used by the CIA to train Tibetan freedom fighters in the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, the magnolia flowers on the Mississippi quarter are not fodder for a horticultural account of the state but rather a thin excuse to chronicle the Civil War exploits of the Magnolia Guards, also known as Company K of the Seventeenth Mississippi Infantry Regiment. Perhaps most compelling, however, is Noles’s use of Mount Rainier on the Washington quarter to tell the story of Lieutenant August Valentine Kautz—the first white man to scale the mountain—and his courageous attempts to save the Nisqually Indian chief Leschi from an unjust death sentence in 1857.

The author also deserves praise for managing to come up with different and engaging anecdotes for the iconography duplicated on the quarters of several states, as in the case of the buffalo (bison) on the coins of Kansas, North Dakota, and Montana. The Kansas buffalo leads to the story of the African American regiments of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry, which originated in Fort Leavenworth and were known to the Plains Indians as “Buffalo Soldiers.” The tale of the slaughter of the great buffalo herds as the Union Pacific Railroad crossed the plains is told in the section on the North Dakota quarter. The American Prairie Foundation’s recent (if not entirely uncontroversial) rescue of the American buffalo from the brink of extinction is recounted in the Montana chapter.

Noles’s bravery as a writer is proven by his treatment of the Michigan quarter reverse, which has been almost universally condemned as the least imaginative in the FSQP. Faced with the dullness of this type (an outline of the Great Lakes), the author still manages to engage the reader with a dramatic account of the White Hurricane, which devastated areas around Lake Superior and Lake Michigan in November 1913.

While A Pocketful of History makes for a very pleasant afternoon of historical reading, it should be noted that the book is avocational. The author is a member of the legal profession, not a professional historian, nor does he claim any numismatic background beyond a personal interest in the FSQP. Bearing this in mind, readers must be cautious about taking all of the details of Noles’s lively narratives as absolutely correct.

While discussing Maryland’s status as “the Old Line State,” the author emphasizes the splendid appearance of the Maryland Battalion by mentioning its scarlet uniforms with buff facings. However, Noles seems to be unaware that these colors actually were prescribed for officers only. The rank-and-file of the Battalion’s nine Independent Companies generally wore hunting shirts as their uniform. They did not have a scarlet dress uniform that they exchanged for hunting shirts in the field, as Noles suggests. The Artillery Companies, which wore blue uniforms with red facings, and the 3rd Independent Company, which wore black uniforms, were the exceptions to the hunting shirt rule (see M. Zlatich, General Washington’s Army (1) 1775–1778 [1994], 8).

The author has a good grasp of American history, but he fumbles a little when he briefly crosses north of the forty-ninth parallel in connection with the fur trade carried on in Minnesota first by the French coureurs des bois and then by the members of the North West and Hudson’s Bay Companies. Noles correctly describes the suppression of the Red River Resistance (1869–1870) of Manitoba Métis led by Louis Riel as an indirect factor in the decline of the organized fur trade, but he mistakenly makes the defeat of the resisters an action of the British government. Although British regular troops were involved in the Red River Expedition, the decision to counter Riel and his followers with armed force came from the Parliament of the Dominion of Canada (confederated in 1867) and its first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald. The repression of the resistance was properly speaking a Canadian, not British, action.

Additionally, in a few cases the narratives develop odd points of emphasis. For example, there can be little doubt that the Alabama authorities chose to depict the deaf-blind Helen Keller on their quarter as an icon of perseverance and bravery in the face of adversity, yet for some reason almost half of the Alabama chapter is given over to Keller’s prosocialist and communist political activism (real and reputed) later in life. The shock in describing Keller’s opposition to American entry into World War I hardly seems fair when one considers that up until 1917, isolationism had been the official policy of the United States (even after the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, with 128 Americans on board).

As the book is intended for the general public, the prose is written in a light, conversational style, and the author frequently injects elements of humor. This is usually well received, but it is difficult to stifle a groan while reading the chapter on the Kentucky quarter. Remarking on the entry of Kentucky into the Union and the foundation of the U.S. Mint in the same year (1792), Noles jokes that this coincidence “perhaps explains Kentucky’s legendary affinity for the mint julep. Or perhaps not.” Perhaps not, indeed. The capitalization on the apparent Native American name for Nebraska’s Chimney Rock, which refers to a prominent feature of the male elk’s anatomy, also seems unnecessarily gratuitous and tends to detract from the account of hardship and triumph on the Oregon and Mormon Trails that it introduces.

Despite the relatively minor problems of historical and numismatic detail mentioned above, Jim Noles has done a masterful job of breathing life and interest into a group of quarters whose designs have been occasionally criticized by the less charitable as “uninspired,” “kitschy,” and in some cases even “ugly.”

—Oliver D. Hoover