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!
Coins and video games were connected for the first time with the arrival of Computer Space (1971) and Pong (1972), the first coin-operated arcade cabinets. Players began to collect coins within games with the advent of Nintendo’s Mario Bros. (1982), and soon thereafter currency collected within the game could be spent by players to purchase anything from extra ‘lives’ to upgrades for weapons, armor, and more.
In the mid- to late 1990s with the arrival of the Internet at schools and at home, Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) appeared, creating large virtual worlds that could be shared by hundreds of thousands of players simultaneously. With MMOs such as Ultima Online (1997) and EverQuest (1999), in-game economies began to appear, allowing players to exchange currency and to purchase items from others in the game.
World of Warcraft (2004) became the king of MMOs with over 10 million players worldwide. It saw the emergence of in-game personal banking, as well as shared accounts in the form of ‘Guild banks’ for teams of players. WoW also featured auction houses in each of its capital cities, where players could auction ‘loot’ found in the game to other players in exchange for gold, silver, and copper that were used as a shared currency throughout the open virtual world.
As MMOs such as World of Warcraft matured, players new to the game became frustrated by the amount of time needed to gain enough experience for their characters to get to the most challenging and rewarding content. Experienced players became upset with ‘grinding,’ which refers to having to complete repetitive quests or searches in order to earn money and resources to improve their characters’ abilities. This frustration led to a demand by players for both gold and artifacts, which a new class of players — gold famers — were able to provide. Gold farmers devoted their time in the game to finding valuable resources to sell to players for an exchange of real cash. Impatient players would also pay real money to others who would ‘level’ or advance their characters in order for them to reach the ‘cap’ or highest level.
To combat the gold farmers, on March 15, 2015, World of Warcraft debuted a “WoW Token” that players can buy from the game’s parent company, Blizzard Entertainment, for US$20. This can be used in the game to sell at auction for gold or it can be exchanged for 30 days of “free” playing time. Most MMOs are subscribe-to-play services with players incurring a monthly charge, so acquiring extra time with a token can theoretically save a player money over the long term. The WoW Token is virtual currency paid for with real money, and has no physical manifestation. Its behavior is similar to that of Bitcoin, although while sold at a fixed price in the real world, its market value fluctuates in the virtual one. As with Bitcoin, the WoW Token is depicted as flat and round, and in the case of World of Warcraft, it is decorated simply with the game’s characteristic colors and logo.
WoW is not the only shared world game that now allows players to finance their in-game activities with real-world currency. Assassin’s Creed: Unity sells “Helix Credits” for up to US$99 (for 20,000 of these credits) that can then be used to purchase exclusive gear for a player’s character, i.e., gear that is either unique or that must be earned through multiple hours, days, and weeks of actual gameplay. In the popular FIFA 15 soccer game, players can opt to buy Fifa Coins (aka FUT coins) for up to US$90 (for 1,000,000 coins), which allow for the purchase of elite soccer players to round out a team.
The intersection of real and virtual currency is a relatively new phenomenon, and one sponsored in large part by game-development juggernauts such as Electronic Arts. What used to be an imitation of life where players earned or found cash within a game to spend within that game, has reached out into the real world. Mechanisms are now in place that allow players to spend actual money outside of the game for intangibles inside of it. One wonders about the ethics of this intersection of real and virtual currencies, and if perhaps the spirit of fair play is violated. But then again, this habit is nothing new to the world of sports and of collecting of all types. If you have the coin, you can buy your way to the top to have the very best.
For more on numismatics and video games, see my article in the new digital edition of the ANS Magazine here.
The Irish-American printer John Dunlap of Philadelphia produced this broadside in 1778/1779 at the direction of John Gibson, the auditor general for the Continental Congress. Dunlap’s most famous printing job was undoubtedly the Declaration of Independence, the first copies of which are colloquially known today as ‘Dunlap broadsides,’ but he was also the general printing contractor for the Continental Congress. This broadside is a single sheet measuring 8″ x 16″ and its heading gives a fairly precise indication of its purpose:
DESCRIPTION OF COUNTERFEIT BILLS,
Which were done in Imitation of the True Ones ordered by the Honorable
the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS,
Bearing Date 20th May, 1777, and 11th April, 1778.
Financing the war against the British was a tricky proposition for the cash-strapped colonists, who ultimately simply printed their own paper money and embraced the convenient fiction that all of it was backed by specie. The market of course knew better, and the value of notes issued by the Continental Congress depreciated rapidly as more and more currency entered circulation. The relatively modest initial printing in May 1775 of $3,000,000 in Continental Currency was dwarfed by later emissions, like the $25,000,000 authorized by the Resolution of April 11, 1778. Continental Currency was also being devalued through the work of counterfeiters, who saw an opportunity to take advantage of the unprecedented volume of paper money circulating. For British forces and their Loyalist allies, counterfeiting was also seen as a weapon of war, as this infamous advertisement published in a newspaper from British-occupied New York City makes clear.
The advertisement promised “exactly executed” counterfeit “Congress notes” to any person traveling into the colonies, observing that a large amount had already been circulated and that there was “no Risque in getting them off.” To be fair, there were a variety of opportunists on both sides who were successfully counterfeiting Continental Currency, but British efforts were certainly more organized and systemic. How effective this was at undermining the currency and the larger American war effort remains an open question.
Part of the problem was not just how much paper money was being produced, but that it was so often poorly printed. The broadside mentions circulating counterfeits of a $6 bill dated May 20, 1777, and as you can see in the two specimens below, the genuine versions of this note were not exactly masterpieces in either design or execution. This was, notably, the first emission on which the appellation “UNITED STATES” appeared.
The so-called “nature printing” on these notes was a security feature based on the idea that the delicate lines of an impressed leaf were difficult to replicate, but here the effect is almost undetectable in the square block of ink on the reverses. The overall inconsistency of the print runs necessarily made counterfeits that much harder to detect. As the final paragraph of the broadside alludes to, letterforms were broken during the printing process, which raised alarms when comparing even genuine notes with one another. Adding quality counterfeits to the mix only sowed more confusion. Below is an animation of a transition between a genuine and counterfeit $8 note of May 20, 1777 mentioned in the broadside:
The broadside details how this counterfeit, which was engraved on a copper plate, was not quite able to replicate the quality and regularity of the letterforms in the genuine note, which was set by a printer using type. Still, as you can see, the counterfeit was certainly a reasonable facsimile of the original. While faking an eight dollar note was all well and good, a more attractive target were the higher denominations.
The $40 bill was the largest denomination of what are known as the Yorktown notes, since they were authorized by an April 11, 1778 resolution and printed in York, Pennsylvania, where the Continental Congress was temporarily residing. The broadside enumerates three separate fraudulent versions of the $40 note, which might have been the most counterfeited of the Revolutionary era. The problem was so serious that large numbers of these Yorktown notes were simply destroyed, and this is what makes them the rarest and most expensive notes for collectors today. The fiasco only further depreciated the already shaky Continental Currency, which at this point was worth only between a quarter to a third of its nominal value, i.e. one dollar of silver was worth three or four dollars of paper money. It only went downhill from there, and by the end of the war, “not worth a continental” had entered the lexicon for something regarded as worthless.
The handwritten annotation at the bottom of the broadside reads: “Permit no copy of these descriptions to be taken unless at the request of the Executive Authority of the State to be placed in confidential hands.” It was also singed by the auditor general of the Continental Congress, John Gibson, for whom counterfeit bills were clearly a pressing issue, but it’s unclear how great of an aid this rather simple but detailed descriptive list was in combating the problem. Still it does offer a fascinating window into the financial schemes that the American colonists relied on to fund the war and the machinations with which the British tried to thwart them.
Money makes the world go round. This exhibition showed the different shapes of money: coins, cowrie shells, salt, tokens, gold, paper money, credit cards and many more. Money is first and foremost a way to store wealth and make payments. It makes trade easier and lets governments, merchants, and individuals pay their debts. But money is much more than just an economic object. It can be a work of art, a political messenger, or a piece of jewelry. Since at least the Renaissance, coins have attracted large numbers of collectors. Today millions of people all over the world collect coins, medals, and paper money. Coins allow you to hold a piece of history in your own hand. By looking at the money of many cultures and periods, we not only learn about their histories and perspectives, but we also gain a better understanding of what our money tells us about our culture and society today.
For an online version of the late exhibition, please click here.
This is part an ongoing series that answers your questions about our collections. If there’s something you would like to know about, please use the ‘Contact’ form or email us directly here.
Poppy S. from San Francisco asks:
“What was the largest mint in the Roman empire?”
Although Roman authorities operated important provincial mints like Alexandria and allowed many individual cities to retain the production of local coinages, the mint of Rome itself dwarfed any other production center during the classical period of the Later Republic and the High Empire. The only brief exception to that rule was the mint at Lugdunum in central Gaul, which was hugely productive at the beginning of the 1st century. Below is an aureus bearing the bust of Emperor Tiberius struck there in 15-16 AD.
In terms of raw numbers, the American Numismatic Society has around 70,000 coins in its Roman collection. For those coins for which a mint has been attributed, 25,000 were struck in Rome. Coinage from Roman Alexandria accounts for the next largest mintage, with some 15,000 pieces, but these coins are also significantly over-represented in the collection, which skews the numbers a bit. Antioch (4,000), Lugdunum (2,000), and then sundry smaller collections from other Roman and provincial mints make up the remainder.
A useful tool for understanding Roman coinage is OCRE (Online Coins of the Roman Empire), an ongoing project to catalogue the holdings of the American Numismatic Society and other major coin cabinets. The database has a cool mapping option that allows you to visualize the mint and findspot data for the coins in the ever-expading database.
The Pulitzer Prize(s) have been awarded annually since 1917 for excellence in journalism, arts, and letters. They are the legacy of the Hungarian-born American newspaper publisher Joseph Pulizter (1847-1911), and the 2015 winners were announced yesterday for what are now twenty-one separate categories. Although the Pulitzer medal has come to symbolize the program, the only winner that actually receives a medal is the organization that receives the award for “disinterested and meritorious” Public Service, which this year went to Charleston’s The Post and Couriernewspaper. The other awardees receive a certificate and ten-thousand dollars, which must be some consolation.
The medal was designed by the noted American sculptors Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) and Augustus Lukeman (1872-1935), who were both better-known for their monumental work. As the awards were being organized in line with Pulitzer’s will, Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler commissioned French to make a medal with an image of the most celebrated newsman in American history, Benjamin Franklin.
The model for the obverse is presumed to be a marble bust by the French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Daniel Chester French was a trustee. The reverse was originally intended to simply be text, but as they were modeling it French and Lukeman thought that too plain and added an image of a man working an early printing press. Although this touch was welcomed, the design went through several revisions before an image of a bare-chested printer straining at the press was chosen. The artists’ respective monograms were engraved on the base of the right leg of the press. The slow design process meant that the first medals were not struck by the Medallic Art Co. of New York until 1918. The New York Times, which had won the initial Public Service award in 1917, thus received their medal late. Despite its lustrous appearance, the medal was not solid gold but silver plated with gold.
Done in the reigning Beaux-Arts style, it is a very well-executed design and fitting for a journalism award. The American Numismatic Society’s medal is obviously an un-awarded example. There are blank spaces where the name of the winning organization would be inscribed in the exergue on the obverse and for the date above the printing bed on the reverse. The legend HONORIS CAUSA simply means “for the sake of the honor,” while the descriptive text on the back is the language from the citation. The Joseph Pulitzer medal is a truly wonderful example of American medallic art, and one undoubtedly appropriate for what has become the most prestigious honor in journalism.
The United States Sanitary Commission was a relief agency created to support soldiers that fought for the Union during the Civil War. It was a private organization that raised funds, coordinated donations of basic necessities and medical supplies, and provided volunteers to care for the sick and wounded. In line with other benevolent organizations of the time, women played a leading role as the Sanitary Commission offered a way for them to make a meaningful contribution to the war effort.
One of the ways that the group raised money was by organizing Sanitary Fairs, which were exhibitions that featured a panoply of art, technology, and entertainment (click on the cover image of the guide to the Philadelphia fair at left to get an idea of the range of attractions on offer). Such fairs were held all over the country during the war, but the one held in Philadelphia in June of 1864 was one of the largest. It was known colloquially as “The Great Central Fair,” and an enormous exhibition hall was constructed at Logan Square to host the proceedings. Patrons paid an entry fee and then there were a variety of goods for sale and charitable opportunities within, the profits from which were subsequently donated to the commission. The fair occurred in the shadow of the Battle of Cold Harbor, where an ill-conceived frontal assault by Union forces had led to a frightful number of casualties. Despite the grim news from the front lines, the fair itself was by all accounts a great success. On June 16, President Abraham Lincoln paid a visit with his family, and made a rousing speech thanking the Sanitary Commission for its efforts towards “the comfort and relief of the soldiers,” and beseeched the public for more assistance.
One of the interesting numismatic elements of the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair was a coining press for making tokens, which was operated by machinists at the US Mint.
This stereoview shows the set up of the coining press at the fair amidst a thicket of American flags. The banner overhead advertised copper tokens for 10¢ each and silver for 50¢, and the ANS holds several examples of both kinds.
At 18 mm in diameter, they are almost exactly the size of a current dime, and they are not particularly rare so a goodly number seemed to have been produced during the fair. The bust might not be instantly recognizable as such, but it is George Washington, and the reverse has a simple and curved descriptive legend. The number of extant examples and the relatively high cost of the tokens vis-à-vis the materials used suggests that it was quite a successful fund-raiser.
A larger and more formal medal was also struck by the US Mint to mark the occasion. It was crafted by longtime engraver Anthony C. Paquet, and it neatly encapsulates the activities and purpose of the Sanitary Commission.
If you dropped the last “FOR US” part, the legend would make a nice rhyming couplet! In any case, this particular medal is I suspect a later restrike from the original dies. Together, these pieces are a useful reminder of the significant role that women and charitable organizations like the United States Sanitary Commission played in supporting the war effort and ameliorating the terrible impact the war had on the men who were fighting it.
For more on the Great Central Fair, the Library Company of Philadelphia has a small digital exhibition with lots of images that you can find here. A comprehensive contemporary account by Charles J. Stillé can be read here. On the larger and longer history of fundraising fairs in the United States, see Beverly Gordon’s Bazaars & Fair Ladies (1998).
Today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s (1809-1865) assassination. He was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre during a performance of Our American Cousinthe evening of April 14 and died the following morning.
Lincoln’s sudden death at a time when the nation was still reeling from the trauma of a bloody war that was only just ending had a lasting impact on the country. Indeed, Lincoln might be the most memorialized figure in American culture. The most common way that we encounter him these days is undoubtedly numismatically, namely in the form of the penny.
During his time in office, Teddy Roosevelt undertook a more or less comprehensive redesign American coinage. As the centenary of Lincoln’s birth approached in 1909, a large number of medals and tokens were being manufactured as souvenirs, and Roosevelt began to consider a way to honor one of his Republican heroes. This would be a departure from precedent as the first federally-issued coin to feature an actual person (as opposed to an abstract representation of ‘Liberty,’ or an ‘Indian Head,’ etc.). It seems that it was only by chance that the talented Litvak-American sculptor Victor David Brenner (1871-1924) was chosen for the job.
Brenner was commissioned to make a medal to be awarded for service on the ongoing Panama Canal project. In this context the President sat for the artist in late 1908, and it was at this time that he likely encountered a plaque that Brenner had sculpted of Lincoln for the Gorham Manufacturing Company. Roosevelt clearly admired his work, and although the precise details remain unclear, Brenner was engaged to produce a new design featuring Lincoln for the cent. It was a project he worked on through the winter of 1908-1909 and into the spring.
Both the plaque and the cent are presumed to be based upon a photograph of Lincoln in right profile taken by Anthony Berger of Matthew Brady’s Washington studio in February 1864 (this explains why, contra other American coinage, the bust of the penny faces right). In 1989, the American Numismatic Society received a large plaster portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Victor David Brenner. It was donated by David R. Lit, the nephew of the sculptor’s wife, Ann Reed Brenner. It is undoubtedly one of the plaster models that Brenner made in late 1908 or early 1909 as he was working on the design for what would become the Lincoln cent.
The plaster portrait measures 610 mm or 24 inches in diameter. It was the typical process at the time to produce a large model so that the artist was able to get the desired detail before a machine called a Janvier reducing lathe was used to copy the design onto a coin-sized hub. A comparison of this plaster with the finished cent shows that it was probably not the model used for production, though it remains a possibility as Brenner voiced complaints about the loss of detail when the Mint reduced his large designs. After sorting through some final design and production issues, over 20 million pennies were minted that summer and the new cent was released to the public on August 2, 1909 to wide acclaim.
Lincoln of course maintains his position on the cent to this day, and if you look closely you can make out Victor David Brenner’s initials just below Lincoln’s right shoulder. For more information about Lincoln’s legacy in the form of coins, tokens, and medals, see, Robert P. King’s Lincoln in Numismatics(orig. 1924, reprint 1966).
The 150th anniversary of the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox was commemorated in New York City this weekend with some celebratory cannon shots from Castle Clinton in Battery Park. Historian Gregory P. Downs also had an excellent column in the New York Times about some of the pernicious myths that cloud our understanding of this hallowed event. As Downs points out, the war hardly ended at Appomattox, as Southerners continued to violently and rather successfully resist efforts towards racial equality in the years that followed. Indeed, on assuming office in 1869, Ulysses S. Grant remarked that many of the rebel states remained in the “grasp of war.” From this perspective, the era of Reconstruction was not something that happened after the war, but a continuation of it. This ongoing struggle and the violence, though, has largely been obscured by the myth of reconciliation at Appomattox, where Confederate soldiers were supposed to have accepted their defeat graciously, stacked their arms, and returned to peaceful civilian lives. One of the remarkable things about what Downs calls the “myth of Appomattox” is how quickly it took hold. See, for example, this medal issued by Quint and Sons of Philadelphia for Grant’s 1868 presidential campaign.
The medal burnished Grant’s image as a magnanimous victor, and someone focused on peace and reconciliation rather than continued conflict. Grant was clearly aware of the problems posed by recalcitrant Southerners and made some aggressive but ultimately ineffectual moves to see Reconstruction through. These efforts were in part undermined by the growing legend of Appomattox and peaceful rapprochement. Indeed, this was something that the reverse of the medal articulated explicitly with the redolent symbolism of stacked arms:
The plowing horse image and quote referred to Grant’s decision to allow Confederate troops who owned their own horses to take them with them after the surrender. The idea, related by Grant in his memoirs, was that this would make it easier for the soldiers-cum-farmers to “put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter.” This conciliatory gesture became part of the myth of Appomattox. The myth exerted a hold on both those who wanted to simply move on from the war and those that used it as a cover to continue to resist its consequences, neither of which boded well for the postwar effort to establish racial equality in the United States. And while how big of a role it played in the near-term failure of Reconstruction is of course debatable, I agree with Downs about the pernicious influence it has on our collective memory of the Civil War and its legacy.
Welcome CBS viewers! Thanks to producer Alan Golds and company for featuring the ANS in a great little segment about the penny (click here to watch). As I explained to correspondent Nancy Giles, “penny” is the colloquial term for what is officially known as a one-cent coin or US cent. Broadly speaking, there have been four main types of pennies.
Of course there were a lot of small variations in the obverse device (the dominant image) and occasional wholesale changes to the reverses of these major types. As was mentioned in the segment, one of the things that we spent some time discussing was the ‘problem’ of Liberty’s hair during the large-cent era (1793-1857) of the penny. Click through the slideshow below to see how her hairstyle evolved.
The Flowing Hair cent of 1793, or what Nancy referred to as the teased-out Beyoncé look, was rather quickly tamed with the Liberty Cap design. From there a variety of accessories were introduced to manage Liberty’s tresses, culminating in the restrained look of the final Braided Hair design. Why and how the representation of Liberty unfolded in this fashion is perhaps worth its own post, but it was connected to evolving conceptions of gender and the idea of ‘republican motherhood‘ in particular. This progression also reflects one of the many ways that numismatics can illuminate the study of American history.
Afterword: So what’s my penny worth?
As a non-profit educational organization, the American Numismatic Society does not do formal evaluations or appraisals of coins. Luckily, this is something that is very easy to do yourself! Most every local library will have one of the standard US coin catalogs, which list all the major types of coins and their value. Many numismatists use what is known as the “Red Book,” and the 2016 edition of that was only just published. It is an inexpensive and thorough guide with helpful illustrations, histories, and values for most every coin you could possibly possess.