The first three numismatic societies in the United States were founded in the major cities of the Northeast in the middle of the nineteenth century, products of a “mania for coin collecting” that swept the nation at the time. Philadelphia’s was first, with its official meeting held in January 1858. Next came New York’s American Numismatic Society a couple of months later. A Boston group was formed in 1860. These societies had a lot in common—similar goals and procedures, and, in some cases, members.
New Yorker Isaac Francis Wood (1841–1895) was a member of all three groups. He was a pretty important figure—and I’m not just saying that because he was one of the ANS’s first librarians. He helped resurrect the ANS after the Civil War, was instrumental in getting it incorporated by New York State, and had a hand in launching the first United States numismatic journal, the American Journal of Numismatics. When the three numismatic societies formed a joint committee to help convince the U.S. Mint to keep selling them coins at wholesale prices, the ANS chose Wood as its representative. His wife, Sarah, became the first female member of the ANS in 1878, a major milestone that somehow seems to have passed by without comment in the early records.
Wood had a great interest in medals—as a collector and as a dealer, but also as an issuer—commissioning works from engravers like William Key and George Lovett. In 1873 he issued a medal, honoring the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, on behalf of the Boston Numismatic Society and the New England Historical and Genealogical Society.
He also issued several satirical medalets having to do with the hotly disputed presidential election of 1876. These lampooned candidate Samuel Tilden who was forced to concede to Rutherford B. Hayes after he won the popular vote but came up short in the electoral college.
Writers have commented on Wood’s droll sense of humor, as revealed in his letters. This is certainly on display in a questionnaire he filled out late in the century. These forms were completed by ANS members and sent to the Society’s historiographer, who mostly used them to write obituaries. He responded to questions like, did he have any children? “No chickens successfully hatched,” he replied. “The right sort of ‘incubator’ doesn’t appear to have been thus far invented.” Were any members of his family deceased? “My mother-in-law is still very much alive!” Did he know of any printed history of his family? “Hope to gracious I never shall.” And so on.
I’ve never seen a photograph of Wood, and his questionnaire tells us why. He had “an aversion to being ‘pictured,’” he said, and hadn’t “sat to anything except a good dinner & a bottle of wine with satisfaction for many years.”
His characteristic comical tone can be detected in a letter attached to the questionnaire Written in 1886 when he was 44 years old, it also contains some darker musings. “My life has been so insignificant and useless,” he wrote. “In fact such a bitter failure that perhaps the joking only conceals the pain. That I have tried hard in times past to serve the Society as a Sec[retary] & after as Librarian, & always as a member, is I hope some excuse for my having been born & existed to date.” As a fellow ANS librarian, I only hope that he wrote these words knowing the recipient would understand them to be a comic exaggeration. Wood died nine years later.