The American Numismatic Society is pleased to announce the publication of Monuments in Miniature: Architecture on Roman Coinage, a new book by Nathan T. Elkins that recasts the scholarship on this popular subject. Rather than focusing on the iconography, Elkins’ study seeks to contextualize these coins and understand the broader social and cultural context that informed these architectural representations. Although the emphasis is on Roman coinage, earlier Greek types are also featured for comparative analysis, including this sixth century BC silver stater of Zancle that shows harbor buildings on a sandbar encircling a dolphin.
In the Persian empire, city walls were a traditional symbol of power that were often represented on the coinage produced by the satrapies of Cilicia and Phoenicia. A particularly fine example of this tradition is this mid-fourth century BC tetradrachm of Tarsus, which depicts a lion attacking a bull above two rows of turreted walls.
The volume features over two hundred images and provides a comprehensive catalogue of Roman architectural coin types organized into Early, Late, and Provincial sections. I don’t want to step on Elkins’ detailed analyses here, but I do want to highlight one of the more spectacular coins, a cistophorus of Augustus from the mint at Pergamon that depicts the Temple of Mars Ultor on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.
As Elkins indicates, this particular representation likely bore no resemblance to the actual structure, which some historians argue was never actually built. Still, it is a lovely example of numismatic art (and architecture)!
For those looking to learn more about this fascinating topic, a PDF of the introduction is available to peruse here. To purchase, head over the ANS store.
A few weeks back the ANS put together a display for the U.S.-Mexican Numismatic Association that included some of the highlights of our collection of Mexican coins and currency. Among the most remarked upon pieces was a rather unusual Mexican-American ‘dollar,’ which in actuality consists of an 1874 Republic of Mexico 8 reales, an 1850s-era US half dime, and a circa 1875 US dime. As you can hopefully make out in the photo below, a copper rivet was driven through the three coins to join them together.
Explaining exactly why someone would do this is a rather complicated story. Let us begin with the Mexican coin, which was struck at the Guanajuato mint in 1874 and is of the traditional “Cap & Rays” design. During these years the Republic of Mexico was attempting to transition to a decimal-based monetary system centered on the peso, but the older Spanish real denominations proved so durable that they continued to be produced alongside the decimal currency. But what mattered in this case was not really the denomination, but the silver content of the coin. Generally speaking, countries at the time wanted the commodity value of their currency to be roughly equal to its nominal value. With the discovery and exploitation of vast silver deposits in the American West during the 1860s and 1870s, the price of silver declined as the supply increased. As the amount of silver used in particular coins stayed the same, their commodity value correspondingly decreased. A Mexican 8 reales, for example, contained around 377 grains of pure silver, and during the first half of the nineteenth century when the price of silver was stable, its commodity and nominal value corresponded, i.e. it was worth about $1 US as both circulating currency and as silver bullion. As the increasing abundance in the 1870s drove down the price of sliver, the value of the Mexican 8 reales as silver bullion depreciated to where it became worth significantly less than a US dollar. The reason that this was significant was because the Mexican 8 reales and peso were freely circulating in the southwestern United States during the 1870s, as there was a general want for silver coinage in the region.
As the price of silver declined, people soon discovered that their “Mexican dollars” that had been circulating at par with the US dollar were now only being redeemed by banks for around 85 cents. Whoever made this unusual coin came up with a novel solution to the problem. Hammering a dime (10¢) and half dime (5¢) together with the Mexican coin brought the value of the amalgamated piece to one US dollar.
It is unclear how common this rather strange solution to the unstable currency situation was. At least one other specimen of similar vintage is known to us, via a 1905 inquiry to the Numismatist. A dealer named B. P. Wright included the illustration at left in a letter soliciting information about this unusual specimen. In this case the ‘host’ coin was an 1844 Mexican 8 reales, but the method and orientation of the attached American coins suggests it was made by the same person. Editor George F. Heath responded to the inquiry as follows:
During this time (1871-79 ) we resided in the great southhwest. For a period of about fifteen years silver had been driven from circulation and was rarely seen, paper currency having almost entirely taken its place. Long about 1877 the banks in the section began the importation of Mexican dollars in great quantities which were eagerly taken up into circulation at par, but in the course of a couple of years silver had so fluctuated in value that the banks would only redeem them at eighty five cents. This was the condition of things in 1879. It must have been between 1877 and 1879 that the brilliant idea presented itself to the author of this combination of combining these coins in a substantial and permanent way. But it could not have been long after ere the piece which was partly bullion became entirely so, and became a fit subject for the curio portion of the numismatic cabinet.
If you have seen a similar piece, please do let us know!
Marcus Aurelius Claudius (213-270 CE) was an Illyrian of modest birth who worked his way up through the ranks of the Roman army during the tumultuous third century. According to the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, he was a fierce fighter and able commander who eventually became caught up in the imperial intrigues of the day. Claudius was commander of the the reserves of a force led by the reigning Emperor Gallienus in the summer of 268 that was besieging Milan, where the would-be usurper Aureolus had taken refuge. The supposed inefficacy of Gallienus as a ruler led to a conspiracy that ended in his assassination.
Whether or not Claudius was involved remains unclear, but he was the one chosen by the army to succeed Gallienus. In what was perhaps a related move, the Scriptores Historiae Augustae reports that the soldiers were promised twenty aurei each for their support. Claudius quickly made peace with Aueolus and then just as quickly betrayed and killed him. He then turned his attention to one of the many external threats facing the Roman Empire, namely an invasion of Pannonia by the Goths. It was in this context that Claudius earned the surname Gothicus (i.e. conqueror of the Goths) by which he is now commonly known after destroying a large Gothic army at the Battle of Naissus. Claudius thereafter quashed an incursion of Germanic tribes at the Battle of Lake Benacus and successfully campaigned to restore territories that had been lost by his predecessors to the Empire. The celebrated reign of Claudius Gothicus was ultimately brief, as he was felled by the so-called “Plague of Cyprian” (probably smallpox) in early 270.
The antoninianus was a new domination of silver coin that was introduced amidst the financial crises that gripped the Roman Empire in the early third century. Over the course of time it was debased until it was mostly bronze. As you can see by the mixed patinas of the eight antoniniani issued under the authority of Claudius at the top of this post, the metal content varied.
The common obverse features a radiate bust of the Emperor and Roman Imperial Coinage lists dozens of reverse types. The example above (RIC 168) was minted in Mediolanum (Milan) and its reverse features Spes, the personification of hope, holding a flower.
One of the treasures in the American Numismatic Society’s collection is a unique gold medal depicting the German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546). It came to the ANS by way of Alastair Martin, an art collector, ace tennis player, and longtime benefactor of many metropolitan cultural institutions.
The medal was formerly part of the collection at the Klosterneuburg Monastery, an Augustinian abbey in Austria that has a museum of Gothic and Baroque sculpture and paintings. Its provenance beyond that is uncertain, as is much about the circumstances of its production. The medal dates to 1521, a momentous year in the nascent Protestant Reformation that began with Martin Luther being excommunicated for refusing to recant his writings. Luther’s 1517 publication of Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum (The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences) had provided the initial catalyst for the Reformation by attacking clerical abuses and the practice of selling of indulgences in particular.
In April 1521, Luther was ordered to appear at the Diet of Worms, a formal deliberative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire convened to address the ongoing religious upheaval. Luther refused to disavow his writings and beliefs, which led to the Edict of Worms condemning him as a heretic and forbidding “anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favour the said Martin Luther.” Despite this declaration, Luther had wide support in Germany and this wonderful medal captures something of the esteem with which he was regarded.
This obverse is supposed to have been the work of Hans Glimm, a goldsmith from Nuremberg. This attribution derives from the fact that a few known lead casts have the monogram HR under the bust, although it obviously does not appear on this gold specimen. Whomever designed the obverse, it is clear that the depiction of Luther in profile was based upon an engraving by the painter and printmaker Lucas Cranach.
The spread of Luther’s ideas and the general success of the Reformation was closely tied to the evolution of the printing press, which enabled both images of Luther and his writings to circulate widely. Cranach worked in the state of Saxony, a center of the tumult, and painted or engraved portraits of many of the Reformation’s leaders. He was also an enthusiastic supporter and close friend of Martin Luther, who as the engraving and medal suggest, cut a rather stout figure. Cranach’s early print was suggestive of the portrait medallions that were popular in Renaissance art, so it hardly seems surprising that it served as a model for the production of an actual medal. Incidentally, Cranach often signed his works with a black winged serpent holding a ruby ring in its jaws, which you can see at bottom right if you click to enlarge the image. The legend that wreathes Luther’s bust reads:
This can be roughly translated as : “If Luther will be deserving of any heresies, Christ also will be deserving of this crime.”
The reverse makes the connection between Luther and Jesus Christ explicit. It is thought to be the work of Peter Flötner, a sculptor, metalsmith, and printmaker who was a prominent figure in Nuremberg’s flourishing in the arts.
The bust of Christ is surmounted by a holy dove and flanked by verses in German from the Gospels of John. On the left is John 1:29 : “Christ, I am the lamb that taketh away the sin of the world.” On the right is John 4:16 : “No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” The verses underscores Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. Contra established Catholic teaching, Luther believed that salvation was a gift received from God, not something that could be achieved by good works and holiness or, in the case of indulgences, bought.
This wonderful gold medal is both an exemplary work of Renaissance medallic art and a powerful piece of pro-Reformation propaganda that explicitly suggests that if Luther was guilty of heresy, Christ would be as well.
Last weekend I finished reading Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (2015), which is an elaborate retelling of the true history that inspired Herman Melville’s famed novella “Benito Cereno.” Originally serialized in Putnam’s Monthly in the fall of 1855, Melville’s story is a fictionalized account of an 1805 encounter between a New England sealing vessel and a Spanish ship that had been taken over by the slaves it was carrying near Santa María Island off the coast of Chile.
The drama of the historical episode and Melville’s story derives from the fact the American captain Amasa Delano boarded the disordered Spanish vesselwithout knowing that the slaves had seized it. He spent most of a day rendering aid and touring the ship with its captain, Benito Cerreño and his ‘personal slave’ Mori, who never left his ostensible master’s side. Although some strange behavior arouses suspicion, it is not until he was departing that the ruse was revealed when the Spanish captain desperately leapt from his ship into Delano’s departing long boat screaming about the rebellion. Although it quickly cut its lines in an attempt to escape, Delano dispatched two heavily-armed boats that violently retook the vessel from its captors, killing both slaves and some of the surviving Spanish crew in the process.
Delano’s rather laconic account of the affair and documents relating to it were published in his 1817 memoir, which formed the basis for Melville’s story. Grandin’s book ably places the whole episode in the larger context of New World slavery and offers a narrative that effectively intertwines the history of Spanish America, African slavery, and the United States. Although the grand themes lead to a few rather ponderous passages, Grandin’s extensive research and fine writing ensure that Empire of Necessity is a rewarding read.
In any case, it also led me to peruse the book that Delano produced about a decade after he returned to the United States. Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817) is a six-hundred-page tome that chronicles his three voyages around the globe, the last of which was as captain of the Perseverance (1803–1808). The book provides a wonderful, if occasionally disturbing (check out the passage where some of the crew drowns), picture of the early China trade and the Pacific maritime world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. As usual here on Pocket Change, we are exploring Delano’s Narrative because of a largely unknown numismatic angle, one that shines a light on the workings of the Lima mint. Part of the reason that Delano and his crew risked life and limb to recapture Cerreño’s ship was that they expected a reward for their actions. When colonial officials in Santiago failed to satisfy Delano’s demands, he sailed for Lima in the fall of 1805 in the hope of getting a hearing with the Viceroy of Peru, Gabriel de Avilés Itúrbide. Avilés took a liking to Delano, but any settlement required extensive negotiations, and during the interim he was given free rein of the city.
One of the places Delano visited was the Casa de Moneda de Lima, the city’s mint, which was established in 1568 to coin the silver that was pouring out of the Peruvian Andes. The building that he visited, and which still stands today, was opened in 1758 after a violent earthquake destroyed the earlier structure. Delano began his tour in the area where the gold ore was processed. Here he observed slaves performing the toxic work of refining the gold ore by kneading the doughy mixture with their bare feet and separating out the gold with quicksilver or mercury. After the metal was melted and cast into bars, Delano continues:
After the ore is drawn off in this way in bars, according to the dimensions of the mould, they are taken to a room further to the right in which the grand water works are fixed; in this room were more than ten pairs of rollers arranged very much like those that sugar cane is run through in the West Indies, made horizontal, and gradually decreasing in space. The bars of gold and silver are run through, between these rollers, from one to the other, until they are laminated to near the thickness of a dollar, and the gold to that of a doubloon, having by that time the requisite width. By the time they are nearly reduced to a right thickness they are more than four feet long, the silver having a similar appearance to iron hoops. They are then taken to another room still to the right, and run through a plate which brings them to an exact thickness, at which time they are wide enough to cut out the dollar. After this they are passed under a sharp steel trepan of a roundish figure, hollow within, and of porportionable diameter to shape and cut the piece at the same time. This instrument is fixed at the lower end of a screw which is made with a very large worm; this causes it to descend very forcibly, and when the laminated bar is held under it, every time the screw is turned it comes down and cuts a piece out of the silver the exact size of a dollar; but when a gold laminated bar drawn to a proper thickness, is placed under it, the screw is supplied with another instrument to pierce out a piece the exact size of a doubloon. They are next milled by means of running them through a machine that is only the thickness of a dollar, which is confined edge ways, so that by turning a crank it will roll the dollars through, putting at the same time the mill on the edge.
With the edges of the planchets now serrated or milled, the blanks were weighed, corrected as needed with pins, and then moved into the coining room. There a bronze stamping press was used to produce the final product. The engraving below is from instructions issued in the 1770s by the mint in Potosí, but the machinery used in Lima was similar, if not identical.
Delano described the final step of the coining process as follows:
The master set the people to work at coining dollars and doubloons, to shew me the last process, as I had previously seen all but that. The method is, the two impressions are cut on two pieces of steel, about the size of a blacksmith’s sledge hammer, and not very unlike it in shape, the impressions being cut on the face of each; these two pieces are fixed, one in a frame made of wood and iron on the ground, fastened very strongly with screws, with the impression upwards; the other piece is fixed at the lower end of a large screw, five inches in diameter and four feet long, with the impression side down, and placed directly over the one that is fixed on the ground, all parts of the machine being framed together in a remarkable strong manner. An iron tiller, large bar, is put on the head of the screw in the same manner a boat’s tiller is put over the head of the rudder, the hole for the screw being in the middle of the tiller, which is twelve feet long, having each end of it loaded with about fifty weight of lead and ropes four or five feet long fastened to each end for the men to poll by, who sit down and take hold of the ropes, being from five to seven in number. The man who puts the dollars under has a hole sunk on one side of his work for him to sit in. When the men were all called to their stations and a thousand dollars emptied near the work, the master stepped to the pile and took a handful which he brought to me to inspect, and shewed me where the pins were put in to make up the weight, which were very plain to be seen. One man who stands up at one end of the tiller throws it back and raises the screw. A piece of wood was taken out from between the two impressions that serves to keep them apart and a dollar put under in its stead, on which the screw is turned forward with the full strength of the men placed at the tiller, by which it comes down with incredible force on the dollar. The man at the opposite end of the tiller then heaves it back and raises the screw. The dollar is brushed off by means of a piece of iron twelve inches long, of the thickness and width of an iron hoop, which he constantly holds in his hand, and another dollar is put under. They were handed to me to see how fair and deep the impressions were made, and how completely the pins were pressed in; but I could see on some of them where the pin was. This may often be seen in Spanish dollars, if closely inspected. After showing me as many as I wished to see, they set the screw to work as fast as possible. They could easily finish fifteen in a minute, or one in four seconds. The process with doubloons is the same as with dollars. The pressure of the screw when it comes down on the coin I should imagine to equal a great number of tons, perhaps one hundred.
The silver dollars that Delano observed being minted were 8-real coins or ‘pieces of eight,’ which circulated throughout the Americas. Below is an 1805 specimen from the Lima mint.
These were known as Spanish dollars in the United States, and they were undoubtedly the most common silver coin there at the time. Indeed, after 1804 the US Mint at Philadelphia was not even producing silver dollars. The doubloon that Delano refers to was the colloquial name for a gold coined valued at two escudos.
This example dating to 1800 is also from the Lima mint, which you can tell by the mintmark on the reverse. The mark changed over time but in that era it resembled the overlapped letters M and E. The Lima mint continued to strike coinage in this mold until 1821, when General José de San Martín declared Peru’s independence from the Spanish Empire. In 1822, new 8-real coins were struck with the legend PERU LIBRE and a obverse that featured the allegorical figures of justice and virtue. The mint remains in operation today, and for a fine article with many photographs detailing its history and environs see Glen S. Murray’s piece in The Numismatist (July 1980).
Delano’s four-page account of his 1805 visit stands out as perhaps the most complete contemporary account of the workings of the Lima mint in English. The full text of the passage is transcribed below the fold and is well worth reading for the wealth of detail it provides. One final numismatic note to his narrative concerns the eventual reward for the “rescue” of the Spanish ship. When Delano returned to Boston in late July 1807, he received a letter and a medal from the King of Spain, Charles IV, for his service. Delano described it as a “gold medal, having his majesty’s likeness on one side, and on the other the inscription, Reward of Merit.” The ANS has one of these medals in silver, and the gold version was no doubt of a similar, albeit smaller, design.
The ANS has a selection of rare Roman coins on display as part of an exhibition at Bulgari’s flagship store in New York City. “BVLGARI + ROME: Eternal Inspiration” reflects on the jeweler’s long association with the “Eternal City,” where the original shop was opened in 1884 by Sotirios Boulgaris. The exhibition includes a mix of contemporary jewelry and ancient Roman artifacts and coins.
Bulgari has from time to time also used actual ancient coins in its line as with this choker embedded with a tetradrachm of Alexander the Great. New York magazine has a wonderful slide show of some of the items on display.
The American Numismatic Society loan comprises eighteen Roman coins, most notably a gold treveri medallion from AD 293–294. The medallion features busts of four Roman emperors; Diocletian and Galerius on the obverse and Maximian and Constantius on the reverse, each wearing the imperial mantle.
It was part of the so-called Beaurains Treasure, a rich hoard of Roman artifacts discovered in 1922 near the city of Arras in Northern France. The ANS holds over fifty pieces from that hoard, which you can learn more about here.
One of the other notable coins on display is a denarius of the infamous assassin Marcus Junius Brutus. The image on the reverse of a pileus, a cap given to freed slaves, between two daggers underscored the belief by Brutus and his supporters that the murderous act had liberated the Roman Republic from Julius Caesar‘s tyranny. The legend EID MAR or ‘Ides of March’ commemorates the day of the deed. The coin was minted in 42-43 BCE as Brutus and his allies were raising an army in northern Greece to march on Rome in what was ultimately a failed bid to seize power. It is rare to see an ancient coin so rich in symbolism and so directly tied to a notable event. Among the other coins featured are an aureus of Sextus Pompey and a dozen or so gold solidi, which will be display at the 730 Fifth Avenue store until November 22.
The Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University has just opened a fascinating new exhibition with the theme of “Hair in the Classical World.” On display in the gallery are an assortment of objects and images from the Bronze Age through late Antiquity, including a diverse array of sculptures and, of course, coins. As the introduction to the exhibition notes, hair is particularly “resonant of cultural identity,” and the way that it was styled and sported in antiquity served a variety of different purposes. Among other things, hairstyles signified social position, served as a medium of cultural exchange, and played an important role in various rituals and rites of passage.
One of the most compelling aspects of the exhibition is its manifest interdisciplinarity. Any consideration of hairstyles must necessarily draw upon a wide range of material, historical, and visual sources, and the interpretation effectively mixes insights from archaeology, art history, and cultural studies. As everything from the intricate hair pins on display to the careful texturing and arrangement of hair on the statuary suggests, hairstyles were an important means of self and artistic expression in the classical world.
A significant inspiration for the exhibition was the Caryatid Hairstyling Project, which employed a professional hairstylist and student models in an attempt to replicate the elaborate hairstyles on the famed marbles of the Erechtheion. A short film of that project is on view as part of the exhibition. While all of this might give the impression that the focus is exclusively on women, there is also material reflecting on men’s hairstyles, which at times were as elaborate as those that adorned women. Braids were one style common to boys and girls in ancient Greece. Grown out along the central part, the braid was ritually cut and dedicated to the goddess Artemis when entering adulthood.
The reason we are writing this up here is of course because coins feature prominently in the exhibition. The curators liken coins to the social media of today insomuch they were a medium through which images of hairstyles circulated and reached a wide audience.
The American Numismatic Society has ten coins on loan to the Bellarmine Museum for the exhibition, including a silver decadrachm from Syracuse, a denarius of Julia Domna and a gold aureus of Faustina the Younger. Coins were a form of propaganda and a way to project power in the classical world, and the variety of hairstyles captured in the portraits reflect the politics and fashion of their age. Perhaps the pièce de résistance in terms of the coinage is a silver decadrachm that features a portrait of the water nymph Arethusa wreathed by swimming dolphins. It was minted in Syracuse between 405 and 400 BCE, when the city-state was ruled by the tyrant Dionysius. In an attempt to buttress his reputation and power, he engaged the best engravers available to produce some of the finest coinage anywhere in the Greek world.
“Hair in the Classical World” will be on view through December 18, 2015, and the Bellarmine Museum is free and open to the public (see here for hours and directions). It should also be noted that the museum will also be hosting a scholarly symposium on the subject on the afternoon of November 6. Speakers include Dr. David Konstan from New York University, author of Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea (2015) and Janet Stephens, a Baltimore-based hairdresser and amateur forensic archaeologist. To pre-register for the symposium and to see more information about other public programs connected to the exhibition, head here.
On October 5, 1858, the New York Crystal Palace burned to the ground in just forty minutes after a fire broke out in the northeast corner of the building just after five o’clock in the evening. The American Institute, a civic organization dedicated to “encouraging and promoting domestic industry,” was holding its annual fair, and about two thousand visitors were in the building at the time. The New York Herald (October 6, 1858) reported that despite scenes of “indescribable confusion,” remarkably no one was killed in the fast-moving blaze.
Although the enormous structure was mostly made of iron and glass, the pitch pine that was used as flooring and in much of the framework “afforded a most inflammable pabulum for the conflagration to feed upon.” In a particularly evocative passage the Herald noted that at one point “the whole palace was like a burning coal, and vomiting up fire at a rate that would have done credit to Vesuvius.” The vivid scene was captured in a hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives in which you can make out a company of red-shirted New York City firemen arriving in the foreground to vainly battle the roaring blaze.
The New York version of the Crystal Palace was constructed to host an “Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations” in 1853, which was an American effort to replicate The Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London’s Hyde Park. The building was designed by architects Georg Carstensen and Charles Gildemeister in the shape of a Greek cross with arms measuring 365 feet in length and capped with a 100-foot diameter dome at its center. For the architecturally inclined a full description of the building with plates can be found here. The building was located on a site between Fifth and Sixth Avenues on 42nd Street, in what is today Bryant Park. It was completed in June 1853, at which time this large medal was struck to commemorate the occasion.
The obverse shows the Crystal Palace in all its glory while the reverse depicts a globe surrounded by allegorical figures bearing the varied attributes of industry. The beatified figure of Europe reigns supreme at the top while a man in native dress looks up at her from below. As the title and imagery implies, the exhibition was intended to highlight the industrial and artistic achievements of the United States, and the supposed march of civilization. The exhibition proved popular and it provided a model of sorts for the string of World’s Fairs that were subsequently staged around the country. Between July and November, over a million people visited the Crystal Palace to take in the exhibits and enjoy the varied entertainments that were on offer. One of the more unusual attractions on the grounds was the Latting Observatory, a 315-foot tower built adjacent to the exhibition building.
As depicted in this medal struck by G. H. Lovett, the Observatory was an iron-braced wooden structure with stores at its base and three landings from which visitors were treated to a panoramic view of the growing city. The tower did not live to see the fiery demise of its neighbor, as this structure was itself consumed by flames a few years prior to the spectacular Crystal Palace fire. It was not until the New York World Building was completed in 1890 that another structure in the city surpassed three hundred feet in height.
Despite the ostensible success of the initial exhibition, the Crystal Palace was something of an ongoing problem for the city and its owners as the building was simply too big to be of much practical use beyond the occasional event. For all of the remarkable happenings and superlatives that graced the short-lived structure, the Herald‘s description makes it clear that its dramatic and destructive final act on October 5, 1858 might have left the biggest impression.
Dr. Ute Wartenberg Kagan, Executive Director of the American Numismatic Society, will be speaking on the subject of “Coin Collecting and the Conflict in Syria” this evening as part of a symposium co-sponsered by the U.S. Department of State and The Metropolitan Museum of Art . “Conflict Antiquities: Forging a Public/Private Response to Save the Endangered Patrimony of Iraq and Syria” features two panels of experts that will review international cooperation against looting in Iraq and Syria and discuss a new initiative to combat the trade in conflict antiquities. The event will be live-streamed starting at 4:30PM EDT: http://bcove.me/0r5bhzji
One of the most overlooked aspects of both numismatic and printing history in the United States is the ephemeral genre of serials known as “counterfeit detectors.” These publications flourished in the antebellum era, when a chronic lack of coinage led individual banks and businesses to issue diverse forms of paper money. A trickle of notes issued by private banks in the late eighteenth century turned into a veritable flood by the 1820s as an ever-greater number of banks issued increasingly large amounts to satisfy the needs of the growing populace and economy. These privately issued bank notes were a kind of representative money that promised the holder that the paper could be redeemed at the bank for specie, i.e. gold and silver, on demand. In practice this was not always the case as a given bank’s ability to ‘make good’ its circulating notes was often questionable.
While this newfound capital helped to fuel the United States’ runaway growth, the sheer number of different designs and varying quality of the notes created a chaotic currency situation that was ripe for abuse. Perhaps the biggest problem was the integrity of the note-issuing banks themselves, which ranged from prudent and well-capitalized institutions to unsafe and even outrightly fraudulent ones that printed notes with no intention of ever redeeming them. Rampant counterfeiting only further confounded matters, and the public was put in the essentially impossible position of attempting to assess whether or not a given note was genuine, and even if so, what it exactly it was worth for an incredible range of currencies.
In an attempt to bring some clarity to this confusing situation, publishers printed broadsides and circulars that listed commonly counterfeited notes. Newspapers, most notably the Baltimore-based Niles Register (1811-1836), also featured financial columns that advised readers about the soundness of various banks, reported exchange rates, and took note of counterfeiting activities around the country. Yet it was not until 1819 that The American, a New York City newspaper, began to regularly publish a table entitled “Bank Note Exchange,” which gave the going rates for assorted notes and listed known counterfeits. The table at left is reproduced from the July 14 edition and indicates that it was updated every Tuesday and Friday by Martin Lee, a broker with offices at 44 Wall Street. A rating of “par” indicated that the note was equal to its printed value, while a number followed by “do” indicated the rate at which the note was discounted, which typically was related to either the perceived soundness of the issuing bank or its distance from the city. The column shows that notes issued by banks in Baltimore, for example, were discounted 3 percent, making a ten-dollar Baltimore bank note worth $9.70 in New York. Banks further afield suffered from even steeper discounts, and the geographic disparities created opportunities for “bill brokers” and “note shavers” to acquire and transfer the notes around the country at a profit. By the early 1820s, bank note tables became increasingly common in American newspapers, and often included notices about known counterfeit and so-called “spurious” notes that were issued by fraudulent banks. These bank note tables and columns were the precursor to a genre of newspapers that emerged in the late 1820s that focused almost entirely on the legitimacy and value of paper money in circulation.
William H. Dillistin’s Bank Note Reporters and Counterfeit Detectors, 1826-1866 (1949) represents the only serious study of these popular publications to date. As delineated by Dillistin, these serials had two essential purposes: (1) “to show the rate of discount at which uncurrent notes would be purchased or exchanged for specie in the more important business centers,” and (2) “to furnish a brief description of counterfeit, spurious, altered, and raised notes.” The noted New York printer and Quaker Mahlon Day (1790-1854) was the first to publish a bank note list and record of counterfeits at regular intervals, beginning a biweekly broadsheet in 1826 called the New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter. Because each new issue superseded prior editions with updated information, they were typically discarded and few examples have survived relative to the numbers in which they were printed. A survey of major libraries for Day’s New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter, which was published continuously from 1826 to 1851, turns up only a few dozen extant issues. When Dillistin produced his 1949 study, the earliest that he discovered was an August 1830 edition at the Huntington Library. Looking through a sheaf of counterfeit detectors donated to the ANS the other day, I discovered an even earlier date.
The April 14, 1828 edition of the New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter is a four-page folio approximately 20 by 13 inches in size. Underneath the title, an inscription reads: “Published by Mahlon Day, at the New Juvenile Bookstore, No. 376, Pearl Street.” Indeed, Day is perhaps better known today for his pioneering role in publishing children’s books, but combating counterfeiting also proved to be a profitable business. A notice lists the price of a subscription to the paper as two dollars per annum, and indicates that the serial was “entered according to an Act of Congress the 30th day of October, 1826,” which raises the possibility that there might be even earlier extant issues that could come to light.
The first page lists the value of notes for over one hundred banks around the country in the city of New York at that time, indicating whether particular notes were circulating on par with their nominal value or at a discount. Bankrupt banks were straightforwardly labeled as “broke,” while in many cases the value of given bank’s notes were listed as “uncer,” i.e. uncertain.
The remaining three pages of the paper were taken up with what purports to be “A Complete List of Counterfeit Bills, of Altered Notes, and those with Spurious Signers, throughout the United States,” organized by geography and denomination. The list offers a window into the principal means by which counterfeiters operated. The most straightforward method was to simply reproduce a genuine note as best as possible. The Counterfeit Detecter sometimes described a bogus bill in detail, explaining for example that a twenty-dollar note attributed to the Charleston Branch of the Bank of the United States was “fainter than the genuine, particularly the eagle and work around it,” and that it was “shorter than the genuine note.” Other known counterfeits were simply listed, as in this excerpt from the section on New York City banks. Here one sees a listing for a counterfeit $2 note from the Merchant’s Bank dated March 1, 1826, The ANS actually holds an example of this particular note, which although crudely made, we did not regard as a counterfeit until reading this counterfeit detecter.
Day’s Detecter also shows that wholesale counterfeits were less common than the practice of “raising” bank notes, which involved changing the denomination of a genuine bill. The New York City excerpt above indicated $1 notes of the Manhattan Bank were being altered into $2 notes and that $1 notes of the Merchant’s Bank were being changed into $3 notes. In the specimen below, a genuine one-dollar note issued by the Northern Bank of New York has been raised to a value of ten dollars, the telltale signs being the discoloration around the engraved numbers, which were rubbed or cut out and then replaced with the higher value.
Note the dark spots around where the numbers have been altered. While this counterfeit was not particularly well crafted, I chose it as an example because the tampering was so easy to see. Better executed raised notes were very difficult to detect without the kind of specialized information that counterfeit detectors provided. Another technique for altering notes was to change the name on worthless paper issued by a broken bank to that of a sound institution. Day’s Counterfeit Detecter thus also lists “spurious” notes, which refers to either currency issued by plausibly-named but non-existent banks or those notes that were purely fraudulent, bearing no resemblance to any genuine notes. That notes for a completely fictional bank could and indeed did circulate suggests something of the confusion that reigned in the monetary system and the appeal of something like this serial that helped individuals and businesses navigate the bewildering mix of paper money in circulation.
The two-and-a-half pages devoted to counterfeits list over eight hundred fraudulent notes, which casts some light on the scope of the problem; and it was one that was only getting worse as banks and bank notes proliferated amidst the Market Revolution. A short notice “To our Patrons and Friends” on the back page of Day’s paper informed readers that the publication would soon be increasing in size and promised “an improved general appearance,” and asked “the community for a continuance of their favors.” By 1830, it was an eight-page publication and in 1837 Day’s Counterfeit Detecter expanded to sixteen pages. Clearly Mahlon Day had struck upon a popular and profitable idea, and it would not be long before competition in counterfeit detection began to heat up. Interestingly enough, the back page of the paper contains and advertisement for Sylvester J. Sylvester, a broker who would shortly become Day’s biggest rival and whose endeavors we will cover in part II of this series.