New York City Streets Are Paved With Lost Change (If You Look)

There’s a fairly pervasive idea that some people are just born lucky. These people, it’s thought, luck into good schools, good jobs, and even good relationships. But the luckiest of them all seem to stumble headlong into wealth, whether that’s winning the lottery (sometimes multiple times), inheriting vast sums from a long-lost relative, or finding treasure after using a metal detector for the very first time. Although the idea that some people are born lucky certainly holds water — being born into a wealthy family living in an already wealthy country is a pretty lucky start to life, for example — with persistence, a keen eye, and a willingness to stoop down every once in a while, anybody can introduce a little luck into their own lives on a weekly, if not daily basis.

In fact, the present author was coaxed into writing this post on account of their own chance encounters with Lady Luck (or Fortuna, or Tyche). In the last 6 months, I have been lucky enough to come across such items as a large British penny, a 35% silver war nickel, a $20 bill, and numerous “pocket spills” of loose change, all on my daily commute to the American Numismatic Society; although I maintain that this has less to do with luck, and more to do with keeping my eyes glued to the ground. After coming across a monumental scattering of 59 (yes, 59) one-cent coins upon exiting a subway car last week, I knew I finally had to put pen to paper and discuss my finds.

A 1967 British penny found on a New York City MTA bus on May 5, 2021, featured alongside a 1990 U.S. one-cent found on the same bus.

There are some questions we should attempt to answer first, namely: how does all this money end up on the ground in the first place, and why isn’t it being picked up more quickly? A commonly suggested answer to both is that the purchasing power of a single U.S. one-cent coin (or nickel, or dime for that matter) is practically nil. Because of inflation, a single cent in 1921 is now worth about 15 cents today. But 15 cents also has little to no buying power in 2021, so inflation doesn’t account for the whole picture. Instead, the value of one cent relative to what one earns helps to explain how one cent (or 15 cents in today’s money) could purchase more 100 years ago. For example, if a painter in Brooklyn earned on average $1.25 per hour in 1921, one cent accounted for 0.8% of their hourly wage. Today’s minimum wage in Brooklyn (and all of New York City) is $15 per hour, so if that same painter were working today, you would expect 0.8% of $15 to be around 15 cents, but alas it is only 12 cents — or ~22% less than the purchasing power of that 0.8% in 1921. Another way to think about this is that if one cent in 1921 is worth 15 cents today because of inflation, then someone making $1.25 per hour in 1921 would hope to be making $18.75 today, cent-for-cent. Of course, all of this is to say that wages have not kept up with inflation, making a single cent (or nickel, or dime) on the ground worth less and less in the eye of the beholder.

A 1945 silver war nickel from the Denver mint found in the New York City subway system on July 14, 2021. To the untrained eye, such a nickel may appear unremarkable; however, the composition of 35% silver gives circulated war nickels a distinctly darker color that is often quite easy to spot.

Not unsurprisingly, certain goods were actually more expensive in 1921 than they are today due to vast improvements in technology (and the shifting of production to countries where labor is cheaper). For example, a 5 -pound bag of sugar averaged a whopping 97 cents in 1920. Accounting for inflation only, one would expect that same bag to cost roughly $14.55 today, but of course 5 lbs. of sugar can be purchased for less than $5 almost anywhere in the U.S. today. Conversely, an average New York City apartment rented for around $60 per month in 1920, or $910 in 2021 dollars. If any reader knows of a suitable apartment that can be rented for that price in Manhattan or Brooklyn today, they are advised to inform the author immediately so they can rent said abode!

Another potential reason why change is dropped and not quickly recovered is perhaps due to a perceived social stigma around taking ‘dirty’ money off the ground, especially when that money has no purchasing power. Loose change that winds up on the street, sidewalk, or public transit system can easily be there for anywhere from a few hours to days, and has likely seen its fair share of shoes and tires endlessly trampling over it, each person or car bringing a fresh layer of dirt and grime to its surfaces. While street money certainly isn’t clean, I would argue that it is not substantially more dirty than the money that already circulates freely, especially here in New York City. That said, there may be a general sense that it is unseemly or simply uncouth to bend over and pick change off the ground (especially change one doesn’t particularly need) which prevents many from doing so, unless that change was just dropped by said person, and they are reclaiming their own almost-lost change immediately.

A smattering of loose change totaling 53 cents found on the street on April 1, 2021.

The meteoric rise of credit cards, debit cards, and other digital payment solutions may also be contributing to the abandonment of change, and the reluctance to pick it up again. As card and digital payments can be used for increasingly smaller amounts, there is less and less need to carry and use small change. In theory, this should also account for less and less change being lost overall, but as there is more than enough small-denomination coinage currently in circulation to satisfy the needs of commerce for many years to come (barring any recurring small change shortages like the U.S. experienced in 2020), it seems more likely that coins will continue to be lost as users pull out their credit cards, debit cards, or phones, rather than there being not enough coins to lose in the first place, however that may change in the coming decades as small change is phased out even more in favor of digital payment methods.

A complete, untorn $20 bill found directly in front of a New York City subway station on March 29th, 2021.

An interesting explanation as to why street money is not picked up is the Efficient Sidewalk Theory. This economic idea suggests that real, bonafide money would have surely been picked up by someone else already, therefore any money spotted in the street, on the sidewalk, etc. must not be money (i.e., it is trash or another object that looks like real money at first glance), and therefore these items do not warrant a closer inspection, especially one that requires the passer-by to stop and bend down. As such, bonafide money does go unnoticed—or at minimum, is perceived to be something else and ignored. Does Efficient Sidewalk Theory explain why a $20 bill sat on the ground during morning rush-hour in front of a busy subway station before the author scooped it up in a flash? Perhaps. With respect to small change (one-cent coins, nickels, dimes) Efficient Sidewalk Theory could maybe be expanded to include the idea that, because real money would have surely been picked up by someone else already, small change is not considered real money (or useful money) by the majority of individuals who pass by such change. In other words, the one-cent coin that sits for days on end on a sidewalk is absolutely seen as genuine (unlike the $20 bill, which could not reasonably be an authentic $20 bill according to the principles of Efficient Sidewalk Theory) but not perceived as real money of any value. In even simpler terms, if others don’t consider it useful money because they are walking past it, why should I behave any differently?

The final explanation for why change is lost and subsequently not picked up is that people are just not paying attention. If one has loose change and a phone in the same pocket, it is easy to imagine the change falling out unnoticed when the phone is taken out, simply because the attention is on the phone, which typically has far greater value to the owner. Likewise, it is easy to miss coins on the ground when one’s attention is constantly pulled elsewhere, especially in a large and hectic city environment. Even the author has almost missed a stray cent on the ground while sending a text message or making sure there is no oncoming traffic, only to look more closely and find several more cents in the same vicinity.

This brings us to the final point, which is what can all this lost money teach us? In a loose sense, even recently abandoned coins are in situ archaeological artifacts representative of what is valued or not valued in modern culture. Some have even taken to cataloging every coin and bill they have found over the course of several decades, which may prove useful to future historians and numismatists. In the 2004–2005 American Journal of Numismatics 16–17, there is a wonderful analysis of money found in West Lafayette, Indiana during a ten-year period between 1993 and 2003 (AJN Second Series 16–17, pp. 259–267). This study (titled Street Money: Distribution and Analysis) explores many of the same themes found in this blog post, along with a regression analysis of the objects found to determine if any distribution patterns could be discovered (outliers such as quarters, half dollars, and bills were discounted in this analysis). The key takeaway from this study was that the age of the coins (chiefly one-cent coins) suggested that these street finds represented a random selection of coins found in circulation when compared to ten rolls of one-cent coins withdrawn from a local bank. Also noted was the disproportionately high number of newly minted coins that were found (2003 in the case of this study) despite their sheen and luster, which made them more obvious to the casual passer-by, and therefore more likely to have been found by someone else, which of course they had not. The final takeaway was that these coins appear to be carelessly handled by the American public at large, a point which is not lost on the author.

A massive spill of 59 one-cent coins found by the author upon exiting a subway car at Canal St. in New York City on July 21, 2021.

There are other stories of individuals who have amassed large amounts of lost change through diligent (and sometimes not-so-diligent) searching, but it is mostly the case that these finds go unrecorded and unreported. Even the author has not made it a point to faithfully record every find (except major ones), but to help correct that, I decided to make a brief record of the aforementioned ‘subway spill’ to see how this cache visually compares to the data in the West Lafayette, Indiana study:

Subway chart.

Additional data-gathering and analysis would have to be performed to learn just how representative this spill is compared to one-cent coins in circulation in the area, but on the surface, the selection of dates appear to be random, with a disproportionate number being newly minted (10 coins from 2021 alone), coinciding with the key takeaways of the West Lafayette, Indiana study, which is enough to encourage this seeker of street money to keep hunting and recording lost coins “So the Small May Not Perish.”

Coins from the Jay M. Galst Collection

Over the course of forty years of serious collecting, our friend and colleague Jay Martin Galst amassed an important collection of ancient and medieval coins, many from the Holy Land, as well as modern coins, medals, and tokens, particularly those related to his profession of ophthalmology. Over a year now since Jay died from complications of COVID-19 during the worst of the initial pandemic surge in New York City, his presence is still sorely missed here at the ANS, where he was a frequent visitor. Jay always intended that the bulk of his collection eventually be sold both to benefit his family (Fig. 1), and, as a consummate collector himself, to ensure that others might have the opportunity to collect and enjoy the items that he once owned and enjoyed. Currently, Jay’s collection is being auctioned by Classical Numismatic Group, LLC. with some of the auctions having already taken place, but with more still to come.

Figure 1. Cast bronze medal depicting Joann P. Galst and Jay M. Galst on the obverse by Mashiko, the winner of the ANS’s 2020 J. Sanford Saltus Award for Achievement in Medallic Art (ANS 2021.25.2, gift of Mashiko).

Dr. Joann Paley Galst, Jay’s wife, has in the meantime generously arranged for a number of items from his collection to be donated to various museums, including the ANS, which is the recipient of a group of twenty highly significant ancient and medieval coins helping to fill in various gaps in our own collection. In the forthcoming issue of the ANS Magazine (2021 vol. 3), Collections Manager Elena Stolyarik offers a more comprehensive overview of this donation. Here I want to highlight a couple of the coins that are of particular interest to me.

At the beginning of my numismatic career, I developed a keen interest in the phenomenon of ancient imitations, particularly Athenian imitations, publishing a number of articles on the topic, which can be found on my academia.edu page. Produced at the same time as bona fide Athenian coins, these coins were often of (reasonably) good metal and weight and were not meant to deceive in the way counterfeit coins are. Many imitations, in fact, were marked with the names of those producing the coins, like those of the Persian satrap Sabakes of Egypt (Fig. 2), or with ancillary symbols or letters, often written in one of the Semitic alphabets such as Paleo-Hebrew, Aramaic, Northwest Semitic, or Sabaean indicating they were produced somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean region and making it clear to contemporary users that the coin in question was not a genuine Athenian product.

Figure 2. Silver tetradrachm minted in Egypt ca. 338 BCE under the authority of the Persian satrap Sabakes, whose name appears in Aramaic on the reverse (ANS 1944.100.75462, E.T. Newell bequest).

From the end of the Archaic period onward, Athenian coinage circulated in large numbers in Egypt, Arabia, the Levant, and even farther to the east, no doubt used in trade to pay for desired eastern products, like the frankincense and myrrh that were used in temple rituals. (This Aegean-Levantine trade was, in fact, the subject of my PhD dissertation.) The elevated importance of Athenian coinage in the Near East gave rise to the production of imitations, presumably at times and in places where demand for the coinage was high, but the supply low, and served also to inspire coins that while not close copies of Athenian coinage were clearly influenced by it. From the Galst collection, we have received one such unpublished marked Athenian imitation (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Silver tetradrachm possibly minted at Ascalon ca. 400 BCE (ANS 2021.20.9, gift of Joann P. Galst in memory of Jay M. Galst).

Stylistically, there is little to differentiate this coin from the later fifth century Athenian tetradrachms that served as its model, and to the unobservant this coin no doubt would have easily passed for an Athenian coin since its weight (16.97 g) is within the ballpark of expectations. There is, however, a small Northwest Semitic aleph on the obverse right along Athena’s jawline. This aleph is probably an abbreviation for the authority responsible for the production of the coin, possibly the Philistian city of Ascalon. Other Athenian imitations or Athenian inspired coins with a similarly inscribed aleph have been attributed by Haim Gitler and Oren Tal in their book on Philistian coinage to this coastal city. If this attribution is correct, this coin is probably one of the very first issues of Ascalon. Of note, there is already in the ANS collection an Athenian imitation of a similarly good late fifth century style (Fig. 4), but one marked on the obverse with the Semitic letter shin in roughly the same position as the aleph on the Galst coin, which Ya’akov Meshorer in ANS SNG 6 suggested stands for the Samaritan city of Shomron.

Figure 4. Silver tetradrachm possibly minted at Shomron ca. 400 BCE (ANS 1971.196.2, purchase).

The second coin I wish to highlight from the Galst donation is a bona fide Athenian tetradrachm (Fig. 5), but one from the latter half of the fourth century BCE.

Figure 5. Silver tetradrachm minted at Athens ca. 350 BCE with Paleo-Hebrew graffiti on the obverse and reverse (ANS 2021.20.10, gift of Joann P. Galst in memory of Jay M. Galst).

The coin itself is not so remarkable, but the graffiti on it is. Much like users today, ancient coin users from time to time wrote on their money for a variety of purposes. In the Near East this practice was especially widespread with the numerous examples of graffiti recorded on coins found in the region filling a volume published by Josette Elayi and Andre Lemaire. Generally, the graffiti are personal names, probably of those who at one time laid claim to the coin. Such is the case with this coin, which was published by Lemaire in Israel Numismatic Journal 15 (2003–2006), pp. 24–27. Lemaire determined that the graffiti on the obverse of the coin written in Paleo-Hebrew is the name Yawysih’al, a name not attested before this coin appeared, who Lemaire argues was the final owner of the coin before its burial. Notably, too, the reverse of the coin also bears the graffito shin, but the significance of this abbreviation is unknown.

Developments and Preliminary Data Release for the Roman Republican Die Project

Lucia Carbone and Liv M. Yarrow

The following post is a precursor to a Long Table discussion scheduled for Friday, July 16, 1 pm. Please join us then for an open Q&A following the presentation. If you are unable to do so, please feel free to send along any questions or comments to Lucia Carbone and Liv Mariah Yarrow. 

Nearly three decades ago Richard Schaefer began collecting images of Roman Republican coins and organizing these images by one die, either obverse or reverse based on which was most distinctive for each type (Figs. 1 and 2).

Figure 1. An image of some of the drawers in Schaefer’s office, containing pre-processed clippings of specimen images.
Figure 2. Digitized pre-processed clippings on Archer (this specimen RRC 348/5).

In Summer 2020 the ANS released all the digitized images through its online archives (Archer) and connected relevant pages to the types in Coinage of the Roman Republic Online (CRRO).  You can read about the process of digitization and the background to the project in our September 2019 ANS Magazine article, “Opening Access to Roman Republican Dies”. To learn more about the materials on Archer and how to navigate them, see these earlier blog posts. For those interested in the possible research applications of RRDP, especially concerning quantification of coin production, we published an article in RBN 2020, where the data from RRDP were put in the context of the aftermath of the First Mithridatic War (89–85 BCE), in order to show the correlation between monetary production in the provinces of the Roman Empire and the Roman Republican one.

In November 2020 the ANS received a grant for a two-year pilot project to build a database capable of reflecting Schaefer’s die analyses and enabling that work to be expanded in future by both Schaefer and the RRDP team.  The present phase is focusing on the die transcription of Crawford types 336–392 (92–75 BCE).

The reason for prioritizing these decades lies in the fact that in these years Rome found herself battling at the same time with her Italian allies (socii)—the backbone of her fighting force for her conquest and control of the Mediterranean—and with the formidable king of Pontus, Mithridates VI. While Rome’s war with the socii threatened Rome’s own existence in the Italian peninsula, the war against Mithridates promised to annihilate the Roman conquests in the East. These are also the years when historical figures of the caliber of Marius, Sulla, and Pompey rose to prominence. In spite of the crucial importance of this historical period, no contemporary, continuous narrative of this period survives as a whole. Being able to quantify the coinage for this period would provide new historical insights into the funding of different military and domestic projects and allow for a comparison of relative expenditure based on threat or need.

Within this period, we are prioritizing the transcription of a part of Schaefer’s Archive known as ODEC: One Die for Each Control Mark (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. An example of ODEC issue: RRC 378/1c. (ANS 1941.131.177)

As the name suggests, ODEC issues have a specific correspondence between dies and control marks. Usually there is a univocal correspondence between obverse and reverse dies for each of these control marks. Early on, Schaefer realized the value of these types for understanding the coin production processes used at the Roman mint and also for testing and improving statistical models for estimating the original number of dies used to strike an issue.

The funding first enabled Ethan Gruber, the ANS Director of Data Science, to adapt Numishare software to create both a die database and specimen database for coins known only from images, rather than those in collections already connected to nomisma.org and thus represented in CRRO. He then connected the die database (RRDP) and the specimen database (SITNAM) to CRRO.  For most users these new developments are best seen as extensions of CRRO itself: under each type you will see a total of 5,000 more specimens and also information about known dies. How CRRO displays this still being developed (Figs. 4–6).

Figure 4. SITNAM specimens enhancing the number of specimens already in CRRO (these specimens RRC 378/1b).
Figure 5. One specimen of RRC 378/1b as displayed on SITNAM.
Figure 6. Die analysis integrated in CRRO (this specimen RRC 378/1b).

Gruber also adapted an existing, open-source tool, SimpleAnnotationServer, for the RRDP team to work simultaneously on transcribing different parts of Schaefer’s archive and annotating images in Archer (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. A page of Schaefer’s clippings as seen in Mirador, the annotation tool that connect the images on Archer, SITNAM, RRDP, and CRRO.

Thanks to Gruber’s innovation, the RRDP team is gradually understanding the challenges of the material and how to make the transcription process as smooth and as accurate as possible.  What we are sharing now is the results of this early learning process. 

These preliminary technical tools have enabled us to begin the laborious transcription process. This release includes the following Crawford types:

342/1

342/2

342/3a

342/3b

342/6a

342/6b

362/1

378/1a

378/1b

378/1c

380/1

While we aimed to accurately reflect Schaefer’s analyses for all these issues, we also know that the very process of making them available is likely to generate feedback for improvement.  Throughout the transcription process we have regularly consulted Schaefer on his notations and where we had questions regarding his analyses, but mistakes are inevitable and regular updates are a key goal of the RRDP project.  In this we take our lead from Schaefer himself who always welcomes new observations to revise and improve the quality of the die analyses.

Many individuals have been involved thus far on the transcription project, but perhaps the most important team member is Alice Sharpless. Sharpless is currently employed part-time on RRDP, but will work full time from October onwards following the defense of her PhD thesis, “The Value of Luxury: Precious Metal Tableware in the Roman Empire.”  Sharpless brings to the team a wealth of experience digitizing the finds from the excavations at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, as well as her on-going work cataloguing the imperial coins in Columbia Library’s Olcott Collection in advance of the collection’s digital publication.

We are also indebted to a number of volunteers including Miriam Bernstein, a class of 2021 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brooklyn College (dual major in Classics and Religion). Bernstein’s work on RRDP was initially funded by a Kurz Undergraduate Research Assistantship, but even after completing this initial commitment, Bernstein has continued to work in a voluntary capacity.  She’ll be leaving the project in autumn to begin a year in the AmeriCorps’ Literacy Program in Palm Beach, Florida.  However, we hope to welcome her back to the ANS and RRDP in future.

This release has also benefited from the keen eye and interest of Jeremy Haag.  He and Liv Yarrow discovered they were both working on RRC 378 and decided to team up.  Haag has a PhD in Plant Biology and works for Bayer Crop Science as a research scientist, but in his spare time is an avid numismatist with a deep interest in the Roman Republican series.   He will co-present at the Long Table on how RRDP has been forwarding his research. Similar updates on other volunteers and collaborators will be included in each new release.

Our biggest goals are to continue to transcribe ODEC issues, but we also want to refine the transcription process to make it more user friendly and thus enable more and faster transcription. We’ll also be reviewing community feedback and adjusting and refining the display of information. 

If this pilot project is successful, we hope to develop a means by which new materials can be directly incorporated into RRDP through a web interface, so that it can be a living die study that is constantly improving in accuracy rather than a static archive.  We also hope to collaborate with other die study initiatives to ensure the RRDP data is fully integrated into those projects. 

At the upcoming Long Table on Friday, July 16th, titled Digitized die-studies: an update on RRDP and SILVER, this possibility will be discussed in detail by Caroline Carrier. Caroline is the lead post-doctoral researcher on the SILVER project, which is building a database of all known ancient world silver die studies.

Coins with Two-Sided Legends

In principle, the two sides of a coin are coequal. However, descriptions of coins inevitably place one side before the other, because language—whether spoken or written—has a one-dimensional flow in time. Numismatists often use this directionality to attribute some sort of priority to the obverse, the side that is described first.

Many—probably most—coins do not have any inherent directionality in the images or legends on their two sides. There may be some difference in the perceived importance or generality of their information, but each side may convey its information independently of the other. Thus, arbitrary conventions exist for defining obverse and reverse, so that numismatists can decide which side gets described first. For ancient Greek coins, the obverse is the side bearing the impression of the anvil die. For Islamic coins, the obverse is the side bearing the Islamic statement of faith. For Chinese coins of the Qing dynasty, the obverse is the side with text in the Chinese language.

For some coins, however, there is an inherent directionality to the relationship of the two sides, so that an arbitrary convention is not needed. This is mostly provided by the aforementioned directional flow of language.

In ancient coins this is rare. To the extent that it occurs, it mostly takes the form of informational hierarchy, where a statement on the first side of the coin provides necessary context for understanding the statement on the second. Thus, for example, the statement “P M Tr P Cos III” (a list of titles: pontifex maximus with tribunician power, consul three times) on a coin of Hadrian can only be understood as following the statement of Hadrian’s name on the other side, making the former side necessarily the reverse and the latter side the obverse.

Gold aureus of Rome minted under Hadrian, 119–122 (ANS 1944.100.44803, bequest of Edward T. Newell).

In medieval and early modern Europe, however, there are coins with legends that necessarily form a single grammatical unit spanning the two sides of the coin. As early as the sixth century there are coins where the legend forms a single syntactic unit as seen either from use of noun cases or, as seen here, a subject-verb-object sentence structure: “Rex Liuvigildus / cum D[e]o opt[i]nuit Spali” (King Leovigild with God took Ispali).

Gold tremissis of the Visigothic kingdom minted under Leovigild at Ispali, ca. 584 (ANS 2016.29.10, gift of the Edlow Family Fund).

Later in the Middle Ages, the long lists of titles belonging to many rulers meant that even in abbreviated form, they needed both sides of the coin to convey just to describe themselves. On this Castilian coin, the two sides obviously form a single grammatical constituent: “F(erdinandus) Rex Castelle / et Legionis” (Ferdinand king of Castile and León). The “et Legionis” necessarily follows the “Rex Castelle”.

Billon dinero noven of Castile and León minted under Ferdinand IV at Burgos, 1295–1312 (ANS 2017.19.339, gift of Kenneth L. Edlow).

This trend became particularly pronounced in the early modern period, when even picking a few of the most relevant titles held by a ruler would amount to a long string of text. On a coin from Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands, for example, the brief and selective legend reads Carol(us) II D(ei) G(ratia) Hisp(aniarum) et Indiar(um) Rex / Arch(idux) Aus(triae) Dux Burg(undiae) C(omes) Fl(andriae) (Charles II, by grace of God king of the Spains and the Indies, archduke of Austria, duke of Burgundy, count of Flanders). Even heavily abbreviated, it takes up the legend space on both sides of the coin.

Copper liard of the county of Flanders minted under Charles II of Spain (Charles IV of Flanders), 1692 (ANS 1914.148.55, purchase).

For coins like these, the directionality is inherent in the design of the coin. Regardless of which side was struck with which die, regardless of which side has a picture of a person on it, the side where the legend starts is inherently prior to the side where the legend ends. In this case, unlike others, no arbitrary convention is needed to identify obverse and reverse.