Tag Archives: new york city

New York City Streets Are Paved With Lost Change (If You Look)

There’s a fairly pervasive idea that some people are just born lucky. These people, it’s thought, luck into good schools, good jobs, and even good relationships. But the luckiest of them all seem to stumble headlong into wealth, whether that’s winning the lottery (sometimes multiple times), inheriting vast sums from a long-lost relative, or finding treasure after using a metal detector for the very first time. Although the idea that some people are born lucky certainly holds water — being born into a wealthy family living in an already wealthy country is a pretty lucky start to life, for example — with persistence, a keen eye, and a willingness to stoop down every once in a while, anybody can introduce a little luck into their own lives on a weekly, if not daily basis.

In fact, the present author was coaxed into writing this post on account of their own chance encounters with Lady Luck (or Fortuna, or Tyche). In the last 6 months, I have been lucky enough to come across such items as a large British penny, a 35% silver war nickel, a $20 bill, and numerous “pocket spills” of loose change, all on my daily commute to the American Numismatic Society; although I maintain that this has less to do with luck, and more to do with keeping my eyes glued to the ground. After coming across a monumental scattering of 59 (yes, 59) one-cent coins upon exiting a subway car last week, I knew I finally had to put pen to paper and discuss my finds.

A 1967 British penny found on a New York City MTA bus on May 5, 2021, featured alongside a 1990 U.S. one-cent found on the same bus.

There are some questions we should attempt to answer first, namely: how does all this money end up on the ground in the first place, and why isn’t it being picked up more quickly? A commonly suggested answer to both is that the purchasing power of a single U.S. one-cent coin (or nickel, or dime for that matter) is practically nil. Because of inflation, a single cent in 1921 is now worth about 15 cents today. But 15 cents also has little to no buying power in 2021, so inflation doesn’t account for the whole picture. Instead, the value of one cent relative to what one earns helps to explain how one cent (or 15 cents in today’s money) could purchase more 100 years ago. For example, if a painter in Brooklyn earned on average $1.25 per hour in 1921, one cent accounted for 0.8% of their hourly wage. Today’s minimum wage in Brooklyn (and all of New York City) is $15 per hour, so if that same painter were working today, you would expect 0.8% of $15 to be around 15 cents, but alas it is only 12 cents — or ~22% less than the purchasing power of that 0.8% in 1921. Another way to think about this is that if one cent in 1921 is worth 15 cents today because of inflation, then someone making $1.25 per hour in 1921 would hope to be making $18.75 today, cent-for-cent. Of course, all of this is to say that wages have not kept up with inflation, making a single cent (or nickel, or dime) on the ground worth less and less in the eye of the beholder.

A 1945 silver war nickel from the Denver mint found in the New York City subway system on July 14, 2021. To the untrained eye, such a nickel may appear unremarkable; however, the composition of 35% silver gives circulated war nickels a distinctly darker color that is often quite easy to spot.

Not unsurprisingly, certain goods were actually more expensive in 1921 than they are today due to vast improvements in technology (and the shifting of production to countries where labor is cheaper). For example, a 5 -pound bag of sugar averaged a whopping 97 cents in 1920. Accounting for inflation only, one would expect that same bag to cost roughly $14.55 today, but of course 5 lbs. of sugar can be purchased for less than $5 almost anywhere in the U.S. today. Conversely, an average New York City apartment rented for around $60 per month in 1920, or $910 in 2021 dollars. If any reader knows of a suitable apartment that can be rented for that price in Manhattan or Brooklyn today, they are advised to inform the author immediately so they can rent said abode!

Another potential reason why change is dropped and not quickly recovered is perhaps due to a perceived social stigma around taking ‘dirty’ money off the ground, especially when that money has no purchasing power. Loose change that winds up on the street, sidewalk, or public transit system can easily be there for anywhere from a few hours to days, and has likely seen its fair share of shoes and tires endlessly trampling over it, each person or car bringing a fresh layer of dirt and grime to its surfaces. While street money certainly isn’t clean, I would argue that it is not substantially more dirty than the money that already circulates freely, especially here in New York City. That said, there may be a general sense that it is unseemly or simply uncouth to bend over and pick change off the ground (especially change one doesn’t particularly need) which prevents many from doing so, unless that change was just dropped by said person, and they are reclaiming their own almost-lost change immediately.

A smattering of loose change totaling 53 cents found on the street on April 1, 2021.

The meteoric rise of credit cards, debit cards, and other digital payment solutions may also be contributing to the abandonment of change, and the reluctance to pick it up again. As card and digital payments can be used for increasingly smaller amounts, there is less and less need to carry and use small change. In theory, this should also account for less and less change being lost overall, but as there is more than enough small-denomination coinage currently in circulation to satisfy the needs of commerce for many years to come (barring any recurring small change shortages like the U.S. experienced in 2020), it seems more likely that coins will continue to be lost as users pull out their credit cards, debit cards, or phones, rather than there being not enough coins to lose in the first place, however that may change in the coming decades as small change is phased out even more in favor of digital payment methods.

A complete, untorn $20 bill found directly in front of a New York City subway station on March 29th, 2021.

An interesting explanation as to why street money is not picked up is the Efficient Sidewalk Theory. This economic idea suggests that real, bonafide money would have surely been picked up by someone else already, therefore any money spotted in the street, on the sidewalk, etc. must not be money (i.e., it is trash or another object that looks like real money at first glance), and therefore these items do not warrant a closer inspection, especially one that requires the passer-by to stop and bend down. As such, bonafide money does go unnoticed—or at minimum, is perceived to be something else and ignored. Does Efficient Sidewalk Theory explain why a $20 bill sat on the ground during morning rush-hour in front of a busy subway station before the author scooped it up in a flash? Perhaps. With respect to small change (one-cent coins, nickels, dimes) Efficient Sidewalk Theory could maybe be expanded to include the idea that, because real money would have surely been picked up by someone else already, small change is not considered real money (or useful money) by the majority of individuals who pass by such change. In other words, the one-cent coin that sits for days on end on a sidewalk is absolutely seen as genuine (unlike the $20 bill, which could not reasonably be an authentic $20 bill according to the principles of Efficient Sidewalk Theory) but not perceived as real money of any value. In even simpler terms, if others don’t consider it useful money because they are walking past it, why should I behave any differently?

The final explanation for why change is lost and subsequently not picked up is that people are just not paying attention. If one has loose change and a phone in the same pocket, it is easy to imagine the change falling out unnoticed when the phone is taken out, simply because the attention is on the phone, which typically has far greater value to the owner. Likewise, it is easy to miss coins on the ground when one’s attention is constantly pulled elsewhere, especially in a large and hectic city environment. Even the author has almost missed a stray cent on the ground while sending a text message or making sure there is no oncoming traffic, only to look more closely and find several more cents in the same vicinity.

This brings us to the final point, which is what can all this lost money teach us? In a loose sense, even recently abandoned coins are in situ archaeological artifacts representative of what is valued or not valued in modern culture. Some have even taken to cataloging every coin and bill they have found over the course of several decades, which may prove useful to future historians and numismatists. In the 2004–2005 American Journal of Numismatics 16–17, there is a wonderful analysis of money found in West Lafayette, Indiana during a ten-year period between 1993 and 2003 (AJN Second Series 16–17, pp. 259–267). This study (titled Street Money: Distribution and Analysis) explores many of the same themes found in this blog post, along with a regression analysis of the objects found to determine if any distribution patterns could be discovered (outliers such as quarters, half dollars, and bills were discounted in this analysis). The key takeaway from this study was that the age of the coins (chiefly one-cent coins) suggested that these street finds represented a random selection of coins found in circulation when compared to ten rolls of one-cent coins withdrawn from a local bank. Also noted was the disproportionately high number of newly minted coins that were found (2003 in the case of this study) despite their sheen and luster, which made them more obvious to the casual passer-by, and therefore more likely to have been found by someone else, which of course they had not. The final takeaway was that these coins appear to be carelessly handled by the American public at large, a point which is not lost on the author.

A massive spill of 59 one-cent coins found by the author upon exiting a subway car at Canal St. in New York City on July 21, 2021.

There are other stories of individuals who have amassed large amounts of lost change through diligent (and sometimes not-so-diligent) searching, but it is mostly the case that these finds go unrecorded and unreported. Even the author has not made it a point to faithfully record every find (except major ones), but to help correct that, I decided to make a brief record of the aforementioned ‘subway spill’ to see how this cache visually compares to the data in the West Lafayette, Indiana study:

Subway chart.

Additional data-gathering and analysis would have to be performed to learn just how representative this spill is compared to one-cent coins in circulation in the area, but on the surface, the selection of dates appear to be random, with a disproportionate number being newly minted (10 coins from 2021 alone), coinciding with the key takeaways of the West Lafayette, Indiana study, which is enough to encourage this seeker of street money to keep hunting and recording lost coins “So the Small May Not Perish.”

The New Navy in New York

At the end of the Civil War, the United States had the second largest navy in the world after the Royal Navy of Great Britain, a result of the Union’s attempt to blockade Southern ports. By 1880, however, the US Navy had dropped to 12th place as Congress became increasingly preoccupied with westward expansion and was unwilling to fund a navy for which it saw little need or purpose. A change of perception brought about in part by German, British, and Spanish encroachments in the Americas, a violation of our self-proclaimed Monroe Doctrine, encouraged new spending to begin to modernize the fleet, to introduce a new steel and steam navy to replace the old wooden one.

Funding for three new steel cruisers was authorized in 1883 reflecting US naval doctrine at the time: in the event of war, the primary purpose of the navy would be to protect US seaborne trade while disrupting the trade of the enemy. Cruisers were therefore the ideal type of warship: comparatively lightly armored and gunned, but able to cruise alone at long distances in search of enemy cargo ships. By the end of the 1880s, the first generation of steel cruisers were in the water (USS Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago), all of which carried a complement of auxiliary sails to extend range, followed by a second and then third generation of sail-less cruisers, USS New York and Brooklyn, and together these ships represented the US Navy’s reemergence from its decades-long slumber (Fig. 1), which soon ignited an arms race with Germany to build the second most powerful navy after the undisputed leader, the Royal Navy.

Figure 1. Lithograph by Granville Perkins depicting in the foreground (l. to r.) the torpedo boat USS Cushing, the cruisers USS Newark and USS Chicago, and battleship USS Indiana (ca. 1894).

Although Congress was now funding new ships nearly every year, including the first-generation battleships, the Indiana-class, launched in the mid-1890s, there was still considerable push-back on the expenditure, resulting in ships that were not always up to European par. By the turn of the century, however, that was to change as the US Navy became the darling of the public eye having starred in several magnificent naval parades in New York harbor.

The first took place on April 27, 1893 in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. In order to show off its new ships and nascent fleet maneuvering abilities, Congress authorized funds for a naval review similar to those sometimes hosted by the Royal Navy to be held at both Hamptons Roads and in New York harbor, and sent out invitations to the world’s navies. While the response was mixed, those that truly counted, the British, the Germans, the French, and the Spanish, responded by sending their latest cruisers to parade up the Hudson River to the newly built Grant’s Tomb alongside the new cruisers of the US Navy (Fig. 2).

Figure 2: Lithograph published by Kurz & Allison depicting the Columbian Naval Parade, April 27, 1893. The HMS Blake leads the line of foreign ships (black hulls), while the USS Baltimore leads the US line (white hulls).

No such international parade of ships had ever taken place in the US before and this certainly caught the eye of many illustrators and artists. Fred Cozzens, for example, a Staten Island-based artist, produced chromolithographic views of the naval review that were part of a larger set that appear in 1893 featuring nearly two dozen new US ships, including many still under construction (Figs. 3–4).

Figure 3. Lithograph by Fred Cozzens depicting the Columbian Naval Parade, the HMS Blake leads the line of foreign ships (black hulls), while the USS Baltimore leads the US line (white hulls) (1893).
Figure 4. Lithograph by Fred Cozzens depicting the USS Atlanta and Yorktown in parade dress (1893).

Cozzens’ set of 24 high quality prints were issued in a volume entitled Our Navy: Its Growth and Achievements, with commentary by a Lt. J. D. Jerrold Kelly, clearly meant to drum up support for naval expansion. In a similar vein, the US Navy sponsored the construction of the faux battleship USS Illinois, a full-sized replica made of staff, not steel, of one of the Indiana-class ships then under construction that was set alongside a pier at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (Fig. 5). It proved to be a popular exhibit.

Figure 5: Postcard depicting the faux battleship USS Illinois (1893).

Not long after the closing of the Exposition, growing tensions between the US and Spain over Cuban independence finally erupted in the spring of 1898 when the USS Maine, an armored cruiser reclassified as a 2nd class battleship soon after launching, blew up in Havana harbor with great loss of life, where it had gone to show the flag for American business interests in Cuba (Figs. 6–7).

Figure 6. Token depicting the USS Maine (ANS 0000.999.38891).
Figure 7. Token depicting the USS Maine (ANS 1967.225.597).

At the time the cause of the explosion was determined to be a Spanish mine, just cause for Congress to declare war, although it may well have been an internal explosion as later naval historians have suggested. By the end of the summer, the New Navy had scored two remarkable and crushing victories over the Spanish navy, one under Commodore George Dewey leading the Asiatic Squadron in Manila harbor in the Philippines (May 1, 1898), and the other under Commodore William T. Sampson leading the North Atlantic Squadron near Santiago in Cuba (July 3, 1898). Both naval battles set the United States on its course to become an 20th century imperial power. At the Treaty of Paris (December 10, 1898), Spain ceded the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the US; both warring parties agreed to let the Cubans have their independence.

In August 1898, the squadron under Sampson aboard his flagship USS New York with his second in command Commodore Winifred Scott Schley aboard USS Brooklyn returned to New York harbor, home to the Brooklyn Naval Yard and the Tompkinsville Naval Station (Staten Island). Still in their wartime grey paint, the ships paraded up the Hudson again as far as Grant’s Tomb to the cheers of great crowds in boats and along the waterfront (August 26, 1898) (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. Lithograph by Fred Pansing depicting the USS New York and USS Brooklyn leading the naval parade past Grant’s Tomb, August 26, 1898.

An even bigger turnout, however, came little over a year later (September 29–30, 1899), when Dewey returned to New York from the Philippines aboard his flagship, the cruiser USS Olympia (today a museum ship at the Independence Seaport in Philadelphia), where he led both squadrons, now in peacetime white paint, in a momentous naval parade again to Grant’s Tomb (Figs. 9–11), an event that was also recorded in moving pictures by Thomas Edison.

Figure 9. Souvenir object from the naval parade on September 29–30, 1899 (ANS 1939.144.1).
Figure 10. Souvenir decoration from the naval parade on September 29–30, 1899 (ANS 0000.999.38764).
Figure 11. Victory float anchored near Grant’s Tomb, September 1899.

Dewey had already become the hero of the war, completely eclipsing Sampson and Schley, who were involved in a bitter, public dispute over which of the two had actually won the Battle of Santiago (Figs. 12–13).

Figure 12. Souvenir decoration from the naval parade on September 29–30, 1899 depicting Dewey and Schley as the victors over the Spanish navy (ANS 0000.999.38790).
Figure 13. The Sampson Medal (West Indies campaign medal) by Charles Barber (obv.) and George T. Morgan (rev.) depicting Sampson as victor (1901). Unissued production sample (ANS 0000.999.38837)

In Dewey’s honor, a temporary triumphal arch was also erected near Madison Square Park (Fig. 14).

Figure 14. Souvenir decoration from the naval parade on September 29–30, 1899 depicting the temporary triumphal arch for Admiral Dewey (ANS 0000.999.38746).

Such naval parades in New York harbor became more commonplace in the decades to follow and have continued to the present day with New York Fleet Week coinciding with Memorial Day, although this year, sadly, the events, like so much else, will be virtual.

Coins at NYC's Tenement Museum

Orchard Street, ca. 1898 Tenement Museum
Orchard Street, ca. 1898
Tenement Museum

The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side explores the history of immigration in New York City with a variety of tours and exhibits centered along a row of former tenement houses on Orchard Street. The museum employs an innovative approach that uses a combination of historical preservation and historical narrative to connect visitors to the experience of immigration and instill an appreciation of the role that it has played in shaping American life.

©Alan Roche
©Alan Roche

Although the museum has since expanded, it was originally housed in a five-story tenement building at 97 Orchard Street that was constructed in 1863. To visit, you need to sign up for one of the assorted guided tours, which will take you through a particular floor of the building that has been arranged to show how the different groups of immigrants that inhabited the neighborhood over the years lived. The “Shop Life” tour, for example, looks at the various stores that occupied the basement of the building, which has been fixed up as an 1870s-era German saloon (my review). The 4th floor tour focuses on Irish immigrants, and so on. The building was originally divided into twenty apartments in addition to the two basement-level store fronts and it is estimated that over seven thousand immigrants lived there at one time or another, so there are a lot of stories to tell!

In any case, the reason that I am blogging about the Tenement Museum here is that they posted this on their Instagram account the other day:

As the caption indicates, the museum is presently expanding and discovered an old coin in the walls at 103 Orchard Street. Intrigued, I contacted to them to find out if they had found any other numismatic material over the years.

The Tenement Museum has about 10,000 items in their collection, which includes objects discovered and preserved from the former tenements at 91, 97, and 103 Orchard Street, and historical objects that have been donated or acquired to use for its tours and exhibitions. The artifacts found range from wooden toys to animal bones. We visited to take a look at the eight coins that were found in the buildings (there are additional coins and tokens that came in as donations), which ranged in date from 1876 to 1929. The oldest, an 1876 ‘Indian Head’ cent pictured below, was found in a rat’s nest under the floorboards.


Seven out of the eight coins in the collection were pennies, which is hardly surprising given that higher value coins were less likely to go missing. There was a wooden privy in the back court of 97 Orchard Street that sat above a mortared-brick vault filled with water that was periodically drained into the sewer system. When archaeologists excavated the back yard in the 1990s, the narrow vault yielded a trove of artifacts, including a 1909 Lincoln cent.


This was the first year that this famed coin designed by Victor David Brenner was minted. Lincoln’s portrait was added at that time to celebrate the centenary of his birth, and this was the first US coin to feature a president and the motto ‘In God We Trust.’ The new penny struck a chord with the public and became a popular keepsake. How this one ended up the privy, we will never know, but it is an interesting bit of Americana. The other coins were two Indian Head cents (1893, 1906), and four more Lincoln cents (1910, 1912, 1926, 1927).

TM-LibertyHeadNickAt right is the obverse of the 1908 ‘Liberty Head’ nickel that workers discovered in the walls the other day. As work on the buildings is ongoing, we suspect that more coins will be uncovered in the future and we will update this post if and when we hear about something new (see update below). In the meantime, I would encourage anyone to do a guided tour or check out one of the many other events at the museum.


Thanks to curator David Favaloro (left) and collections manager Danielle Swanson (right) for hosting us!

Matthew Wittmann

Tenement Museum
Tenement Museum

Update: It seems that just yesterday (12/15) another coin was found under linoleum laid in one of the apartments at 103 Orchard Street and it is real classic…a 1918 ‘Mercury’ dime.

The New York Crystal Palace in Flames—October 5, 1858

ANS, 0000.999.8214
ANS, 0000.999.8214

On October 5, 1858, the New York Crystal Palace burned to the ground in just forty minutes after a fire broke out in the northeast corner of the building just after five o’clock in the evening. The American Institute, a civic organization dedicated to “encouraging and promoting domestic industry,” was holding its annual fair, and about two thousand visitors were in the building at the time. The New York Herald (October 6, 1858) reported that despite scenes of “indescribable confusion,” remarkably no one was killed in the fast-moving blaze.

Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University
Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

Although the enormous structure was mostly made of iron and glass, the pitch pine that was used as flooring and in much of the framework “afforded a most inflammable pabulum for the conflagration to feed upon.” In a particularly evocative passage the Herald noted that at one point “the whole palace was like a burning coal, and vomiting up fire at a rate that would have done credit to Vesuvius.” The vivid scene was captured in a hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives in which you can make out a company of red-shirted New York City firemen arriving in the foreground to vainly battle the roaring blaze.

Springfield Museums
Springfield Museums

The New York version of the Crystal Palace was constructed to host an “Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations” in 1853, which was an American effort to replicate The Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London’s Hyde Park. The building was designed by architects Georg Carstensen and Charles Gildemeister in the shape of a Greek cross with arms measuring 365 feet in length and capped with a 100-foot diameter dome at its center. For the architecturally inclined a full description of the building with plates can be found here. The building was located on a site between Fifth and Sixth Avenues on 42nd Street, in what is today Bryant Park. It was completed in June 1853, at which time this large medal was struck to commemorate the occasion.

ANS, 1940.100.1018
ANS, 1940.100.1018

The obverse shows the Crystal Palace in all its glory while the reverse depicts a globe surrounded by allegorical figures bearing the varied attributes of industry. 1940.100.1018.rev.noscaleThe beatified figure of Europe reigns supreme at the top while a man in native dress looks up at her from below. As the title and imagery implies, the exhibition was intended to highlight the industrial and artistic achievements of the United States, and the supposed march of civilization. The exhibition proved popular and it provided a model of sorts for the string of World’s Fairs that were subsequently staged around the country. Between July and November, over a million people visited the Crystal Palace to take in the exhibits and enjoy the varied entertainments that were on offer. One of the more unusual attractions on the grounds was the Latting Observatory, a 315-foot tower built adjacent to the exhibition building.

ANS, 0000.999.8215
ANS, 0000.999.8215

As depicted in this medal struck by G. H. Lovett, the Observatory was an iron-braced wooden structure with stores at its base and three landings from which visitors were treated to a panoramic view of the growing city. The tower did not live to see the fiery demise of its neighbor, as this structure was itself consumed by flames a few years prior to the spectacular Crystal Palace fire. It was not until the New York World Building was completed in 1890 that another structure in the city surpassed three hundred feet in height.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

Despite the ostensible success of the initial exhibition, the Crystal Palace was something of an ongoing problem for the city and its owners as the building was simply too big to be of much practical use beyond the occasional event. For all of the remarkable happenings and superlatives that graced the short-lived structure, the Herald‘s description makes it clear that its dramatic and destructive final act on October 5, 1858 might have left the biggest impression.

Matthew Wittmann  

Mahlon Day's Originary Counterfeit Detecter, 1828

One of the most overlooked aspects of both numismatic and printing history in the United States is the ephemeral genre of serials known as “counterfeit detectors.” These publications flourished in the antebellum era, when a chronic lack of coinage led individual banks and businesses to issue diverse forms of paper money. A trickle of notes issued by private banks in the late eighteenth century turned into a veritable flood by the 1820s as an ever-greater number of banks issued increasingly large amounts to satisfy the needs of the growing populace and economy. These privately issued bank notes were a kind of representative money that promised the holder that the paper could be redeemed at the bank for specie, i.e. gold and silver, on demand. In practice this was not always the case as a given bank’s ability to ‘make good’ its circulating notes was often questionable.

While this newfound capital helped to fuel the United States’ runaway growth, the sheer number of different designs and varying quality of the notes created a chaotic currency situation that was ripe for abuse. Perhaps the biggest problem was the integrity of the note-issuing banks themselves, which ranged from prudent and well-capitalized institutions to unsafe and even outrightly fraudulent ones that printed notes with no intention of ever redeeming them. Rampant counterfeiting only further confounded matters, and the public was put in the essentially impossible position of attempting to assess whether or not a given note was genuine, and even if so, what it exactly it was worth for an incredible range of currencies.

The American, August 14, 1819
The American, July 14, 1819

In an attempt to bring some clarity to this confusing situation, publishers printed broadsides and circulars that listed commonly counterfeited notes. Newspapers, most notably the Baltimore-based Niles Register (1811-1836), also featured financial columns that advised readers about the soundness of various banks, reported exchange rates, and took note of counterfeiting activities around the country. Yet it was not until 1819 that The American, a New York City newspaper, began to regularly publish a table entitled “Bank Note Exchange,” which gave the going rates for assorted notes and listed known counterfeits. The table at left is reproduced from the July 14 edition and indicates that it was updated every Tuesday and Friday by Martin Lee, a broker with offices at 44 Wall Street. A rating of “par” indicated that the note was equal to its printed value, while a number followed by “do” indicated the rate at which the note was discounted, which typically was related to either the perceived soundness of the issuing bank or its distance from the city. The column shows that notes issued by banks in Baltimore, for example, were discounted 3 percent, making a ten-dollar Baltimore bank note worth $9.70 in New York. Banks further afield suffered from even steeper discounts, and the geographic disparities created opportunities for “bill brokers” and “note shavers” to acquire and transfer the notes around the country at a profit. By the early 1820s, bank note tables became increasingly common in American newspapers, and often included notices about known counterfeit and so-called “spurious” notes that were issued by fraudulent banks. These bank note tables and columns were the precursor to a genre of newspapers that emerged in the late 1820s that focused almost entirely on the legitimacy and value of paper money in circulation.

William H. Dillistin’s Bank Note Reporters and Counterfeit Detectors, 1826-1866 (1949) represents the only serious study of these popular publications to date. As delineated by Dillistin, these serials had two essential purposes: (1) “to show the rate of discount at which uncurrent notes would be purchased or exchanged for specie in the more important business centers,” and (2) “to furnish a brief description of counterfeit, spurious, altered, and raised notes.” The noted New York printer and Quaker Mahlon Day (1790-1854) was the first to publish a bank note list and record of counterfeits at regular intervals, beginning a biweekly broadsheet in 1826 called the New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter. Because each new issue superseded prior editions with updated information, they were typically discarded and few examples have survived relative to the numbers in which they were printed. A survey of major libraries for Day’s New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter, which was published continuously from 1826 to 1851, turns up only a few dozen extant issues. When Dillistin produced his 1949 study, the earliest that he discovered was an August 1830 edition at the Huntington Library. Looking through a sheaf of counterfeit detectors donated to the ANS the other day, I discovered an even earlier date.

The April 14, 1828 edition of the New York Bank-Note List and Counterfeit Detecter is a four-page folio approximately 20 by 13 inches in size. Underneath the title, an inscription reads: “Published by Mahlon Day, at the New Juvenile Bookstore, No. 376, Pearl Street.” Indeed, Day is perhaps better known today for his pioneering role in publishing children’s books, but combating counterfeiting also proved to be a profitable business. A notice lists the price of a subscription to the paper as two dollars per annum, and indicates that the serial was “entered according to an Act of Congress the 30th day of October, 1826,” which raises the possibility that there might be even earlier extant issues that could come to light.

American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

The first page lists the value of notes for over one hundred banks around the country in the city of New York at that time, indicating whether particular notes were circulating on par with their nominal value or at a discount. Bankrupt banks were straightforwardly labeled as “broke,” while in many cases the value of given bank’s notes were listed as “uncer,” i.e. uncertain.

The remaining three pages of the paper were taken up with what purports to be “A Complete List of Counterfeit Bills, of Altered Notes, and those with Spurious Signers, throughout the United States,” organized by geography and denomination. The list offers a window into the principal means by which counterfeiters operated. The most straightforward method was to simply reproduce a genuine note as best as possible. ANS-1828-2The Counterfeit Detecter sometimes described a bogus bill in detail, explaining for example that a twenty-dollar note attributed to the Charleston Branch of the Bank of the United States was “fainter than the genuine, particularly the eagle and work around it,” and that it was “shorter than the genuine note.” Other known counterfeits were simply listed, as in this excerpt from the section on New York City banks. Here one sees a listing for a counterfeit $2 note from the Merchant’s Bank dated March 1, 1826, The ANS actually holds an example of this particular note, which although crudely made, we did not regard as a counterfeit until reading this counterfeit detecter.

ANS, 1984.111.1
ANS, 1984.111.1

Day’s Detecter also shows that wholesale counterfeits were less common than the practice of “raising” bank notes, which involved changing the denomination of a genuine bill. The New York City excerpt above indicated $1 notes of the Manhattan Bank were being altered into $2 notes and that $1 notes of the Merchant’s Bank were being changed into $3 notes. In the specimen below, a genuine one-dollar note issued by the Northern Bank of New York has been raised to a value of ten dollars, the telltale signs being the discoloration around the engraved numbers, which were rubbed or cut out and then replaced with the higher value.

ANS, 0000.999.10146
ANS, 0000.999.10146

Note the dark spots around where the numbers have been altered. While this counterfeit was not particularly well crafted, I chose it as an example because the tampering was so easy to see. Better executed raised notes were very difficult to detect without the kind of specialized information that counterfeit detectors provided. Another technique for altering notes was to change the name on worthless paper issued by a broken bank to that of a sound institution. Day’s Counterfeit Detecter thus also lists “spurious” notes, which refers to either currency issued by plausibly-named but non-existent banks or those notes that were purely fraudulent, bearing no resemblance to any genuine notes. That notes for a completely fictional bank could and indeed did circulate suggests something of the confusion that reigned in the monetary system and the appeal of something like this serial that helped individuals and businesses navigate the bewildering mix of paper money in circulation.

The two-and-a-half pages devoted to counterfeits list over eight hundred fraudulent notes, which casts some light on the scope of the problem; and it was one that was only getting worse as banks and bank notes proliferated amidst the Market Revolution. A short notice “To our Patrons and Friends” on the back page of Day’s paper informed readers that the publication would soon be increasing in size and promised “an improved general appearance,” and asked “the community for a continuance of their favors.” By 1830, it was an eight-page publication and in 1837 Day’s Counterfeit Detecter expanded to sixteen pages. Clearly Mahlon Day had struck upon a popular and profitable idea, and it would not be long before competition in counterfeit detection began to heat up. Interestingly enough, the back page of the paper contains and advertisement for Sylvester J. Sylvester, a broker who would shortly become Day’s biggest rival and whose endeavors we will cover in part II of this series.

Matthew Wittmann

Joe Cowell's Numismatic Welcome to New York City, 1821

Joseph Cowell (1792-1863) was a British comedian and theatrical entrepreneur who performed on both sides of the Atlantic. His memoir, Thirty Years Passed Among the Players (1844), offers a fascinating window into the nineteenth-century entertainment industry, and includes some interesting anecdotes relating to numismatics as well. Born Joseph Hawkins Witchett, he started out as a sailor before a series of mishaps and adventures led him to a life on the stage. Adopting the stage name Cowell, Joe first appeared on stage in London, where he gained renown as a comedian and became a favorite at the famed Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

This eventually brought Cowell to the attention of Stephen Price and Edmund Simpson, the lessees and managers of New York City’s Park Theatre. When it initially opened January 1798, it was simply known as “The Theatre” as it lacked any real competition. This particular building is actually well-known to numismatists as it features on the much-debated “Theatre at New York” token.


ANS, 1887.24.1
ANS, 1887.24.1

In John Kleeburg’s definitive essay on the token, he shows that it is the work of Benjamin Jacob, a Birmingham diemaker who copied the design from an illustration of the theatre under construction that was published in the 1797 edition of Longworth’s American Almanack . The theatre struggled during its early years, but eventually found its feet in the 1810s and 1820s under the able management of Simpson and Price.

1817 admission check for Park Theatre ANS, 1898.4.51

The formula that proved most successful was simply to import the best talent they could find from Britain each season, a strategy that brought the likes of James W. Wallack (1818-19), Edmund Kean (1820-21), and other stars across the Atlantic. The original Park Theatre burned to the ground in May 1820, but a new theatre financed by John Jacob Astor was constructed on the same site.

Second Park Theatre [first building to right], 1831 New York Public Library
Park Row and the Second Park Theatre [first building to right], 1831
New York Public Library
This ‘Second’ Park Theatre opened on September 1, 1821, and the star of the season was the English actor Junius Brutus Booth. The other principal import that fall was Joseph Cowell, whose initial impressions of the city and the theatre were not encouraging. On first viewing the Park, he dryly described it as “the most prison-like-looking place I had ever seen appropriated to such a purpose.” But it was his initial experience with the monetary system that really soured his welcome to the United States.

ANS, 1896.4.1
1816 silver shilling, ANS, 1896.4.1

Cowell came off the ship eager for a meal, but found that New York City in those days was not exactly accommodating for travelers. With “thirteen or fourteen English shillings” in his pockets, he roamed the streets look for a place to eat:

After wandering about I knew not whither, “oppressed with two weak evils,” fatigue and hunger, I entered what in London would be called a chandler’s shop, put some money on the counter, and inquired if they would sell me for that coin some bread and butter and a tempting red herring or two I saw in a barrel at the door.

“Why, what coin is it!” said a fellow in a red-flannel shirt and a straw hat.

“English shillings,” I replied.

“No,” said the fellow, “I know nothing about English shillings, nor English anything, nor I don’t want to.”

I thought, under all the circumstances, and from the appearance of the brute, it might be imprudent to extol or explain their value, and therefore I “cast one longing, lingering look behind” at the red herrings in the barrel, and turned the corner of the street, where I encountered two young men picking their teeth, for which I have never forgiven them.

Cowell blamed the difficulty of this encounter on the late war with England, which he believed was “still rankling the minds of the lower orders of Americans.” He then went in search of a place to exchange his shillings, eventually heading up Broadway and coming upon “a dingy-looking cellar” with a sign reading: “Exchange Office. Foreign gold and silver bought here.” Cowell depicted the scene as follows:

I descended three or four wooden steps, and handed my handful of silver to one of “God’s chosen people,” and, after its undergoing a most severe ringing and rubbing, the (I have no doubt) honest Israelite handed me three dirty, ragged one-dollar bills, which, he said, “s’help me God is petter as gould.” As all I wanted then was that they should be better than silver, my politics at that time didn’t cavil at the currency, and I hastily retraced my steps to the red-shirted herring dealer, and, placing one of the dirty scraps of paper on the counter, I exclaimed, with an air of confidence, “There, sir, will that answer your purpose?” He was nearly of the Jew’s opinion, for he declared that it was “as good as gold,” and I gave him a large order, and made my first meal in the United States seated on a barrel, in a grocery at the foot of Wall-street.

There is a lot to unpack here, from the casual anti-Semitism to the larger workings of the American monetary system. The essential problem was that the United States at the time lacked the domestic sources of gold and silver necessary to produce enough coins to satisfy its growing populace. The 1820 census showed that the population was nearing ten million, but the U.S. Mint only produced two million silver coins that year in all denominations (10¢, 25¢, and 50¢) and the only gold coins minted were a quarter of a million half eagles ($5). This was obviously not anywhere near enough coinage, so the balance of circulating money consisted of Spanish silver coins and, particularly in urban contexts, paper money. The “dirty dollars” that Cowell exchanged his shillings for would have looked something like this two-dollar bank note from the Franklin Bank of New York City:

ANS, 0000.999.10106
ANS, 0000.999.10106

At the time, banks issued what was essentially their own currency, which was printed with variable quality and rather quickly became ragged as it circulated. Paper money was also easily counterfeited, and the issuing banks were themselves often suspect, making for a confusing swirl that could leave the unsophisticated bereft. Cowell’s aside that “his politics at the time didn’t cavil” at paper money suggests that he later became an advocate of “hard money” (i.e. specie), perhaps due to some bad experiences with the paper kind.

As historians like Shane White and Timothy Gilfoyle, among others, have shown, new arrivals to the city were often marks for various sorts of unscrupulous characters looking to turn a quick buck. Many of New York City’s so-called “exchange offices” existed in the grey area at the margins of the financial industry, making their money in quasi-legal lottery and stock schemes. As their name suggests, they also functioned as domestic and international currency bureaus, giving out local paper money for foreign coin or bank notes from elsewhere in the United States, at widely variable rates. Whether or not he got a fair exchange from the stereotypical Jewish money changer he encountered, Cowell ended his first day in New York City flat broke through more traditional means.

After his meal, Cowell dropped in for an unimpressed look at the evening’s entertainment at the Park Theatre. Later, he found his way to the bar and treated some new American friends to a few rounds of grog and cigars. He eventually became so incapacitated that he was robbed of all of his “moveables,” which included his “hat, cravat, watch, snuffbox, handkerchief, and the balance of the dirty dollars.” Cowell was subsequently carried down to the harbor, tossed into a row boat, and delivered to the ship he had arrived on as “a gentleman very unwell.”

Evenign Post
Evening Post, October 30, 1821

Despite Cowell’s inauspicious start, he had a very long and successful career in the United States. He made his debut at the Park Theatre on October 30, 1821, and was particularly well received for his performance as Crack in the musical The Turnpike Gate. Cowell went on to become one of the most popular stock players at the Park when the theatre was at the apogee of its profitability and influence in the 1820s. He ably managed a variety of companies and theatres around the country, and spent some time in the circus as well. Cowell married three times and many of his descendants, most notably Sam Cowell and Kate Bateman, became luminaries in Anglo-American theatre. He reprised the role of Crack for his final performance in New York City in 1863 before retiring to London. Cowell’s memoir is a wonderful read that offers a compelling look at the world of popular entertainment while also observantly noting and commenting on the particulars of everyday life in the United States.

Matthew Wittmann

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