Freedom's First Con

Historians of the United States have traditionally shown little curiosity about American money in anything more than an abstract sense. In a salutary exception, Shane White,  the author of several noted books on African-American history, published an article in last fall’s Journal of the Early Republic that looked at the intersection of race and money in nineteenth-century New York City. The chaotic monetary system of the antebellum United States and the panoply of paper money in circulation, no small part of which was counterfeit, created a variety of problems for ordinary people engaged in commerce. Everyday transactions could turn into fraught affairs as the parties negotiated over the value and validity of the money being proffered. Matters only became more charged when race was added to the mix.

As detailed in the landmark exhibition at the New-York Historical Society a few years back, New York City has a long, and generally overlooked, history as a capital of slavery. In 1790, one in five white households in the city owned a slave, and although there was a growing free black community, it was not until over a half-century after the American Revolution that the state of New York formally abolished slavery on July 4, 1827.

ANS, 0000.999.39313
ANS, 0000.999.39313

The city was home to the American Anti-Slavery Society, which distributed the copper token above, and abolitionist sentiment was certainly on the rise in the 1830s and 1840s. And yet racism was hardly in abeyance, and the asymmetrical power relationship between white and black was something that African-Americans had to confront and deal with on a daily basis.

New-York Historical Society
New-York Historical Society

Shane White focuses on how this power dynamic played out in the course everyday monetary transactions, making use of a wealth of material drawn from legal records in the Municipal Archives. One commonality that emerges is of the problems that black businesses had dealing with white customers, who variously ran up and out on charges, tried to pay with counterfeit money, or otherwise abused black owners. The resulting conflict all too often resulted in violence, as with the following episode detailed in the article:

One evening in February 1835, William Dunbar tried to pay his bill of one shilling in a cook cellar in Cherry Street with a three-dollar note. Aaron Jacobs, the black proprietor of the establishment not only refused to accept it, claiming it was from a ‘‘broken bank,’’ but also would not return the note to his customer, making it clear that he intended to hand it over to the police the next day. Furious, Dunbar pulled out a loaded pistol, pointed the weapon at Jacobs, and squeezed the trigger. Although the cap exploded, fortunately for the black man, the pistol did not fire. Dunbar told the authorities that he had ‘‘no explanation to give that he was drunk & don’t know what he had done.’’

But African-Americans were not always on the losing side in these conflicts, and the article documents the way that the resolute black restaurateur Thomas Downing ably dealt with patrons attempting to pass counterfeit notes like the one below.

ANS, 1945.42.37
A well-circulated counterfeit five-dollar note from Tradesmen’s Bank of the City of New York. ANS, 1945.42.37

White also shows how some African Americans turned the complicated monetary system to their advantage. The titular “first con” refers to the the practice of “burning,” a scam wherein black men took money off white “marks” by offering to change their bank notes for silver and gold coins at friendly rates. Gangs of black “burners” often employed white confederates, and lurked around the city’s docks and exchange offices, looking for new arrivals with fat pocketbooks. A variety of tricks were used to induce the mark to take out their money, but once they did the burners simply grabbed the cash and ran. This rather crude con first emerged in the 1830s, but the article traces how the scam was refined over the years. For the full and fascinating story, click on the link below.

Shane White, Freedom’s First Con: African Americans and Changing Notes in Antebellum New York CityJournal of the Early Republic 43:3 (Fall 2014): 385-409.

Matthew Wittmann

Vincent van Gogh Centenary Medal

Self-Portrait (1887) Art Institute of Chicago

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on this date in 1853 near Breda in the southern part of the Netherlands. It was not until his late twenties that he began to paint in earnest. Before taking his own life at the age of thirty-seven, Van Gogh produced a huge volume of drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings. Many of the latter have of course come to be regarded as iconic works of modern art, even though his work was largely overlooked during his lifetime. The American Numismatic Society holds a fine medal commemorating the centenary of his birth by the Dutch artist J. B. Gutterswijk (1924-1987).

ANS, 1957.24.4
ANS, 1957.24.4

The portrait of Van Gogh on the obverse I think captures something of his troubled brilliance, and seems to be based on the famed self-portrait now at the Art Institute of Chicago. The reverse features a field of wheat, alluding to the many compostions of his in which they featured, along with two quotations.

ANS, 1957.24.4
ANS, 1957.24.4

The prominent legend, LONG ARS VITA BREVIS, is a Latin version of the first lines of Hippocrates Aphorisms, which is usually translated as “Art is long, life is short.” The smaller inscription below the field reads | mon travail à moi, j’y risque ma vie | “my very own work, I’m risking my life for it.” This is a quote from a letter that Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in late July 1890 just days before his untimely death. For a fascinating look at Van Gogh’s life and art, check out the wealth of wonderful materials made available via the website of the Van Gogh Museum here.

Matthew Wittmann

ANS in the Digital World

*******Welcome E-Sylum Readers!*******

ANS Seal


This is just a quick reminder about where you can find, and how to follow, the American Numismatic Society in the digital world.


***Follow us on Twitter for short and timely updates on ANS activities.

***Follow us on Instagram for an ongoing visual chronicle of the collection.

***Subscribe to our Youtube channel for more videos.

***Friend us on Facebook.

***For the tech savvy, the RSS feed for Pocket Change is here.

***To follow Pocket Change, please bookmark this page, or you can also “Subscribe to this Blog via Email” by entering your address into the designated space at the bottom of the left-hand column. You will then automatically receive an email whenever we make a new post.

If you are already a member of the American Numismatic Society, thank you for your support. For information about membership and to contribute to the Society’s ongoing efforts to promote research and education in numismatics, please click here.

Comments? Questions? Get in touch with us via our contact form.

Fairbanks Infallible Coin Scale

This is the first in a new monthly series of short films that will explore some of the more intriguing objects in the collection of the American Numismatic Society. First up is a short history of the Fairbanks’ Infallible Coin Scale and a look at how well it works in practice.

The Fairbanks Infallible Coin Scale shown in the the video is the descendent of a coin scale introduced by J. T. McNally in the late 1870s. It is a variation of a rocker device invented by John Allender in the 1850s, which had a fixed fulcrum with a counterweight and a gage or hole for different types of gold coins.

ANS, 2010.4.7
ANS, 2010.4.7

The Fairbanks-McNally scale replaced the gages with appropriately sized slots for each coin. The earliest versions had a walnut base and advertisements for them at a cost $2.50 each appear in newspapers and periodicals from 1879 forward. The relationship between McNally and the Fairbanks Company is not precisely clear but the models with wooden bases have either J. T. MCNALLY, INVENTOR. or FAIRBANKS & CO. stamped on what’s called the tang or metal beam.

On February 28, 1882, John T. McNally and Walter H. Harrison filed a patent for the design. Subsequently several versions of the scale with cast iron bases appeared. One model has the lettering FAIRBANKS CO. cast onto the base and imprinted on the counterweight end of the metal beam.


The more elaborate and seemingly most common model, advertised above, has a cast iron base with decorative golden stripes and flowers and the words FAIRBANK’S INFALLIBLE impressed into it. Imprinted on the metal beam is FAIRBANKS INFALLIBLE SCALE CO., BALTIMORE, MD., USA. The American Numismatic Society also has the presentation version of this same model, which came in a wooden box and is featured in the video.

For more on the history of counterfeit detectors and related devices, the best source is: Eric P. Newman and A. George Mallis, U.S. Coin Scales and Mechanical Counterfeit Coin Detectors (1999).


Numismatic Folk Art

Last evening was the opening for a new exhibition called “When the Curtain Never Comes Down” at the American Folk Art Museum. It features an eccentric collection of works by some two-dozen outsider artists from the United States and Europe.

© Courtesy Stefan Hartmaier/Gustav Mesmer Foundation
© Courtesy Stefan Hartmaier/Gustav Mesmer Foundation

The exhibition explores the link between performance art and the folk tradition through a variety of different media–films, sculpture, fashion, paintings, and music. The result is an often strange but lively mix of art that reflects the particular circumstances and preoccupations of their creators. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a collection of works by mental patients features prominently, including a spectacular film about Gustav Mesmer, a schizophrenic German inventor obsessed with designing human-powered flying machines.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art

The eclectic exhibition is a bit text-heavy, but the works themselves and the stories of the people behind them are almost invariably fascinating. I mention it here because it displays some work by Charlie Logan (1893-1984), a longtime resident of Alton, Illinois. Logan’s particular habit was to sew buttons, coins, and other bric-a-brac into clothing and accessories he made from his socks and beddings. The exhibition features an outfit (coat, vest, hat) and two canes on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art that show the his intricate technique. Logan ostensibly sewed coins into his clothes so he would not be robbed and then simply cut them out and used them as needed. In a celebrated study of art and folk traditions of the Black Atlantic, Robert Farris Thompson noted that Logan’s creations incorporated many cultural symbols and traditions of African origin. The “Diamond Sis” coat on display, for example, features a Kongo (Congolese) cosmogram, which is a quartered circle or diamond that symbolizes continuity and rebirth.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art (click for full view)

Logan’s craftwork was such that the coins are visible but not quite identifiable. Although one presumes that he was for the most part incorporating contemporary US coinage, an effort to figure out exactly what types of coins he was sewing into his wardrobe might be an interesting project.

 —Matthew Wittmann

“When the Curtain Never Comes Down: Performance Art and the Alter Ego” runs through July 5 at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square, Columbus Avenue near 66th Street.

Mysteries from the Vault: A Bronze Key

With close to a million objects in the American Numismatic Society’s collections, the curatorial team occasionally comes across items that are mysteries to us. This series will feature some of these objects in the hopes that the collective wisdom of our readers can help us to identify and learn more about them.

Our first selection is a bronze key of indeterminate age and culture. It has no markings, an overall length of 26mm, and weighs 13.6 grams.

Mystery Solved! Thanks to commenter Forbes who notes below:

Byzantine Folding Key, Circa 5th – 6th Century.

This type of key, commonly used during the Byzantine period, could be easily carried, an important feature at a time when clothes had no pockets. The hoop of the key fits like a finger ring, and the short barrel can be folded into the palm of the hand. Unlike the teeth on modern keys, the slotted holes on this example are purely decorative, while the small crosses were intended to protect the owner’s possessions.




The shaft of the key has a hole through which the ring fits, allowing it swing freely.


What, if any, is the significance of the design of the tip?


Have an idea about what this might be? Let us know in the comments or drop us a line here.

Ask a Curator: Heaviest?

This post is part of an ongoing series that seeks to answer your questions about our collections. If there’s something you would like to know, please email us here.

Megan B. from Chicago asks:

What is the heaviest coin in the collection?

This has proved quite a contentious question, and led to several near injuries this morning as the curatorial staff roamed about picking up various objects.

KarlXGustavThe consensus that we have reached is that a piece of 17th-century Swedish plate money made during the reign of Charles X Gustav (right) is the best candidate. This 8 daler ‘coin’ is a rectangular sheet of copper measuring 2′ x 1′ and weighing approximately 31 pounds. Swedish plate money was produced in the 17th and 18th centuries in an attempt to use locally available copper as a monetary substitute for imported silver. Although you cannot really tell from this top view, the plate itself is only roughly level, and it varies between 3 mm and 5 mm in thickness.

ANS, 1914.81.1
ANS, 1914.81.1

This particular specimen came to the ANS from Riga, Latvia, where it was dredged out of the harbor formed by the tributary loop of the Daugava River. This was part of a long important regional trade route and the circumstances of its discovery suggest that it was deposited there as the result of a shipwreck.

left-the four corners                                                                 right-at center

The above close-ups of the dies hammered into the plate give the denomination (8 daler silvermynt), the authority under whom it was produced(Charles X Gustav), and the date of its issue (1659). Although not indicated on the plate itself, it was minted at Avesta, which is located approximately 100 miles northwest of Stockholm.

There were a few other candidates that were excluded for a variety of different reasons, including a rai stone from Yap, Mexican silver bars salvaged from a 16th-century shipwreck, and an enormous chunk of copper known as a mukuba wa matwi that was used for trade in 12th-century sub-Saharan Africa. The question also sparked some further discussion about what the heaviest singular object in the collection might be. The ANS has two large 19th-century American screw presses, including the one used by Christopher Bechtler to produce his gold coinage, but we believe that our weightiest object is actually a large marble relief carved by Gutzon Borglum. Famed as the driving force behind Mount Rushmore, Borglum was a sculptor and member of the ANS who performed some work for Arthur Huntington and the Society in the early twentieth century.  The marble echoes a medal he made for a special occasion at New York City’s New Theatre in 1909.

Borglum Marble

Borglum’s artwork was restored a few years back and presently rests in our lobby. It portrays a nude female figure from behind with the symbolic masks of comedy and tragedy in her hands, and is ringed with the legend “All the World’s a Stage.” For more on its story, see Eric Silberberg’s excellent article in the Winter 2009 edition of the ANS Magazine.

Matthew Wittmann and David Yoon

Cutting Down Old Hickory

National Gallery
National Gallery

Following on my post last week about the campaign to replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill, Gail Collins had a column the New York Times making the case that it was past time for a change. She quotes my observation about the rather more equitable situation with regards to gender and currency in Australia. The forthcoming Jane Austen note from the Bank of England is another example that bears looking at. Why not rotate through a cast of historical figures? Regardless of issues concerning representation, it is hard to understand why US paper currency has been so slow to change. As far as I can tell the only relevant part of the law (31 U.S. Code § 5114 )that governs the actual design of US paper money specifies:

United States currency has the inscription “In God We Trust” in a place the Secretary [of the Treasury] decides is appropriate. Only the portrait of a deceased individual may appear on United States currency and securities. The name of the individual shall be inscribed below the portrait.

Beyond this it would seem that the Secretary of the Treasury and Bureau of Printing and Engraving have broad discretion to design the currency as they see fit, although consultation with Congress would undoubtedly be necessary for any major changes.

At any rate, given that the momentum to make a change seems to be building, and with Andrew Jackson lined up as the most likely target, the question of course turns to who should replace him. The New York Times has been hosting a lively discussion on the subject here. kspersGail Collins has me backing Amelia Earhart, which was a name I mentioned in the course of a larger discussion about possible candidates. Quite simply, I think Earhart would be a good choice because she seems able to garner broad popular support for what might devolve into a bruising political process. Whatever happens, we’ll keep updating and adding our two cents to this fascinating story.

Matthew Wittmann

Women On Twenties


Last week, I was quoted by the New Yorker in a piece on the campaign to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with an image of a significant woman from American history. In referring to Jackson as the “low-hanging fruit” of figures on US currency, I was alluding to the fact that his historical reputation has been much more volatile than his moneyed peers–George Washington ($1), Abraham Lincoln ($5), Alexander Hamilton ($10), Ulysses S. Grant ($50), and Benjamin Franklin ($100). Jackson came to power as an advocate of the “common man,” which has traditionally garnered him ire from those of a more conservative persuasion. From a different angle, his putative racism and support for Indian removal have proved problematic for those who would otherwise celebrate his democratic disposition. Fair or not, Jackson does seem like the easiest of the established paper money personalities to mobilize around replacing.

ANS, 0000.999.13288
ANS, 0000.999.13288

One of the ironies of all of this is that images of women were commonly featured on nineteenth-century bank notes, albeit not usually as individuals, but in the form of allegorical or idealized representations. In the obsolete bank note era, my guess is that Martha Washington (left) was the most prominently and frequently pictured individual woman (she also made a brief appearance on federal silver certificates in the 1890s). I know there were notes circulating that featured the Swedish singer-cum-celebrity Jenny Lind, but no other identifiable women spring immediately to mind as being regularly pictured (perhaps readers have suggestions). Whatever the case, the introduction of federal paper money initially continued the allegorical tradition, and the first twenty-dollar bill issued in 1863 featured a representation of Liberty holding a sword and shield at the center of its obverse. A bust of Alexander Hamilton saw Liberty pushed over to the right side of the bill a few years later:

ANS, 1980.67.23
ANS, 1980.67.23

Grover Cleveland subsequently graced the $20 Federal Reserve Note introduced in 1914, and the change to Andrew Jackson finally occurred  in 1929 when the small-size Federal Reserve Note we are familiar with today was put into circulation. Given that we are coming up on nine decades without a significant redesign, it might be time for a change and the WomenOn20s campaign certainly seems to be getting traction.

Whether or not this effort is successful, the big question is of course who should replace Jackson. WomenOn20s is presently having a vote on their website on a list of potential replacements. I was disappointed to see that Jane Addams, the noted social reformer and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize, somehow did not make the cut. Luckily, our capable assistant photographer Emma Pratte, was able to whip up a specimen note of my preferred candidate.

Emma Pratte
Emma Pratte

I am sure everyone has ideas about this, but it seems to me that one problem beyond the obvious lack of women on US currency is the narrow focus on political figures as the only kind worthy of inclusion.hundred-dollars-note
Australia, for one, not only equitably has a man and a woman on each of their circulating paper issues, they also draw from a broader range of historical personages, which includes poets and authors like Mary Gilmore and Banjo Paterson and soprano Dame Nellie Melba .

All of this got us wondering about potential candidates beyond the world of American politics, and going off a list of women that have already appeared on USPS stamps we came up with the following seven ‘cultural’ candidates:

[polldaddy poll=”8742714″]

Matthew Wittmann