Frohes Neues Jahr | Happy New Year

The dawning of a new year has long been an occasion for celebration, but at least in numismatic terms, it seems to be the Germans who party the hardest. During the late nineteenth century, striking small medals and giving them away as one might send cards to friends and family was a common practice. But this new year’s numismatic practice extended all the way back into the eighteenth century as well.

ANS, 0000.999.3066
ANS, 0000.999.3066

This commemorative medal was struck to mark the beginning of 1718. The obverse apes Roman imagery in depicting Charles VI as a conquering hero and celebrates the Holy Roman Empire’s defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Austro-Turkish War. The expression for best wishes in the new year in the exergue is rather tangential here, but the rise of specialist firms like Ludwig Christoph Lauer in the nineteenth century democratized the practice of medal-making.

ANS, 1940.100.723
ANS, 1940.100.723

This pretty medalet depicting angels with the inscription VIEL GLUCK ZUM NEUEN JAHR (good luck for the new year) is a nice example of the sort that were being struck and given away around this time. This particular one marks the beginning of 1890.

The most common form that these new year’s trinkets took in Austria and German was in medals that resembled business cards. The example below is a particularly rich one.

ans, 2011.2.1

ANS, 2011.2.1

The medal is the work of Franz Kounitzky, and you can see on the top of the car that the “sender” of this card (as indicated by the “ABS”) was Paul Schulz. It features an incredible ensemble of good luck charms for the new year of 1906: an automobile with a pig driving, a female figure holding a large cornucopia and a chimney sweep holding ladder with horseshoes sit in the back; there is a four-leafed clover on the luggage on top of the car; behind it is a devil with cut off tail raising its fist in anger (presumably the pig has just run him over?). Whatever the case, Frohes Neues Jahr!

Matthew Wittmann

A Countermark Christmas

I was casting about for a subject appropriate to the holiday season when I came across this coin:

ANS, 1943.132.4
ANS, 1943.132.4

And so I figured I would review some of our more interesting countermarked coins for the holiday season. This 1843 US large cent was apparently countermarked for one A. S. Warner as a Christmas gift in 1845. I am not sure if the maker had a full set of letter punches because a C has been used instead of a G in “GIFT.” It has also been suggested that the maker may have been drinking.

ANS, 1957.109.4
ANS, 1957.109.4

This is a silver four drachm minted in Alabanda around 170 BC that has been countermarked with the head of Tyche to revalidate the coin for circulation in Caria (southeast Turkey).

ANS, 1953.171.1081
ANS, 1953.171.1081

A rare bronze as struck in Rome during the brief but supposedly debauched reign of Caligula (AD 37-41). The purpose of the ‘AV’ countermark on the reverse, which depicts the Roman goddess Vesta, is unclear.

ANS, 1960.111.363
ANS, 1960.111.363

The reverse of a silver thaler minted in the German state of Württemberg during the early sixteenth century. The eagle countermark is thought to represent and validate the coin for circulation in the Hanseatic City of Lübeck.

ANS, 1917.215.2628
ANS, 1917.215.2628

A gold dinar bunduqi minted in Maghrib during the reign of Ismail Ibn Sharif (AD 1672-1727), the warrior king who consolidated the power of the Moroccan Alaouite dynasty. The counterstamp, a key between the initials JR, is supposed to have been that of King João V of Portugal, which maintained a string of coastal fortresses and trade centers along the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa.

ANS, 1913.130.209
ANS, 1913.130.209

This is a very worn 1795 US half dollar that features a neat countermark which resembles a spoked wheel. The speculation on the container is that this was marked for circulation in the Bahamas, but that seems dubious. Fred Pridmore suggested that it might be a Dharmarckra, a Buddhist religious emblem. Perhaps one for the “Mysteries from the Vault” series.?

ANS, 1970.156.712
ANS, 1970.156.712

So we are cheating a bit on this last one, which is not really countermarked, but is an appropriately repurposed coin. This is the reverse of a well-worn 1815 silver real from Columbia that some enterprising nineteenth-century American re-engraved as a Christmas gift for a loved one.

Happy holidays and for those in the giving mood, please consider donating to the American Numismatic Society as part of our year-end appeal.

Matthew Wittmann

Identifying Roman Coins on Micropasts

Micropasts is a web platform that hosts crowd-sourced collaborative research projects focused on archaeology, history, and heritage. The admirable goal of Micropasts is, in their words, to “improve how people traditionally distinguished as academics, professionals and volunteers cooperate with one another.” To this end, the website hosts a variety of projects that allow for contributions from enthusiasts, scholars, and the interested public on a wide variety of different topics. It is jointly run by the UCL Institute of Archaeology and the British Museum with support by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.

A relatively straightforward example of how the website works is a project that seeks to transcribe diaries kept by the noted Egyptian archaeologist, Sir Flinders Petrie. The project page includes a tutorial on how to contribute, which can involve either transcribing material directly from the scanned document, or reviewing the work of others to ensure its accuracy. A somewhat more complicated project is one by the British Museum that involves photo-masking medieval Pilgrim badges to create 3D models of the artifacts. All of the projects use the same simple interface which makes it easy to understand how you can help out, and there is a useful ‘Statistics’ tab for each that traces how the overall project is progressing.

There are a wide variety of different and salutary projects that users can contribute to, but we mention here because of a recently-launched numismatic one called the Roman Imperial Coin concordance.

ocreThis project was formulated by Daniel Pett of the British Museum and Ethan Gruber of the ANS to facilitate the addition of Roman coins catalogued in the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) to the NEH-sponsored ANS database Online Coins of the Roman Empire (OCRE). The tutorial explains just how the process works, but the essential task is for users to try and identify more precisely what the RIC (Roman Imperial Coinage) number for a given coin drawn from the PAS database is. If and when a more precise identification of the RIC number is made and confirmed, it can then be integrated into the larger OCRE database. pasrgbsize4The PAS, which is a voluntary program that records small archaeological finds by the public in the UK, presently has over 200,000 Roman coins in its database so it is a potentially rich resource for additional coins and data for OCRE.

Denarius of Tiberius, ca. AD 36-37 Portable Antiquities Scheme
Denarius of Tiberius, AD 36-37 | NCL-294EF5
Portable Antiquities Scheme

Of course, objects like the denarius above can only be integrated into OCRE when they have been properly identified so if you have time to lend a hand, head over to the project website!

Profiles in Research: Katherine Smoak

Last week Katherine Smoak, a graduate student in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins University, visited the ANS to research coins and counterfeiting in the eighteenth century Atlantic world. Katherine was kind enough to sit for a short interview about her work, and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of our talk.


What brings to you to the ANS today?

I am a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University and I came to look at Caribbean coinage. I have been working on an article about counterfeits made in Birmingham and shipped to the Caribbean, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese coins, but also French billon coins.

And how did you get interested in numismatics?

Initially it came through an interest in crime and punishment in colonial America. I came across counterfeiters in this context and reviewing court records just made me realize how rich this sort of material about coins and paper money was.

What sort of material did you look at today?

Mostly at trays from the Caribbean cabinet. I am particularly interested in small change used mostly by enslaved peoples like black dogs and stampees.  And then I was also looking at some higher value coins like cut Spanish silver and Portuguese gold half-joes that had been variously clipped and plugged. I was really interested in the counterstamps and what that means for different islands as they tried to certify weights and keep coins in circulation amidst a flood of counterfeits.

What is a black dog?

It was a small French coin that was supposed to be a copper and silver alloy that was sent to the French colonies in the Caribbean, but ended up circulating much more widely. My understanding of them from what I have been reading is that by the 1780s and 1790s, most all of the black dogs in circulation were counterfeits and not the original imported coin. What is circulating is something like a trade token that was being produced en masse in places like Birmingham and shipped to merchants and planters to use as small change.

Part of what was so exciting for me looking at the trays today was just to see what these coins I have been reading so much about looked and felt like. Getting to feel how heavy a silver dollar was and how tiny some of the cut pieces are was really great. With the copper coins, seeing how crude and thin and easy they presumably would have been to produce and counterfeit was interesting. Seeing how much counterfeit material there was relative to genuine coin on particular trays was pretty remarkable. The wear and clipping and plugging on the gold joes was pretty amazing and thinking about the tactile interactions with money that people are having and how you can feel when a coin has been altered.

Was there a particular coin that you found illuminating?

ANS, 1927.143.1
ANS, 1927.143.1

One of the most exciting things I saw was this Portuguese half-joe that had been holed and counterstamped for Trinidad, Berbice, and Martinique. Being able to see the clipped edges and weigh it and see just how crude the holing looked was neat. All of the marks just show how widely this coin circulated in the Caribbean. This was my first time actually seeing a half-joe. It was really exciting for me to hold one after reading all these legislative minutes and Board of Trade letters about them.

And what are your future plans for the research you did here today?

Beyond this article about the production of counterfeits in Birmingham for the Caribbean that I have been working on is my dissertation, which explores the larger world of counterfeiting in the Atlantic world throughout the eighteenth century. I want reconstruct the ways that counterfeiters operated, building on the work of people like Kenneth Scott and Philip Mossman, and look at what the presence of counterfeits does to how people interact with money. The working title of the project is “Circulating Counterfeits: Making Money and its Meanings in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic.”

You can find out more about Katherine’s ongoing research and publications here.

The Poor Widow’s Mite

Every year at Christmas time, I seem to see mentions of the “poor widow’s mites” made famous by the story in Mark 12:41-44 (and also in Luke 21:1-4):

And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites (λεπτόν), which make a farthing (κοδράντης). And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had…

Tyndale Bible at the Bodleian Library, Oxford
Tyndale Bible at the Bodleian Library, Oxford

The word “mite” first appears in the books of Mark and Luke in the 1525 publication of Tyndale’s New Testament, where it was likely intended as a shortened version of the word “minute” and not as the name of a denomination. As the late Fr. Augustus Spijkerman has noted, the word lepton “implies very small coins…even we may say…the smallest coin being in circulation in Palestine at the time concerned.”

Oliver Hoover has noted that it is not surprising that scholars who made the early English translations of the Bible had a tendency to “reinterpret the ancient coin denominations of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scriptural sources in terms of contemporary sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English money.” Hoover, who discussed this in detail for an article in the ANS Magazine, points out that neither the original Greek text of the New Testament nor the Latin Vulgate Bible mention the “mite.” Instead the Greek or Latin words used in that version are, respetively, lepta or minuta.

Title Page of King James Bible (1611)
Title Page of King James Bible (1611)

The word “mite” was most widely disbursed by the authoritative King James version, which was printed in 1611 after work by dozens of scholars over nearly seven years. It became the most popular English version of the Bible ever published and it was noted for its scholarly translations and the artistry of its language, which influenced the course of English literature. In the preamble, the translators expressed the hope that the work would “speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.” In his article, Hoover observes that early English translations of biblical texts are of “some interest to numismatists, given their tendency to reinterpret the ancient coin denominations of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scriptural sources in terms of contemporary sixteenth and seventeenth-century English money.” In numismatic terms, the King James Bible can often tell us as much about the the circulating coinage of early modern Great Britain as it does that of the ancient world. However, there was no mite coin known to exist in British coinage of this period.

Hoover notes that the mite (meaning “small cut piece” in Old Dutch) only began circulating Flanders in the early fourteenth century. The early example below is billon, but by the sixteenth century, it was being minted in copper.

ANS, 0000.999.7906
ANS, 0000.999.7906

One might guess, therefore, that this denomination was imported and used in Britain at the time, but there is little evidence to support that possibility. Even though the Dutch mite did not circulate in Britain, and no British mites existed per se, it was mentioned in contemporary arithmetic books as a fraction of a farthing, varying from one-third to one-sixteenth.

Given all this, Hoover concludes that it seems likely that the mite entered into the King James Version “as a result of a translational quandary created by the original.” In the early English translations, the Gospel of Mark gives the value of two lepta as a kodrantes or quadrans. The crux of the matter for Hoover is that “any Latin grammarian would have known that a quadrans was a bronze coin worth one-fourth of a Roman as, making its English translation as farthing (one-fourth of a penny) almost unavoidable. Unfortunately, in the English coinage system there were no denominations smaller than a farthing, creating the problem of how to deal with Mark’s lepta/minuta.” With no British parallel for any coin smaller than a farthing, there is a good chance that the arithmetic term mite was brought into play.

Hoover also speculates, however, that Tyndale’s earlier translation might have been a little influenced by the contemporary Flemish monetary system. He continues:

After all, Tyndale is known to have had good Flemish connections, and he composed and printed his translation of the New Testament while in the nearby German cities of Hamburg, Cologne, and Worms. In 1534, Antwerp became his home and a base for shipping his contraband translations into Tudor England, until he was finally arrested and executed for heresy in 1536. Thus, Tyndale is likely to have been conversant with the Flemish currency system, in which there were twenty-four mites to the penning.

Whatever the case, British money was organized according the £sd or pound-shilling-pence system. There were 12 shillings in a pound and 20 pence (pennies) to the shilling, so a pound was 240 pence. There were smaller denominations than the penny, such as the farthing, which was one-quarter of a penny. There was an even smaller coin, worth a half-farthing (1/8 penny), that, borrowing the Flemish term, came to be known as a mite. It was for this reason that the smallest coin in circulation in early first century Jerusalem became known worldwide and probably for all time as the mite.

It is only natural that people who are interested in the stories of the Bible would want to know more about these coins and exactly which ones could be associated with the stories. In his History of Jewish Coinage and of Money in the Old and New Testament, Frederick Madden uncritically stated that the mite “was the smallest coin current in Palestine in the time of our Lord.” In a Handy Guide to Jewish Coins (1914), Edgar Rogers wrote of the story that it was natural to assume that the coins cast into the treasury were strictly Jewish and suggests that “with some degree of certainty it may be said that the popular coins for this purpose were the small copper of Alexander Jannaeus and his successors.” Whatever its origin and identity, the poor widow’s mite has become one of the most frequently referenced and most popular ancient biblical coins.

Here are two things we know about the widow’s mite story, as related by both Mark and Luke:

  • It is certainly a story about charity and goodwill, rather than a story about money. The poor woman gave all she had to the treasury of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, while, relatively speaking, many rich people gave little of themselves.
  • The amount of money the widow threw into the Temple treasury was two coins of the smallest size in existence in Jerusalem at that time. There is no doubt that the small prutah (Guide to Biblical Coins Nos. 1152, 1153) or half-prutah (GBC Nos. 1134, 1138, 1147, 1185-87) coins of the Maccabean kings and Herod the Great, fit that description. The most common, easily by a factor of more than 1000 to 1, is the small prutah. It would have most likely been struck by the Hasmonean successors of King Alexander Jannaeus (103 – 76 BC), which have been documented to range in weight from 0.20 to 1.70 grams, with an average of 0.81 grams.

The massive issue of these tiny bronze coins in this poor land filled a market need. Some versions of these coins may have been first struck very late in Jannaeus’ reign and likely continued to be minted periodically until as last as 50-45 BC. These coins were all decorated on one side with an anchor and on the other side a crude star.

ANS, 1944.100.62695
ANS, 1944.100.62695

Herod the Great also minted very similar looking but much more scarce coins, possibly quite early in his reign, which technically began on the ground in Judea around 37 BC. These coins range in weight from 0.49 grams to 1.78 grams with an average of 0.94 grams. Herod’s coins are decorated on one side with an anchor and on the other side with crude inscription.


The similarities of the Herodian to the Hasmonean in both design and general appearance coins suggest that the latter were crudely copied from the earlier ones, and archaeological finds suggest that their circulation overlapped. The illustration below shows the similarities between Hasmonean small prutot (GBC 1153, top 2 rows) and the slightly later Herodian small prutot (GBC 1173 – 1177 bottom 2 rows).


© David Hendin

Both the Hasmoneans and Herod I also issued relatively small numbers of a few coin types which were clearly meant to be half denomination prutot. The best current evidence suggests that during the first century, the Judean shekel was made up of 256 prutot. Consider that there are 100 cents to the dollar and this was very small change indeed.

Archaeological evidence proves that even though these small coins were struck in the first century BC, prutot continued to circulate well into the first century AD when Jesus lived, and even as long as the fourth century AD. At the joint Sepphoris excavation in 1985, we found the small prutot of Jannaeus in the same areas as fourth-century Roman bronze coins. They were useful pieces of small change at a time and place that small change was not easy to find. Many late Roman and Byzantine small bronze coins were chopped in halves and quarters to accommodate the needs of the market.

One final aspect of the story of the poor widow’s mite remains relevant today. Many people of great means contribute little to charitable causes, while less wealthy individuals contribute a great deal relative to their ability. This is a topic fit for everyone to ponder.

David Hendin

Mysteries from the Vault: Ancient Amulet

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.

With one of our older mysteries recently solved, it seemed to be a good time for a new one!

This is a one-millimeter thin and roughly square piece of metal that features an intricate design. It has been pierced so we presume it was used as some sort of amulet. The pictorial elements and glyphs (and/or writing) are incised on both sides. It weighs 15.31 grams and its dimensions are 49 mm in height and 46 mm in width. We do not have a provenance for the item beyond the fact that it was discovered in one of our ancient cabinets.

Who or what are those little figures at bottom right?

ANS, 0000.999.56759
ANS, 0000.999.56759



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


Some more photos to try and bring out the design (click to enlarge)


NEH-Mellon Foundation Humanities Open Book Project

The American Numismatic Society has been chosen as one of ten publishers to participate in the Humanities Open Book project, a joint NEH-Mellon Foundation grant program to convert out-of-print books of enduring scholarship into EPUB e-books, which will be licensed so as to allow readers to search and download these books freely, and to read them on any type of e-reader.






ANS publications date back to 1866 and include over 500 volumes of numismatic scholarship. Thanks to the funding received from the Mellon Foundation, nearly 100 of its rarest out-of-print books will be converted into free EPUB digital editions. The ANS will go one step further by TEI-encoding these editions for online viewing, searching, and linking. Following best-practices of Linked Open Data (LOD), these XML files will link to (and will be able to be linked from) other Open Access (OA) resources like the Virtual International Authority File, the Pleiades Gazetteer of Ancient Places, and ANS digital projects like OCRE and PELLA.


Pictured above are just a few of the some one hundred works that will be processed. The assorted works digitized through this generous Humanities Open Book grant will be available via the ANS Digital Library by the end of 2016.

Read the full press release here.

Coins at NYC's Tenement Museum

Orchard Street, ca. 1898 Tenement Museum
Orchard Street, ca. 1898
Tenement Museum

The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side explores the history of immigration in New York City with a variety of tours and exhibits centered along a row of former tenement houses on Orchard Street. The museum employs an innovative approach that uses a combination of historical preservation and historical narrative to connect visitors to the experience of immigration and instill an appreciation of the role that it has played in shaping American life.

©Alan Roche
©Alan Roche

Although the museum has since expanded, it was originally housed in a five-story tenement building at 97 Orchard Street that was constructed in 1863. To visit, you need to sign up for one of the assorted guided tours, which will take you through a particular floor of the building that has been arranged to show how the different groups of immigrants that inhabited the neighborhood over the years lived. The “Shop Life” tour, for example, looks at the various stores that occupied the basement of the building, which has been fixed up as an 1870s-era German saloon (my review). The 4th floor tour focuses on Irish immigrants, and so on. The building was originally divided into twenty apartments in addition to the two basement-level store fronts and it is estimated that over seven thousand immigrants lived there at one time or another, so there are a lot of stories to tell!

In any case, the reason that I am blogging about the Tenement Museum here is that they posted this on their Instagram account the other day:

As the caption indicates, the museum is presently expanding and discovered an old coin in the walls at 103 Orchard Street. Intrigued, I contacted to them to find out if they had found any other numismatic material over the years.

The Tenement Museum has about 10,000 items in their collection, which includes objects discovered and preserved from the former tenements at 91, 97, and 103 Orchard Street, and historical objects that have been donated or acquired to use for its tours and exhibitions. The artifacts found range from wooden toys to animal bones. We visited to take a look at the eight coins that were found in the buildings (there are additional coins and tokens that came in as donations), which ranged in date from 1876 to 1929. The oldest, an 1876 ‘Indian Head’ cent pictured below, was found in a rat’s nest under the floorboards.


Seven out of the eight coins in the collection were pennies, which is hardly surprising given that higher value coins were less likely to go missing. There was a wooden privy in the back court of 97 Orchard Street that sat above a mortared-brick vault filled with water that was periodically drained into the sewer system. When archaeologists excavated the back yard in the 1990s, the narrow vault yielded a trove of artifacts, including a 1909 Lincoln cent.


This was the first year that this famed coin designed by Victor David Brenner was minted. Lincoln’s portrait was added at that time to celebrate the centenary of his birth, and this was the first US coin to feature a president and the motto ‘In God We Trust.’ The new penny struck a chord with the public and became a popular keepsake. How this one ended up the privy, we will never know, but it is an interesting bit of Americana. The other coins were two Indian Head cents (1893, 1906), and four more Lincoln cents (1910, 1912, 1926, 1927).

TM-LibertyHeadNickAt right is the obverse of the 1908 ‘Liberty Head’ nickel that workers discovered in the walls the other day. As work on the buildings is ongoing, we suspect that more coins will be uncovered in the future and we will update this post if and when we hear about something new (see update below). In the meantime, I would encourage anyone to do a guided tour or check out one of the many other events at the museum.


Thanks to curator David Favaloro (left) and collections manager Danielle Swanson (right) for hosting us!

Matthew Wittmann

Tenement Museum
Tenement Museum

Update: It seems that just yesterday (12/15) another coin was found under linoleum laid in one of the apartments at 103 Orchard Street and it is real classic…a 1918 ‘Mercury’ dime.

2016 Summer Seminar Announcement

62nd Annual Eric P. Newman Graduate Summer Seminar in Numismatics

June 6 through July 29, 2016

For over half a century, The American Numismatic Society, a scholarly organization and museum of coins, money, and economic history, has offered select graduate students and junior faculty the opportunity to work hands-on with its preeminent numismatic collections. With over three-quarters of a million objects, the collection is particularly strong in Greek, Roman, Islamic, Far Eastern, and US and Colonial coinages, as well as Medallic Art. Located in New York City’s SoHo district, the Society also houses the world’s most complete numismatic library.


The rigorous eight-week course, taught by ANS staff, guest lecturers, and a Visiting Scholar, introduces students to the methods, theories, and history of the discipline. In addition to the lecture program, students will select a numismatic research topic and, utilizing ANS resources, complete a paper or digital project while in residence. The Seminar is intended to provide students of History, Art History, Textual Studies, and Archeology who have little or no numismatic background with a working knowledge of a body of evidence that is often overlooked and poorly understood. Successful applicants are typically doctoral candidates or junior faculty in a related discipline, but masters candidates are admitted as well.

This year’s Visiting Scholar will be Dr. Klaus Vondrovec, Curator of Ancient Coins at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, who also teaches at the University of Vienna. Dr. Vondrovec is, among other things, a specialist in late Roman and ancient coinages of Central Asia.

Applications are due no later than February 12, 2016. A limited number of stipends of up to $4000 are available to US citizens, and non-US citizens studying at US institutions under certain visas.

For application forms and further information, please see the seminar page on our website:

Please address inquiries to the Seminar Director, Dr. Peter van Alfen at

Gilbert & Dean and Counterfeiting in Boston, 1806-1808

A combination of restrictive regulations and lack of available specie ensured that there was a persistent dearth of coinage in the British North American colonies over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One result of this lack of “hard” money was that the British colonists were the first society in which paper money became the predominant form of monetary exchange.

Reverse of an 1760 five pound note printed by Franklin and Hall (0000.999.29334).

Despite the hopes of Benjamin Franklin and other promoters of the paper money experiment, the viability of the system was consistently threatened on two fronts. The first was the temptation that seemed to inevitably lead governments to print more money than could be covered by the treasury. The second was counterfeiting. The latter can be illustrated by the fact that the initial authorized issue of paper money was made by the colony of Massachusetts Bay in December 1690. The notorious counterfeiter Robert Fenton was brought up on charges for passing altered notes the following spring. The battle between authorities and counterfeiters was joined in earnest as the size and scope of paper money emissions expanded in the eighteenth century.

Colonial newspapers were replete with notices cautioning readers about circulating counterfeits and treasurers posted notices and broadsides for the public with instructions about how to identify false bills. As we have reviewed here before, the Continental Congress financed the revolution with huge emissions of paper money that the British attempted to undermine with organized counterfeiting. The excesses of the Continental Congress were such that “Continentals,” as the paper currency was known, depreciated to a point that they were practically worthless. Still, it enabled the rebellious colonists to win the war even though it poisoned much of the public on the viability of paper money as anything other than a emergency measure. Indeed, the Constitution specifically prohibited states from issuing paper money, but when the newfound US Mint was unable to meet the monetary needs of the populace in the 1790s, paper money in the form of promissory notes issued by private banks came to the fore.

By the early nineteenth century, the failures of the Continental currency had seemingly been forgotten as private banks around the country pumped a new flood of paper money into the economy. As with earlier emissions, this created opportunities for counterfeiters. Because each bank was issuing its own bills there was a certain amount of confusion among the public about what was what amidst the swirl of often crudely executed bank notes. This eventually gave rise to an entire genre of publications known as “counterfeit detectors” that we explored in part one of this series. But up until those serials were widely available in the 1820s, the public had to rely on a combination of common sense and luck to navigate the complexities of the emergent paper monetary system.

While newspapers occasionally carried warnings about counterfeiting activity, information often circulated more slowly than the fake bills. In the only significant study of the early organized effort to combat counterfeiting in print, William H. Dillistin highlights the seminal work of the Boston firm of Gilbert & Dean. Samuel Gilbert (b. 1777) and Thomas Dean (b. 1779) were trained as printers by the noted journalist and publisher Benjamin Russell. Their early partnership was centered on producing the Boston Weekly Magazine (1802-1808), which featured work from a variety of important early American writers, most notably Susanna Rowson. Seeing opportunities in the new economy, the partners gradually moved away from publishing into more speculative financial ventures as lottery, stock and exchange brokers.

The freewheeling commercial world that was budding in Boston during the early nineteenth century has been ably captured by Jane Kamensky’s The Exchange Artist (2008). Kamensky focuses on the story of Andrew Dexter, Jr., a speculator whose rise and fall served as a cautionary tale for the newfound banking and paper money industry.

Exchange Coffee House, Boston
Exchange Coffee House, Boston

The book is well worth a read, but the short version is that Dexter financed his schemes by gaining a controlling interest in a particular bank and then issuing more bank notes than the institution could ever possibly redeem. The most infamous of these was the Farmers’ Exchange Bank of Glouscester, Rhode Island, which issued an incredible number of notes beginning in the spring of 1808. Dexter quite literally used the bank to print money in order to finance an extravagant real estate project known as the Exchange Coffee House.

ANS, 0000.999.13755
$10 bill issued by the Farmers’ Ex Bank in April 1808 (ANS, 0000.999.13755)

The scheme eventually collapsed when the public realized that the bank was unable to meet its extensive obligations, but knowledgable exchange brokers likely reaped a profit by divesting themselves of the specious notes in advance.

The public thus needed to be wary not only of counterfeiters, but of bankers as well. Uncertainty allowed exchange offices and information brokers like Gilbert & Dean a variety of ways to profit from their particular knowledge. In February 1806, the firm published a broadside (12″ x 18″) that promised “to meet the public anxiety respecting Counterfeit Bills” by listing known fakes in circulation and providing details about all of the regional banks that issued notes. The Baker Library at Harvard University has the only copy of this seminal counterfeit detector that we know of.


A typical description listed problems with the paper (too dark, too thin, etc.) or details like poorly set type and missing or altered elements for the public to ferret out fake bills. Gilbert & Dean were notably not doing this as a public service but to reap a profit, as the broadside cost 12 and a half cents (a bit or eighth of a dollar). Nearly fifty examples of counterfeit bills are noted, giving a good impression as to the scope of the problem.

Only Sure Guide (1806)
University of Chicago

The broadside was such a success that the firm published a follow up during the summer of 1806. The Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago holds a copy of this rare pamphlet entitled The Only Sure Guide to Bank Bills; Or, Banks in Now-England: With a Statement of Bills Counterfeited. Promising “utility with profit,” it also warned:

If any one should suffer for want of informationrather than buy a pamphlet, the blame must attach to himself alone; and he will not receive that commisseration which in justice he ought.

The twelve-page pamphlet provides details on forty-six banks while noting that there were seventy-four banks in operation in the whole United States, the balance of which were located in New England. The copy held at the University of Chicago includes a two-page “Postscript” dated a month after the original printing that updates some of the information therein. A typical entry read as follows:

Farmers' Exchange BankCharacteristic identifiers for the three counterfeit denominations were noted. Undoubtedly because of the extent of it, the last sentence notes that the bank was issuing new bills “from the stereotype,” which refers to a method developed by the inventor Jacob Perkins that used steel plates with intricate design features in an attempt to combat counterfeiting. The 1808 ten dollar note pictured above was one of the bank’s new bills produced using Perkins technique. Of course in the case of the Farmers’ Exchange Bank it was not counterfeiting, but the outright fraud of issuing of so many genuine notes that ended up fleecing the public in the end.

While Gilbert & Dean were providing information to the public for a seemingly modest price, behind the scenes they were also using their inside knowledge of the financial system to profit where they could. The firm’s links to the publishing industry afforded them the opportunity to paint banks in a flattering or unflattering light and as all paper money already circulated at a discount, they could to some extent manipulate the exchange value of given notes in ways that would benefit the firm. The number of court cases that Gilbert & Dean were involved in certainly suggests that they were not shy about using this leverage. An account of Gilbert and Dean v. The Nantucket Bank in July 1808 reads as an almost comical story about the lengths to which banks and brokers would go to impugn each other’s reputations. The firm brought the suit against the bank when its agent was seemingly unable to redeem a thirty dollar note for specie when he visited its office. Although the bank was undoubtedly engaging in some legal shenanigans and lost the case, its fear that Gilbert & Dean could ignite a run on the bank was certainly valid. There’s a reason that so many exchange offices and brokers were linked to publishing and the nascent counterfeit detecting industry; it gave them real power over how a bank and the paper money it issued was perceived by the public. In part three of this series, we will look at a New York City broker who played this game particularly well.

Finally, it should be noted that the counterfeiters themselves openly mocked Gilbert & Dean’s publications, which suggests that were not nearly as effective as advertised. In his wonderful memoirs, the criminal-cum-folk hero Stephen Burroughs included the text of a letter he purportedly sent to Gilbert  & Dean in 1809 when he was one of the most prolific counterfeiters in the country.

$1 note for Union Bank of Boston counterfeited by Burroughs in 1807 Smithsonian National Museum of American History
$1 note for Union Bank of Boston counterfeited by Burroughs in 1807.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History

The letter opened by noting that he had seen their Only Sure Guide to Bank Bills pamphlet and expressed admiration for their “kind labors for the public weal.” Burroughs sarcastically mocked the recent and spectacular failure of the Farmers’ Exchange Bank by suggesting only “Officers of the Pancake Exchange” could tell real pancakes from counterfeit ones. Gilbert & Dean probably did not care a whit about this as the firm ended up in control of the Exchange Coffee House that resulted from that epic swindle!

Matthew Wittmann