The Pulitzer Medal

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 Courier newspaper. 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.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art

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. DCF-AL-monogramsThe 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.

ANS, 1940.100.2142
ANS, 1940.100.2142

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.

For more on this golden era of medal-making in the United States, see Barbara Baxter’s ANS catalogue The Beaux-Arts Medal in America (1989).

Matthew Wittmann

Postscript: I would remiss not to acknowledge Elizabeth Fenn, who teaches at my alma mater and won the 2015 award for History. Her book Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People is a fascinating study of the American Indians who inhabited the plains along the Upper Missouri River. It is a great read that deserves a hearty congratulations!

Philadelphia Sanitary Fair Tokens, 1864

GreatCentralFairLith
Library of Congress

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.

Philadelphia sanitary fair catalogue & guide
Library of Congress

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.

PhillyCoinSan
New York Public Library (click to enlarge)

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.

ANS, 1956.163.1402
ANS, 1956.163.1402

 

ANS, 1956.163.1401
ANS, 1956.163.1401

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.

ANS, 0000.999.45520
ANS, 0000.999.45520

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).

Matthew Wittmann

Victor David Brenner's Lincoln Plaster

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 Cousin the evening of April 14 and died the following morning.

US Mint
US Mint

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.

ANS, 1987.147.68
ANS, 1987.147.68

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.

New York Times
New York Times

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.

ANS, 1989.17.1
ANS, 1989.17.1

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.

ANS, 0000.999.4587
ANS, 0000.999.4587

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).

Matthew Wittmann

The Myth of Appomattox

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

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.

ANS, 0000.999.38670
ANS, 0000.999.38670

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:

ANS, 0000.999.38670
ANS, 0000.999.38670

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.

Matthew Wittmann

CBS Sunday Morning

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.

Matthew Wittmann

 

Duke's Cigarette Card Coins

The New York Public Library has launched a new website for its ample collection of digital images. There is a variety of material on there that will be of interest to numismatists, although there are no actual coins or medals as the NYPL sold off its numismatic collection in a 1982 Bowers & Ruddy auction. The library does retain some incidental paper money in its Manuscripts and Archives Division. One of the more interesting pieces of coin-related ephemera that their digitization efforts have turned up is a curious, and often insensitive, series of cigarette cards that depict various national types and coins. Cigarette cards were small chromolithographed prints that tobacco companies used to stiffen their packaging and advertise their brand. They were also meant to encourage loyalty by  getting consumers to trade and collect cards in an attempt to own the complete series, which often featured actors, athletes, historical personages, and sundry exotic people and locations. Perhaps most famously, the earliest baseball cards were actually cigarette cards. The “Coins of all Nations” series was printed in 1889 by Knapp & Co. of New York for Duke’s Cigarettes, which was based out of Durham, North Carolina.

Duke University Library
Assorted Duke’s cigarette brands and cartons, Duke University Library

 

1Reverse
NYPL

The complete set included 50 cards that measure 3.7 cm x 6.7 cm, and they all have the same reverse (left). The coin illustrations seem more or less accurate, and the exchange value of each is enumerated in U.S. currency. The depictions of the various national types, though, are rather more problematic, and often veer into racist caricature. The cards were produced during an age of imperialism when many misguided ideas about race held great sway. The cards clearly trade in stereotypes, with an inebriated Irishman and a Swiss girl carrying wheels of cheese, amongst other rather harmless supposed national proclivities. The depictions of non-white national characteristics are rather more vicious as you’ll see with a look through the slideshow.

Sandwich IslandsOne of the more negative representations was the card for the Sandwich Islands. This was a dated designation for what in 1889 was the independent Kingdom of Hawaii, which was a constitutional monarchy that had, as indicated, issued its own silver coinage. The illustration is a strange mix of race-based presumption (very dark skin), sexualization, and implied foolishness or vanity (clothes and mirror). It’s also a good gauge of prevailing ideas about Native Hawaiians, ones that would help enable the United States’ takeover of the islands just a few years later. While some of the caricatures are undoubtedly offensive to the modern eye, they are also an apt reflection of the way that Americans perceived other people around the world during the late nineteenth century.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that this is not quite the complete set. Either the digitizers at the NYPL missed a few cards or their set is incomplete, as Turkey and Venezuela are missing. If someone happens to have either of those, please just send them along and I’ll add them to the post. Thanks!

Matthew Wittmann

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

Its reverse reads: THIS REMARKABLE VESSEL IS A JUNK OF THE LARGEST CLASS, AND IS THE FIRST SHIP CONSTRUCTED BY THE CHINESE WHICH HAS REACHED EUROPE, OR EVEN ROUNDED THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE. THIS JUNK WAS PURCHASED AUGUST, 1846, AT CANTON BY A FEW ENTERPRISING ENGLISHMEN. SHE SAILED FROM HONG KONG 6TH DECEMBER, 1846, ROUNDED THE CAPE 31ST MARCH, 1847, ARRIVED IN ENGLAND 27TH MARCH, 1848.

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.

1_EmpressFan-7-39-PhilHistMus

 

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
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.

[iframe src=”http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=loc.ark:/13960/t6ww8pp17;view=1up;seq=13″ width=”150%” height=”800″]

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

ANS-Gandj
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.

A blog of the American Numismatic Society