This past weekend the American Numismatic Society gave the Archer M. Hungington Award for excellence in numismatic scholarship to Arthur A. Houghton III.
We had an earlier post about the history of the medal itself that you can read here. ANS Trustee Jere Bacharach presented the award, after which Houghton delivered the Silva Mani Hurter Memorial Lecture. The lecture, which you can watch below, derived from Houghton’s long study of Seleucid coinage and was entitled “Seleucid Excursions: More Questions than Answers.”
Last week the ANS was visited by Katherine van Schaik, an M.D. and Ph.D. student at Harvard University. Katherine was kind enough to sit for a short interview about her work, and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of our talk.
So you are pursuing both a medical degree and a Ph.D. in Ancient History?
I work on the history of medicine, so that’s where the overlap is. I also study bioarchaeology and paleopathology, which is the study of disease in the past. I look at changes in the burden of disease and disease patterns over time.
And how did you get interested in numismatics?
I did my undergraduate degree at Harvard College, so I had interacted with Carmen Arnold-Biucchi at that time. She taught a section on coins for a course I was taking, and the idea she communicated to our section — that you could see and hold something that someone had seen and held and used so long ago — was just incredible to me. And that’s what I really like about coins: the opportunity to do ‘hands-on’ history. That’s also part of why I like studying human remains: there’s really no way to get closer to the people of the past then to examine their bones and their remains. It makes the past very real and very human, and I think coins also inspire this feeling of connection. And so that section with Carmen stuck in my head. Fast forward a few years to my work in the PhD program at Harvard. We have a numismatics requirement for our Ph.D., so I was thinking about what I was reading and studying with regard to these healing sanctuaries in the ancient world–Epidaurus, Cos, Pergamon, among others. I had seen some coins from Epidaurus with the healing god Asclepius on them, and I was intrigued by the iconography. It seemed a little bit like a form of marketing that this city that is so tied to its identity as a place of healing would put iconography associated with healing on its coinage. And so I approached Carmen and asked if she would consider teaching me in an independent study course on the topic.
And so clearly that project has significantly progressed. What brought you to the ANS today?
The breadth and depth of the collection.. Harvard has a fantastic collection and what’s available on the ANS website is great, but being here and actually seeing these trays of coins was transformative. You can see all of the different varieties and changes next to each other. I can look at a coin from a healing sanctuary in Cos and then I can compare it to a coin from Epidaurus. It’s the intensity and immediacy of the comparison that makes for a really fruitful research opportunity.
Could you talk about a coin that you saw today that you found particularly important?
One that I found interesting is this silver drachm from the island of Cos, which had a huge temple to Asclepius and also is supposedly where Hippocrates was born and taught medicine. The word cancer that we use to denote neoplastic growth was used in Greco-Roman antiquity to mean any kind of hardened lump on the body. We’re not sure exactly if it was cancer in the sense that we would understand cancer or if it was an abscess or some other form of swelling. It’s clear that the word (καρκίνος) could mean ‘cancer’ in the sense that we now understand but the term did not apply to this pathological condition exclusively. In a medical context, the word καρκίνος is descriptive, in that its literal meaning is ‘crab’. The image of the crab is very common for coins from the island of Cos, and it is hard to prove this idea, but I do wonder if there is some connection between the iconography of the crab and the idea that one goes to Cos to be healed of the swelling called a καρκίνος. I don’t know if there’s a pun or some kind of link with what happened at the healing sanctuary and the iconography. And it might be something impossible to prove, but its something I am considering in my research at the moment.
And finally, what are your future plans for this work?
I am presenting the results of this research later this year at the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina for which I generously received funding from both the ANS and INC. Hopefully I will be able add to the conference proceedings volume as well. The healing sanctuary coinage I will be presenting myself, and then I am also presenting jointly with Carmen the research on the crab and its potential relationship with cancer and Cos.
You can find out more about Katherine’s ongoing research and publications via her Harvard website here.
The American Numismatic Society will tomorrow be awarding the Archer M. Huntington Award for excellence in numismatic scholarship to Arthur A. Houghton, III. Houghton is a distinguished scholar of Seleucid coinage, and a full rundown of his career and many publications can be found here. In this post, I wanted to offer a short history of the actual medal that is given to the awardees, the first of which was presented to Edward T. Newell in 1918.
The medal was designed by the Austro-American sculptor Emil Fuchs (1866-1929) and originally struck by the firm of Whitehead & Hoag, with later strikings done by the Medallic Art Company. The medal was first proposed at the 1908 meeting in celebration of the American Numismatic Society’s fiftieth anniversary as a way to honor those who had made a substantial contribution to numismatics. Archer Huntington both recommended Fuchs and provided some direction for the design, which he did not want to feature his portrait. The resulting obverse shows two workers standing on either side of a coin press, while a seated man in the foreground examines a coin with a magnifying glass.
The rather more elaborate obverse features a classically-garbed woman holding a scroll upon which the Society’s then new building on Audubon Terrace was pictured with text commemorating its fiftieth anniversary.
A solitary gold specimen was struck and presented to Archer Huntington, and both bronze and silver medals have been given to the awardees over the last hundred years. For more about this piece, and the many other medals struck under the auspices of the ANS, see Scott H. Miller’s new book Medallic Art of the American Numismatic Society, 1865-2014 (2015).
The Bank of Brest in Michigan was one of the most infamous “wildcat” banks that sprang up amidst the more freewheeling economic environment that took hold during the Market Revolution in the United States. Wildcat banking encompassed a broad array of dubious practices that banks indulged in during the state-chartered era of banking. It most commonly referred to banks established in out of the way locations that flaunted regulation and issued bank notes in large quantities without any intention of ever redeeming them. Although there were state regulations and commissioners, enforcement was often lax and as we will see, wildcat banks constantly came up with creative ways to circumvent the law.
Michigan was admitted into the Union on January 26, 1837, as the 26th state. There was a strong sentiment in the new state for “free banking,” which sought to extend the privilege of banking beyond the elite and politically connected. The legislature duly passed “An Act to Organize and Regulate Banking Associations” that significantly loosened requirements and oversight of banks. It allowed any twelve ‘freeholders’ who wanted to start a bank to simply notify the Secretary of State, open books for subscription, and commence operations when thirty percent of the capital stock had been paid in specie (in practice the bar was even lower). The act was signed into law by the “Boy Governor,” 25-year old Stevens T. Mason, on March 15, 1837, and Michigan became a forerunner of the free banking experiment.
When the legislation passed there were sixteen chartered banks operating in Michigan; a year later there were more than fifty. This was due in part to the effects of the Panic of 1837, which among other things led people to hoard hard money and made it very difficult for banks to redeem their notes with specie. In June, the legislature passed a measure that allowed banks to suspend specie payments, i.e. they were no longer required to redeem paper notes with hard money (gold and silver). The loosening of specie requirements only encouraged more dodgy characters and banking ventures.
Among those joining the rush was the Bank of Brest, which announced its incorporation in September 1837 with a notice that appeared in papers around the state. Brest was a hamlet located about forty miles from Detroit on the shores of Lake Erie (present-day Newport, MI). The fact that Brest now had bank would have been rather surprising news to those in the know. In Banks and Banking in Michigan(1887), Theodore Hinchman sarcastically described the “city” as follows:
The City of Brest was on the lake road to Monroe, in that county. A trip in the fall of 1838, on horseback, discovered the palaces of ” rag barons ” to consist of a very small hotel, a store, and a bank building, costing $1,711. There were also included in this category hundreds of city lots for sale in currency of any kind. The population was myriads, consisting, unfortunately, of mosquitos. Large fires were built about the tavern to determine whether the guests should eat or be eaten, and whether the hum of the busy and musical denizens should disturb their sleep. They were the natural guardians of the untold gold that the bank vaults were supposed to contain. No one visited that place twice in pursuit of gold or a gold mine. At this date the city lots are not sold, and but for its banking history the city would be unknown.
Perhaps the biggest clue as to the bank’s true purpose was that it began issuing bank notes even before its notice of organization was filed with the Secretary of State. It was capitalized by a combination of paper assets (real estate, personal checks) and $10,000 in specie provided by Lewis Godard, something of a wildcat banking king who simply shifted this same reserve of specie to the many different institutions around the state he had a hand in. On this meager security, the Bank of Brest was able to issue over $200,000 in bank notes before state authorities caught up to the scheme. An audit in August 1838 that was part of a larger crack down on the orgy of speculation and chicanery led to the bank being shut down. By the end of 1839, there were just seven banks in operation throughout the state, but over a million dollars of worthless currency in circulation.
A good portion of that was from the Bank of Brest, which issued notes notes in $1, $2, $3, and $5 denominations. They were printed by Draper, Toppan, Longacre & Co. of Philadelphia, and they are rather attractive notes for their time. With well-cut vignettes, elaborate counters, and other security features, the bank notes at least conveyed an air of legitimacy.
All of the notes were pen numbered and dated, and signed by the cashier George H. Tracy and the president Henry S. Platt. Given the volume that the Bank of Brest printed over its short life and the fact that almost none of it was able to be redeemed, these are fairly common among collectors of obsolete bank notes. But they are also a wonderful bit of Americana, and a reminder of an era when banks ran wild in the Great Lakes State.
The American Numismatic Society’s Ethan Gruber will be giving a free webinar on May 13 at 10AM that offers an introduction to SPARQL, a query language for linked data. It is sponsored by the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative and the Association for Information Science & Technology. Ethan will be using nomisma.org, which is the backbone for our digital databases and projects, to demonstrate how to query a database, starting simply, but evolving in complexity. He will also be looking at what can be done with the results in terms of visualizations and other digital applications. For more, please just click here.
With Mother’s Day approaching this weekend, I thought it might be a good time for a post about the many mothers who appear in the collection of the American Numismatic Society. The most common way mothers figure in our collections is via medallic art, where prominent artists ranging from Oscar Roty (1846-1911) to Victor David Brenner (1871-1924) engraved medals depicting maternal ideals. Roty’s particularly elegant medal was executed as a memorial of the baptism of his son in 1893.
Brenner’s medal follows Roty rather closely and indeed much of the medallic art concerning motherhood in the Beaux-Arts era traded in these kind of sentimental images.
One exceptional item to note in this context is a wonderful medallion by Adam Pietz (1873-1961) that depicts his own mother in a realistic rather than an idealized fashion. (I should also note that the ANS has a small archive of his drawings, photographs, and papers.)
In 1914, a proclamation by Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the “second Sunday of May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” He did so as a result of long-running campaign by activist Anna Jarvis to honor the memory of her own mother and the ideal of motherhood more generally. The holiday subsequently spread around the world, in some places combining with existing traditions.
Mother’s Day took on a special significance in the context of World War I when so many mothers had sons fighting and dying overseas. See the Art of Devastation project for the many ways that mothers featured in the often grim medallic art and propaganda that accompanied the war.
On the other hand, mothers have appeared only very sparingly in circulating currency. While there is a lot of Byzantine and medieval coinage that features religious iconography of the Virgin Mary with child, more specific and secular representations of motherhood have been few and far between. A notable exception to this rule was the Obsolete Bank Note Era (1782-1866) in the United States, when images of mothers and childhood proliferated. This was not coincidentally a time when modern ideas about childhood and the nurturing role of the mother in particular were coming to the fore.
The first mother to appear on United States coinage was Eleanor Dare, who has been celebrated for giving birth to the first child born in the ‘New World’ to English parents. She appears on the reverse of the commemorative “Colonization of Roanoke” half dollar minted in 1936-37.
William Marks Simpson engraved the design, which features her holding the newborn Virginia Dare, flanked by the ships that brought the doomed colonists across the Atlantic.
The most notable mother on modern American currency is of course Sacagawea, who features on the little-used and oft-derided $1 coin. Designed by artist Glenda Goodacre (1939-), the obverse of the coin shows the Shoshone guide in three-quarter view with her son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau on her back. It’s a useful reminder of the way that mothers carry us through life. Happy Mother’s Day!
For more on motherhood and numismatics, see Anouska Hamlin’s fine article on the subject from the Winter 2010 edition of the ANS Magazine.
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.
******Mystery Solved! See update at the bottom of the post.********
This scalloped-edged badge or medal was found by an amateur archaeologist in fill removed from a building site in downtown Manhattan sewage sludge removed from drains by contractors in Midtown and lower Manhattan. It measures 48 mm or just under 2 inches in diameter. Everything else we know about it is on the medal itself, which is inscribed with a name, “LOUIS GOLD” and a number, “1258.” There is no further identifying information on the reverse, though I have included an image anyways.
Have an idea about what this might be? Let us know in the comments or send us an email.
A reader has (we think rightly) speculated that this is a “tool check,” i.e., a tag that was attached to a particular tool in an industrial or construction setting that identified it as the property of the company. Individual or contract workers would thus “check out” and return tools as needed. See, for example, this eBay listing for a metal tool check from the Hudson Car Co., which includes the warning”Penalty for loss twenty five cents.”
It has also been observed that there was a man named Louis Gold who was a prominent NYC builder during the early 20th century. Gold was a Russian Jewish émigré and has a fascinating life story, which you can read more about in the profile reproduced from the Brooklyn Eaglebelow. The short story for our purposes is that Gold owned a large building company, one that more likely than not employed a tool check system for its workers. The inscription “LOUIS GOLD” and accompanying serial number would make perfect sense in this context.
The introduction of the ‘greenback’ in 1861 marked a turning point in the history of American currency. Greenback was the colloquial term for federal paper money issued during the Civil War, which consisted of both the Demand Notes of 1861 and the Legal Tender Issues that followed. Up until the 1860s, a patchwork of state-chartered banks and other entities were emitting a vast range of paper currency, much of it of dubious worth. This panoply of paper are now known as ‘Obsolete Bank Notes’ because they were superseded by federally issued currency as the government asserted control over the money supply during the 1860s. The creation of a common currency was part and parcel of the broader war effort, and the fact that it was backed not by specie, but only by the credibility of the United States government marked a momentous change.
As part of the federal government’s move to clean up the nation’s chaotic monetary situation, the wide range of existing bank notes in circulation needed to be dealt with. Senator John Sherman of Ohio led the charge against the confusing multitude of paper money in early 1863, calling for a tax on all notes not issued by the federal government and proposing much more rigorous regulation of banks. The resulting legislation passed in the form of the National Currency Act of 1863 (now known as the National Banking Act) on February 25. The act provided a framework for a new national banking system in which state banks had to apply for a charter from the federal government. If approved, the now “national” bank deposited funds with the Treasury Department and received some percentage of those funds back in the form of “National Bank Notes.” All of these new notes were of the same design, but entered circulation under the imprinteur of a particular bank. See, for example, this $2 note (known as a “Lazy Duece” for the horizontal 2), which was printed for the Mad River National Bank of Springfield, Ohio in 1865.
The new federal bank system had its advantages, and the accompanying effort to standardize American paper money proved popular with the public, but some banks were reluctant or not financially sound enough to become national banks. As a result, state bank notes continued to circulate, much to the chagrin of Senator Sherman, Secretary of the Treasury Samuel P. Chase, and other advocates of federal paper currency. It was not until 1865 that the legislation that spelled the end of what we now know as the Obsolete Bank Note Era was passed. It arrived in the form of a ten percent tax on any notes issued by state banks paid out after July 1, 1866. This particular tax is often erroneously credited to the “National Banking Act of 1865,” a piece of legislation that does not actually exist. The specific law was in fact part of the Internal Revenue Act of 1865, which you can find here. The law worked as intended as the looming penalty pushed state banks to either convert into National Banks and/or redeem their notes. Either route resulted in the withdrawal of the multitude of soon-to-be-taxed state bank notes from circulation.
Among the final state bank notes issued was this attractive two-dollar note by the Diamond State Bank of Seaford, Delaware. It was printed by the American Bank Note Company and features some fine vignettes, wonderfully detailed counters, and a red tint plate. With a penned-in date of February 15, 1866, it is has the latest date of any of the obsolete note in the collection of the American Numismatic Society.
I suspect there’s more to the story of the Diamond State Bank than meets the eye. A report from a Pennsylvania newspaper in April 1866 shows that its notes were being rejected by banks in Philadelphia, so it does not seem to have been the most reliable institution. Whatever the case, this note seems to be one of the latest extant Obsolete Bank Notes, but perhaps our readers know of ones issued with later dates? If so, please let me know via email.
The American Numismatic Society is hiring a Digitization Assistant for the Online Coins of the Roman Empire (OCRE) project. The position will involve processing the data-entry of an online database of all Roman Imperial coin types as recorded in the Roman Imperial Coinage reference series. S/he will be part of the OCRE team, report to the Manager of the project and work closely with colleagues in the curatorial department. The project is supported by a 3-year grant of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Digitization Assistant will populate a spreadsheet encompassing all published Roman Imperial coin-types with the characteristics of each of them and systematically check the accuracy of the corresponding information pertaining to the Roman collection. S/he is expected to work proactively in order to ensure that the OCRE project is implemented at a satisfactory speed.
Specific duties and responsibilities of the Digitization Assistant include:
populating the master spreadsheet of Roman Imperial coin-types
cross-checking the main database with the actual coins of the American Numismatic Society to ensure its accuracy
updating the user manual for both internal and external use
suggesting functionality improvements when needed
collaborating with the other staff members involved with the project, including the Assistant Photographer and the curatorial staff of the American Numismatic Society
helping and assisting the curatorial staff with data-entry tasks and database or actual coins checks linked directly or indirectly to the OCRE project
interest in ancient history and/or numismatics
knowledge of Latin desirable but not essential
excellent computer skills and solid knowledge of Excel spreadsheets and Filemaker software
ability to handle and manage large data sets
attention to detail
The position is ideal for a student in classics, history, archaeology or any related field willing to be part of a high-profile project while preparing for the next stages of an academic or non-academic career. The position is for one year.
Applications consisting of a cover letter, academic resume, and the names of 2 references should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
The American Numismatic Society is an equal-opportunity, affirmative-action employer.
This week, the American Numismatic Society uploaded images of its 100,000th object into our online database MANTIS. The lucky coin was an aureus, a gold Roman Imperial coin from AD 196–211. It features a portrait of the empress Julia Domna on the obverse and the goddess Cybele seated in a chariot drawn by four lions on the reverse. Cybele was known as Magna Mater or the Great Mother, and her cult derived from ancient Asian beliefs that were absorbed into the Greco-Roman pantheon. Julia Domna was herself born in Syria so the coin is in many ways a tribute to Roman multiculturalism.
Our MANTIS database gives users an easy way to search or browse through the American Numismatic Society’s holdings, with records for over half a million coins, tokens, and related exonumia. The search field has a multitude of categories that allow you to customize your search beyond a simple keyword. For example, when you click on the box for Denomination, a list with small check boxes appears so that you can click on the units that you want to see in the search results. Most importantly perhaps in the context of this post is the “Has Images” checkbox immediately above the Refine Search button, which will limit your search results to those for which digital images are available. So, for example, if you wanted to see all the American dies in the collection, you would simply check the United States box under Department, the Die box under Object Type, the “Has Images” checkbox, and then hit Refine Search. The results will show that we have 89 dies in the US department that have been digitized. Happy Browsing!
Although we are all very happy to have hit the six-figure mark, we’re hardly satisfied so here’s to the next hundred thousand!