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Chinese Junk Keying Medals

The Chinese Junk Keying Hand-colored Lithograph N. Currier, 1847 MCNY
The Chinese Junk “Keying” (N. Currier, 1847)
Hand-colored Lithograph | MCNY

The Keying was a three-masted Chinese trading junk that sailed from Hong Kong in December 1847 with a mixed crew of Chinese and British sailors. The vessel had been purchased surreptitiously by a conglomerate of enterprising English businessmen. It was placed under the command of Captain Alfred Kellett with the intention of carrying curiosities and merchandise to England and thereafter serving as a kind of floating museum. The avaricious Kellett neglected to tell the Chinese crew members that they were embarking on such an extended journey, and by the time the Keying rounded the Cape of Good Hope, they were more or less mutinous. After some bad weather and with supplies running short, the vessel was forced to make an unscheduled stopover in New York City. When the Keying sailed into the harbor on July 9, 1847, it created a sensation. Since at least the late eighteenth-century, Americans had exhibited a fascination with China that only increased as trade relations expanded in the nineteenth century. Tea was of course the most coveted commodity, but Chinese porcelain, silk, and other luxury goods were also much sought after. The Keying brought the “romance of China”  to New York City, and the public lined up to pay fifty cents to tour the vessel and peruse its displays.

"The Bay and Harbor of New York" by Samuel Waugh | MCNY
“The Bay and Harbor of New York” by Samuel Waugh | MCNY

This watercolor by Samuel Waugh shows the Keying anchored just offshore from Castle Garden, where it remained for several months in 1847. Kellett was coining money, but the Chinese crew used the opportunity to take him to court for his duplicity and general meanness. Although they received a favorable ruling and many of the crew elected to head back to China, Kellett skipped town to escape his obligations, making first for Boston and then crossing the Atlantic the following spring.

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 12.37.14 PM
Google Books

In late March 1848, the Keying arrived in London to great fanfare, and several different medals were struck to commemorate its appearance and to sell to the public as souvenirs. If anything, the Chinese junk created an even bigger sensation in England, where it was visited by the Queen, Charles Dickens, and other luminaries. The Keying remained a popular attraction for several years, but later fell into disrepair and it was eventually dismantled. For a description of the vessel, the voyage, and the objects it contained, click on the image at left to page through the promotional pamphlet that Kettell published in London.  The slideshow below reproduces some of the plates from the same:

Of course, the reason we are noting it here is that its story lives on in medallic form. And to that end, the American Numismatic Society holds five Keying medals or medallions. Laurence Brown’s British Historical Medals (1987) lists eleven different types, but a casual look through auction catalogs at the ANS suggests there are even a few more than that about. Broadly speaking, there is not much variation in their design, with the obverses generally featuring an image of the Keying at sea, the only exception being a medal that has a bust of “MANDERIN [sic] HESING.” The reverses simply consist of as much descriptive text as size allowed. Four of the medals held by the ANS and the balance of the series were produced in Birmingham. They were engraved by either Thomas Halliday or his former apprentice Joseph Moore, who had formed his own firm as Allen & Moore. The large size white metal type struck by Halliday is probably the most technically accomplished of the series.

ANS, 1932.999.738
ANS, 1932.999.738


The ANS has another of this same type in bronze. The other large-sized medal in the collection is one by Allen & Moore with a slightly different view of the Keying and a more precise descriptive legend about the vessel itself on the reverse. The smaller (27mm) Allen & Moore medal is a reduced version of the former with an abbreviated legend on the reverse. The smallest of our Keying medals (24mm) is a bronze type of unknown origin (BHM 2243):

ANS, 1918.999.238
ANS, 1918.999.238

As far as I know, there were no similar numismatic souvenirs struck on this side of the Atlantic. For more about the Keying‘s compelling history, see Stephen Davies’ new book East Sails West: The Voyage of the Keying 1846-1855 (2014). There is a surfeit of excellent scholarship on the history of relations between the United States and China. John Haddad’s The Romance of China: Excursions to China in U.S. Culture: 1776-1876 (2008) is notable for being freely available online and for devoting a chapter to the Keying episode. For an engaging and deeply researched look at the history of Chinese people in New York City, see John Kuo Wei Tchen’s New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882 (2001). I should also note that there is presently an exhibition exploring this very subject at the New-York Historical Society. Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion closes April 19 so make a plan to see it soon if you haven’t already.

Matthew Wittmann

Postscript: One of the many fascinating objects on display at the NYHS is this beautiful decorative fan on loan from the Atwater Kent Collection. It commemorates the 1784-1785 voyage by the Empress of China from Philadelphia to Canton that inaugurated the Old China Trade.



Hotten's Numismatic Slang

John Camden Hotten (1832-1873) was one of the liveliest characters in British letters during the mid-nineteenth century. A bibliophile and publisher, he lived in the United States for a number of years and played an important role in introducing American authors like Artemus Ward and Mark Twain to English readers. In his spare time, Hotten clandestinely published erotica (including the bawdy comic opera Lady Bumtickler’s Revels), and perhaps most famously, compiled a slang dictionary. First released in 1859, A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words was a runaway success and quickly went through numerous printings. The 1865 London edition we hold here at the ANS bears the revised title of The Slang Dictionary; or, the Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and “Fast” Expressions of High and Low Society.

ANS Library

This edition featured “nearly 10,000 words and phrases commonly deemed ‘vulgar,’ but which are used by the highest and lowest, the best, the wisest, as well as the worst and most ignorant of society.” Even a casual turn through its pages will reward the reader with clever turns of phrase and entertainingly expressive terms  for a host of common things. Still, it is the richness of the language about money that gave Hotten pause. In the course of his introduction he observes:

But before I proceed further in a sketch of the different kinds of Slang, I cannot do better than speak here of the extraordinary number of Cant and Slang terms in use to represent money—from farthings to bank-notes the value of fortunes. Her Majesty’s coin, collectively or in the piece, is insulted by no less than one hundred and thirty distinct Slang words, from the humble brown (a halfpenny) to flimsies, or long-tailed ones, (bank-notes.) “Money,” it has been well remarked, “the bare, simple word itself, has a sonorous, significant ring in its sound,” and might have sufficed, one would have imagined, for all ordinary purposes. But a vulgar or ” fast” society has thought differently, and so we have the Slang synonymes — BEANS. BLUNT (i. e., specie,— not stiff or rags, bank-notes,) BRADS, BRASS, BUSTLE, COPPERS, (copper money, or mixed pence,) CHINK, CHINKERS, CHIPS, CORKS, DIBBS, DINARLY, DIMMOCK, DUST, FEATHERS, GENT, (silver,— from argent,) HADDOCK, (a purse of money,) HORSE NAILS, LOAVER, LOUR, (the oldest Cant term for money,) MOPUSSES, NEEDFUL, NOBBINGS, (money collected in a hat by street-performers,) OCHRE, (gold,) PEWTER, PALM OIL, POSH, QUEEN’S PICTURES, QUIDS, RAGS, (bank-notes,) READY, or READY GILT, REDGE, (gold,) RHINO, ROWDY, SHINERs, (sovereigns,) SKIN, (a purse of money,) STIFF, (paper, or bill of acceptance,) STUFF, STUMPY, TIN (silver,) WEDGE, (silver,) and YELLOW-BOYS, (sovereigns 😉 — just forty-three vulgar equivalents for the simple word money. So attentive is Slang speech to financial matters, that there are seven terms for bad, or ” bogus” coin, (as our friends, the Americans, call it :) a CASE is a counterfeit five-shilling piece; HALF A CASE represents half that sum; GRAYS are halfpence made double for gambling purposes; QUEER-SOFT is counterfeit or lead coin; SCHOFEL refers to coated or spurious coin; SHEEN is bad money of any description; and SINKERS bears the same and not inappropriate meaning. FLYING THE KITE, or obtaining money on bills and promissory-notes, is closely connected with the allegorical expression of RAISING THE WIND, which is a well-known phrase for procuring money by immediate sale, pledging, or by a forced loan. In winter or in summer any elderly gentleman who may have prospered in life is pronounced WARM; whilst an equivalent is immediately at hand in the phrase “his pockets are well LINED.” Each separate piece of money has its own Slang term, and often half a score of synonymes…

Hotten proceeds with a long list of slang terms for English currency, concluding with the thought that it was “not equaled by any other vulgar or unauthorized language in Europe.” To see those and the many other numismatic terms listed, you can page through the digital copy below or download it here.

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Matthew Wittmann

Brooklyn Pennies

Back in 2012 as the American Numismatic was preparing its “Signs of Inflation” exhibition, we came to realize that the copper metal value of still circulating pre-1982 pennies was close to three times their notional value. As a fun thing to do, I suggested my to older children, Jeanne and Felix, then 10 and 8 years old, that we start saving them. It became a family game, each time change was given back to one of us, the pennies’ minting date would be checked and the pre-1982 coins would be put aside in a box.

ANS, 1972.281.9
ANS, 1972.281.9

Over the next nine months,  we gathered a total of 261 ‘old’ pennies in Brooklyn, whose minting date ranged from 1944 to 1982. What did we learn?

Penny Distribution Graph

*pre-1982 pennies seem to represent about 29% of the current circulation pool in Brooklyn and Manhattan

*the average annual loss rate based on a comparison of the found set and minted numbers is around 2%

*only 38 of the coins had mintmarks, 4 for San Francisco and 34 for Denver

Jeanne and Gilles counting pennies.

What perhaps surprised us most about this exercise was the level of interest it generated with the public. Retailers and cashiers asked questions, remembered us, and even asked that we provide the final paper to them. Applied projects like this offer a fun way for people to learn about the field of numismatics. To see the full write-up and analysis, just click here.

Gilles Bransbourg

Budding Bills Perplex Numismatists

© Alan Roche
© Alan Roche

Among the many joys of spring in the City is the annual money harvest in lower Manhattan along Wall Street. As the buds break open to reveal the new C-note splendor, money pickers gather to celebrate the bounty, which sadly lasts for only about 4 minutes before the IRS appears to haul it all away.

Numismatists on hand this morning to watch the annual event were perplexed by what they observed, however. Rather than the current redesigned Benjamins, the money trees were sprouting the 1996 series instead. The ANS curatorial team suspects that bad seed money is to blame.

Freedom's First Con

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

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

ANS, 0000.999.39313
ANS, 0000.999.39313

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

New-York Historical Society
New-York Historical Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew Wittmann

Vincent van Gogh Centenary Medal

Self-Portrait (1887) Art Institute of Chicago

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

ANS, 1957.24.4
ANS, 1957.24.4

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

ANS, 1957.24.4
ANS, 1957.24.4

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

Matthew Wittmann

ANS in the Digital World

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Fairbanks Infallible Coin Scale

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

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

ANS, 2010.4.7
ANS, 2010.4.7

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

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


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

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


Numismatic Folk Art

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

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

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

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art

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

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

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

 —Matthew Wittmann

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

Mysteries from the Vault: A Bronze Key

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

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

Mystery Solved! Thanks to commenter Forbes who notes below:

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

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




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


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


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