This past week I have been working on my presentation for the upcoming International Numismatic Congress, which concerns U.S. trade dollars, the ill-fated silver coin issued in the 1870s for trans-Pacific commerce.
Although the trade dollar was the only one struck for international circulation, there were some interesting patterns dating to this period of expanding global commerce, perhaps most notably the 1874 ‘Bickford’ $10 coin. Pattern coins are produced for evaluative purposes, but are not approved for circulation. They are usually minted in small quantities to model proposed designs for the mint and government officials. This particular $10 pattern coin was suggested by the seemingly indefatigable Dana Bickford (1834-1909), a businessman and inventor who had the ear of Henry R. Linderman, the superintendent of the United States Mint.
Bickford was perhaps best known for having invented a knitting machine for home use that made it much easier to do circular work, i.e. socks, leggings, and the like. The set up also allowed for the automation of many different kinds of stitches, and it was powered by a simple hand crank. ‘Bickford’s Family Knitting Machine’ was rather expensive but seemingly successful and working devices can still be found in the present day. Unfortunately, the company lost a federal lawsuit for patent infringements in 1879 and he seems to have lost whatever fortune was made from it.
Bickford next tried to market a garden and fire pump while also continuing to create new inventions, but none of these seem to have found much success. An article in The American Machinist from 1902 described him as a “well-known inventor” who was working to secure support for a retirement home for indigent inventors in West Medford, Massachusetts. It remains unclear whether he was himself destitute or if this was just philanthropy on his part, but the home was supposed to have a laboratory where its residents could continue their work. Whatever the case, nothing seems to have come of the venture and Bickford passed away in Epping, New Hampshire on October 15, 1909.
Dana Bickford’s most notable legacy, at least for numismatists, was the idea for a coin that he proposed to Henry Linderman for the US Mint in 1874. The genesis of the pattern was detailed in the February 1876 edition of the Coin & Stamp Journal, which reprinted an article that originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 31 (click to enlarge).
The summary version is that Bickford was traveling through Europe in 1873 and experienced all the “difficulties and inconveniences” that accompanied exchanging for and understanding the “money current” in each of the countries that he visited. (That part of the story checks out as Bickford lodged an application with the Department of State for a passport in February 1873). The idea he hit upon while traveling was for a coin that would have its exact composition on its face, as well as its value in terms of each of the major commercial currencies. Bickford called at the mint in Philadelphia when he returned, and Linderman thought enough of the idea that dies were prepared and a pattern was struck. The ANS holds a copper specimen (Judd-1374), but it was also struck in aluminum, nickel, and gold.
Bickford’s proposed system of international coinage would allow countries to display their own particular design on the obverse (hence the Liberty Head), but required that the fineness, weight, and exchange value of the coin be expressed on the reverse. Although struck in copper, this was supposed to be a $10 gold coin or Eagle with a weight of 16.72 grams. The indication that it was .900 fine meant that it contained 15.046 grams or .48375 troy ounces of pure gold. Six cartouches circle the reverse with the value of the coin in US dollars ($10), British pounds (£2.1.1), German marks (41.99), Danish kroner (37.31), Dutch gulden (20.73), and French francs (51.81). The UBIQUE inscription stands for ‘ubiquitous,’ implying that the coin was good everywhere.
Although this was likely an impossible scheme to implement in practical terms, the coin was an intriguing idea in theory. Beginning with the formation of the Latin Monetary Union in 1865, there were a series of international monetary conferences and related efforts to create a more uniform and stable global currency system. The big problem for Bickford’s proposed coinage was that although the price of gold was relatively steady, not all nations were on a gold standard. A drop in the price of silver during the 1870s destabilized the currencies of those countries on a silver or bimetallic standard by dramatically shifting the gold price of silver. This in turn led to fluctuations in exchange rates that would have been impossible to keep up with in terms of minting and circulating coins.
The article, though, rather optimistically expressed the hope that the coin would be adopted by Congress and issued prior to the opening of the Centennial Exposition in May 1876, but of course this never happened despite the wide support that was implied. Perhaps the most interesting part of the article was its ending, which praised Linderman’s “superior judgement” for “ordering the sample coins.” The illustrations show a 1876 $10 coin modeled after the earlier 1874 pattern, and a silver half dollar with an 1876 date and an interesting new scalloped design for its reverse. Neither of these coins is known to exist but it seems likely that they were struck.
Despite the fact that Bickford’s patterns were never put into production, he could not seem to let the idea go. In 1897, he issued a series of bimetallic “Republican International Dollars” in the same vein as the earlier pattern coins, with exchange rates for the Russian rouble and Japanese Yen helpfully added. Although this particular specimen was a model made with brass and aluminum, the intention was that the actual dollars would contain gold and silver.
Bickford rather optimistically expressed the hope, which is inscribed on the obverse, that “This Combination Coin Will When Adopted be Good in All Nations / Heal All Differences Between Gold & Silver Men / and Fully Settle All Financial Questions.”