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New Candidate for Oldest U.S. Numismatic Society Discovered

Charles Ira Bushnell

A couple of months ago, friend and fellow numismatic researcher Joel Orosz sent me a news clipping containing a piece of information he found puzzling. I was astounded when I saw it and immediately started researching the topic myself, uncovering a second nugget. But that was it. Nothing more has been found. We’re hoping that perhaps someone else can shed some light on this matter. I want to thank Joel for providing the detailed description of the discovery below.

—David Hill

Joel J. Orosz writes:

The chronology of numismatic associations in the United States has been settled history for more than 160 years. The Numismatic Society of Philadelphia was established on January 1, 1858, claiming honors as the first in the United States. Slightly more than 6 weeks later, on the Ides of March, the American Numismatic Society was organized in New York City, becoming the second.  Over the following decades, both Societies would change and re-change their names, and experience vigor both waning and waxing, but no one then or since has questioned their primacy in the birth order of United States numismatic societies.  Now, however, both must fall a slot in the hierarchy, for we have discovered that the first numismatic association in this country appeared in New York City as early as 1854, and still existed as late as 1855. The New York Numismatic Society, as it was styled, seems to have been little noted during its brief lifespan, nor long remembered afterwards.  In fact, by that pivotal year of 1858, memories of its existence had evaporated. Not until 2021 did the scant traces it left behind come to light.

The historically-minded reader might object that the “New York Numismatic Society” was a short-lived Civil War-era numismatic club.  This NYNS was founded on January 23, 1864, by Robert Hewitt, Jr. and 10 other gentlemen, who were all, so far as can be determined, completely disconnected from the newly-discovered first NYNS. The two organizations’ years of operation were separated by nearly a decade, and there is no evidence of overlap in their respective memberships, leaderships, or in anything excepting their shared name. The birth of the second NYNS goaded the American Numismatic Society, which had been dormant since October 1859, to meet just 13 days later, and to reorganize as the American Numismatic and Archeological Society. The second NYNS itself went somnolent after less than four months of meetings, and on July 31, 1866, it dissolved, relinquishing its assets to the ANAS.  So much for the second NYNS; now let’s turn to the discovery of the first one. 

The Times and Messenger clipping referring to a New York Numismatic Society in 1855.

In the early history of U.S. numismatics, it is usually true (paraphrasing Will Rogers), that “all we know is what we read in the papers.” The New York Times and Messenger for Sunday morning, June 24, 1855, presented the headline, “SALE OF COINS AND MEDALS, “reporting on the June 6, 1855 Bangs, Brother & Co. auction sale of the numismatic collection of Pierre (sometimes anglicized as “Peter”) Flandin, a pioneering New York fine arts dealer. The article recounted prices realized by the most desirable coins and medals on offer, especially a pattern Gobrecht half dollar of 1838 for $8.50.  It closed with the following sentences:

The sale was one of unusual interest, from the fact of its being the first regular sale of coins and medals that has ever taken place in our city. The sale was well-attended, and attracted considerable attention. Among the distinguished American Numismatists present, we noticed Mr. Bushnell, of the New York Numismatic Society, Dr. Chilton, Mr. Allan, Mr. Gsell, and others.

Bushnell had the clipping bound into this collection of early New York auction catalogs

This Times and Messenger article was clipped, and tipped in to a truly distinctive bound collection of early New York auction catalogs, created by the “Mr. Bushnell” of the article: Charles Ira Bushnell (1826-1880).  An attorney by vocation, and a coin collector by avocation, he was, in 1855, New York’s most advanced numismatist. Indeed, less than a week after the Flandin sale, he traveled to Philadelphia to personally take part in the auction sale of the John W. Kline numismatic collection, which was the second major numismatic sale held in Philadelphia.  In the absence of published American numismatic references, Bushnell created his own by noting the prices brought by each lot in the sales he attended, as well as the purchasers’ names.  He bound several successive sales together in his signature red Morocco over red-and-blue marbled paper sides, and autographed them in pencil with his distinctive tall, angular script. He rounded out these references by tipping in newspaper clippings about the sales, plus material like photographs of, and autographed letters signed by, the consignors.

Among the earliest in this running record of auction sales, (ex-John Lupia collection, now in the library of the author), is a single bound volume containing Bushnell’s priced and named copies of the June 6, 1855, Flandin Sale; a February 15, 1856 broadside sale by Bangs, Brother & Co. of the Daniel Groux Collection; and the numismatic addendum to the May 17, 1856, Leavitt Delisser & Co. book auction sale (the addendum offered Winslow J. Howard’s coin collection).  The Times and Messenger clipping is tipped in to the page preceding the Flandin Sale.  Interestingly, there is a clipping about the Howard collection auction tipped in to the page prior to that sale, beside which Bushnell annotated in pencil, “written by W. J. Howard.” This raises the possibility that the author of the June 25, 1855, Times and Messenger piece, who seems to have been unusually well-posted on the New York numismatic scene, might have been Bushnell himself. If so, he must have been exasperated by the paper’s misspelling of “Numismatists” and “Numismatic”, not to mention “Bushnell”, all of which he carefully hand-corrected in ink.

The catalog for the Flandin sale of June 6, 1855.

The “New York Numismatic Society” mentioned in this 1855 article predates the second NYNS by at least nine years. There is no recorded mention of the first NYNS when the second organized in 1864, so Bushnell’s NYNS must have sunk without a trace. That is, if the first iteration of the NYNS can be verified.  As it happens, we have found that confirmation. 

In 1854, John Livingston compiled Livingston’s Law Register: A Guide for Every Man of Business, and Hand-Book of Useful Information.  Printed in New York, at the office of The Monthly Law Magazine, Livingston’s tome provided, among many other lists, a compendium of “Societies and Institutions, Literary, Moral, Benevolent, and Religious, in the City of New York.”  Under this roster, on p. 458, we find the following entry: “NEW YORK NUMISMATIC SOCIETY for the collection and preservation of coins.” This terse confirmation of the Times and Messenger mention is welcome, but so far solitary.  Only one other piece of indirect confirmation has surfaced, namely a classified ad in the October 21, 1853, New York Herald, which offered for sale a collection of about 250 Greek and Roman coins.  The ad was directed “TO ANTIQUARIANS AND NUMISMATIC SOCIETIES.”  Would the seller have addressed this ad to “numismatic societies” if none then actually existed in the United States? 

The first NYNS was in being in 1854; possibly as early as 1853.  What remains unclear, though, is that which we really wish to know:   who belonged, what was accomplished, and why was it so quickly forgotten? Bushnell was clearly a member, and perhaps its motive force.  If he was indeed the author of the Times and Messenger article, possibly the others mentioned were also members.  Dr. James R. Chilton was a prominent early American coin hound, whose cabinet won laurels, if not for great rarities, at least for sheer size. His collection, sold by Bangs, Merwin & Co., on March 13, 1865, offered 3139 lots in 202 pages, making it the first of the numismatic “phone book” catalogs.  John Allan was New York’s foremost antiquarian, and one of America’s pioneering coin dealers.  The mystery man of the trio is Mr. Gsell, sometimes given as “G’sell,” whose surname appears often in 1850s priced and named coin catalogs.  Q. David Bowers, in his essential American Numismatics Before the Civil War, records his cognomen as “Charles,” but we know nothing else about him. 

No matter whose names appeared on its membership roll, however, the first NYNS distinguished itself neither by its achievements nor by its legacy.  Whatever the precise date of its expiration, whether later in 1855 or somewhat thereafter, no one remembered it—or at least thought it worthy of mention—when other numismatic societies were established.  Most telling, when the second NYNS was founded, none of its members acknowledged that it took the name of an earlier society: perhaps they were simply unaware.

This disappeared-without-a-trace aspect of the first NYNS may be attributable to Bushnell himself.  He gathered a great collection, and wrote on numismatic and (especially) Revolutionary War topics, but an extrovert Bushnell was not.  His newspaper scuffle with Augustus B. Sage in the New York Dispatch in 1857 aside, he shunned the public eye, and was not a “joiner.”  He never became a regular member of the ANAS, and when elected an Honorary Member in 1868, he politely declined, citing “overwork” as his reason.  If Bushnell was the prime mover behind the first NYNS, one could imagine that it might have met infrequently, and simply lapsed into senescence.

It seems probable that, in some unexplored archival folder, or, perhaps more likely, buried in the files of contemporary newspapers, there is more information to be found about the 1850s New York Numismatic Society.  But for now, we can say for sure that Charles Ira Bushnell was a member of the first numismatic society in the United States, which predated the NSP and the ANS by more than three years.

—Joel J. Orosz

UPDATE: Numismatic researcher John Lupia, having read the above, has provided another piece of evidence of the existence of a mid-1850s New York Numismatic Society—a price list from Frederick Lincoln indicating that he was a corresponding member of this group. John had also been aware of the Times and Messenger clipping, having at one time owned the bound volume that included it. He discusses all of this in a new essay published on his website. Thank you, John, for furthering our knowledge of this mysterious group!

—David Hill

A Numismatic Reunion

Guest post by David D. Gladfelter. David studies, writes, and speaks about the history of bank note engraving and printing, and collects interesting items in this wide field. A retired attorney and ANS fellow, he and his wife, Valerie, live in Medford, NJ.

First came the biography, a 1931 account of the life of the British-born engraver William Rollinson (1762–1842, fig. 1), written by Robert W. Reid and Rollinson’s great-grandson Charles Rollinson.

Figure 1. Portrait of William Rollinson ca. 1826 by Frederick S. Agate. Frontispiece, Reid and Rollinson monograph.

Their monograph tells of the engraver’s coming to New York in 1789, finding work in the shops of various silversmiths, and soon turning to copper-plate engraving which occupied him for the rest of his life. At the end appears a sampling of 18 of Rollinson’s engravings—calligraphic, ornamental, glyphic and scenic—plus a printed circular (fig. 2) which Rollinson had sent to various banks in 1811, soliciting orders for bank notes produced by a ruling machine he had invented. Several of these exhibits came from the personal collection of Charles Rollinson, but the source of the circular was the collection of the New York Public Library.

Figure 2. Circular sent to bankers in March 1811 by William Rollinson describing his anti-counterfeiting ruling machine and soliciting orders for bank note engraving. Collection of New York Public Library; reproduced in Reid and Rollinson monograph.

Notice that the circular mentions an accompanying “specimen of work … entirely novel, and of my own invention, and which cannot be imitated by first rate artists so as to deceive common observers.” Also notice among the exhibits a “Specimen” engraved bank note (fig. 3) on the Middle District Bank of Poughkeepsie, New York, with the imprint “Leney & Rollinson Sc. N.Y.”

Figure 3. $10.00 undated remainder note on the Middle District Bank of Poughkeepsie, N. Y., with imprint of Leney & Rollinson, New York. Collection of the American Bank Note Co.; reproduced in Reid and Rollinson monograph.

Next came Robert A. Vlack’s short-titled Catalogue of Early North American Advertising Notes in 2001. Item 4640 in the catalog is a specimen bank note dated March 1, 1811 with the imprint “Leney and Rollinson Sculpt. N. York.” The description notes a “pink tint”, a quite early use of a tint on a bank note. Item 4645 is the same design with a “light blue tint”. These tints consist of straight parallel ruled lines. The dates on this pair of specimens are the earliest of all of the notes listed in the Vlack catalogue.

An unlisted variety of Vlack 4640 has a waved-line pink tint (fig. 4) similar to the tint appearing on the Middle District Bank note. It didn’t take long for me to identify this specimen variety as the “specimen of work” that Rollinson had sent out with his circular. Notice that the date on the specimen is the same month (although not to the day) as the date on the circular.

Figure 4. “Fifty Fish” advertising note with imprint of Leney & Rollinson, New York, dated March 1811, believed to have accompanied Rollinson’s circular. Author’s collection.

Rollinson evidently sent his circular and specimen far and wide. Among the respondents was the newly chartered Planters’ Bank of the State of Georgia, which ordered notes in seven denominations ranging from $1.00 to $100.00, listed in Haxby as GA-320 G2, G12, G22, G32, G42, G52 and G62, all designated as “surviving example not confirmed,” a term equivalent to “extinct” in the biological world. Later-discovered examples of the two highest denominations are seen to have been produced on the model of Rollinson’s specimen (figs. 5 and 6), both with similar waved-line pink tints and geometrically-ruled end designs. Despite Rollinson’s optimism, the $50.00 note was counterfeited! Notice of this phony note, having plate letter C, appeared in Bicknell’s Reporter of March 5, 1832, and other counterfeit detecters of the 1830s to 1860s.

Figure 5. $50.00 issued note on the Planters’ Bank of the State of Georgia, dated 1817, with imprint of Leney & Rollinson, New York, Haxby GA-320 G52 (SENC). Author’s collection.
Figure 6. $100.00 issued note on the Planters’ Bank of the State of Georgia, dated 1813, with imprint of Leney & Rollinson, New York, Haxby GA-320 G62 (SENC). Author’s collection.

But the best was yet to come.

A copy of Rollinson’s circular appeared in Heritage’s October 20, 2020 auction (lot 83078). The signature on this copy, Willm. Rollinson (fig. 7), differed from that on the NYPL copy (Wm. Rollinson).

Figure 7. William Rollinson’s manually signed personal copy of his March 1811 circular. Author’s collection.

But a handwritten notation on the back identified this as Rollinson’s personal copy which had escaped from the family’s custody prior to 1931 when his biography was published. The notation (fig. 8) reads: “My Circular letter to Banks/ enclosing a Specimen of my/ waved line Work/ WR”.

Figure 8. Notation manually written by William Rollinson on back of his personal copy of the circular. Author’s collection.

This circular is printed on bond paper with a faint powder horn watermark. Rollinson’s signature is manually written, not printed.

As for its provenance, all we know is what Dustin Johnston, Heritage’s cataloguer, can tell us: That it was discovered by a book dealer on the East Coast who consigned it to the auction.

REFERENCES

David D. Gladfelter, “William Rollinson’s Novel Bank Note Sample,” Paper Money 49.1: 58–60 (Jan./Feb. 2010).

James A. Haxby, Standard Catalog of United States Obsolete Bank Notes, 1782–1866, vol. 1 (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1988), 301–303.

Robert W. Reid and Charles Rollinson, William Rollinson, Engraver (New York: Privately published, 1931).

Robert A. Vlack, An Illustrated Catalogue of Early North American Advertising Notes (Ads That Look Like Paper Money (New York: R. M. Smythe & Company, 2001).

Personal correspondence between the author and Dustin Johnston, November 5, 2020.

New-York Letters Patent and Seal, 1786

ANS, 1884.24.11
ANS, 1884.24.11

One of the more fascinating documents among the Society’s collections is a so-called ‘letters patent’ dated July 10, 1786, which granted Joshua Mersereau title to fifty-nine hundred acres of land that now comprises an area around the town of Wells, New York. A letters patent was a legal instrument that functioned as both a public record and personal certificate of a given order, which in this case was a land deed. In line with its official and public purpose, a large pendent seal was affixed by the Governor’s office, which was vested with the authority to press the parchment-encased wax seals of the State of New York that validated documents. These documents were important because ownership of what were then considered the “wild lands” of New York north of Albany was clouded by decades of malfeasance by land speculators and contestations from the mix of Indians and illicit settlers who actually inhabited the land.

Samuel Holland and Thomas Jeffreys (engrv.), The Provinces of New York, and New Jersey… (Sayer and Bennett, 1776) David Rumsey Maps
Samuel Holland and Thomas Jeffreys (engrv.), The Provinces of New York, and New Jersey… (Sayer and Bennett, 1776)
David Rumsey Maps

Following the French and Indian War, there was a speculative land rush to secure title to areas located east of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which attempted to restrict settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains. As the map indicates, the vast swath of country northwest of Albany was deemed English by dubious virtue of the Nanfan Treaty (1701). The map above refers to this area as ‘Coughsaghrage’ or the ‘Beaver Hunting Country’ of the Iroquois, but this did not stop the colonial administration from selling off large tracts of land to connected insiders. If you click to enlarge the map above you will be able to see the names of assorted colonial officials and merchants, most prominently Sir William Johnson, inscribed within the lands they held title to. The red arrow points to the approximate position of the nine square mile area just to the east of the Sacadanga River that Mersereau acquired, which was itself a tiny fraction of the infamous Totten and Crossfield Purchase.

Indian Council at Johnson Hall, 1772 Schenectady County Public Library
Indian Council at Johnson Hall, 1772
Schenectady County Public Library

Joseph Totten and Stephen Crossfield were shipwrights in New York who served as proxies for a massive deal in 1771 for over one million acres of land. Precisely who was behind the deal remains a mystery, but it was consummated with much fanfare at Johnson Hall in July 1771 in the presence of Governor William Tryon and the principal Mohawk chiefs. At that time £1100 was paid to dispose of Indian claims, but it remained for the Totten and Crossfield concern to pay the requisite fees (and bribes) to the Crown to actually acquire title to the land. Obvious land grabs such as this rankled many and when the constitution for the State of the New York was formulated amidst the Revolution in 1777, it contained an article (XXXVII) that explicitly invalidated the “frauds too often practiced” against Indians in contracts and invested the legislature of the State with the authority to validate purchases.

In practice this meant little as men of power and means were simply able to bend the New York legislature to their will. The Congress of the Confederation attempted to prohibit the ongoing violation of aboriginal title by the states in 1783, but the State of New York simply ignored the requirements. Indeed, it is hardly surprising to note that Joshua Mersereau (1733-1804), who was a lawyer and prominent patriot who had served as Quartermaster-General of the Continental Army, was also a member of the legislature in 1786. Mersereau lived in Otsego County, which is some distance from the land that was purchased, which suggests that this was simply a speculative venture in an area that was only just being settled.

The letters patent is a large (17″ x 12″) piece of parchment and printed form that was subsequently filled out with the necessary details using pen and ink. The bottom edge was folded back over so that the ribbon attached firmly to the document, where it was also signed by Governor Geo. Clinton.
1884.24.11.sealThe seal itself was just a piece of beeswax that was covered with parchment and then embossed with a brass matrix using a hand press. The result was a seal of rather simplistic design measuring 3 1/2″ in diameter and about 1/2″ thick. The seal was devised by committee and codified in Chapter 112 of the Laws of 1778 as:

A rising sun; motto, Excelsior ; legend, The Great Seal of the State of New York. On the reverse a rock in the ocean ; legend Frustra.

1884.24.11.rev

The reverse is presumed to have been an allusion to the fact that the State of New York was standing firm as it was besieged by the British in 1777-78. The seal aptly demonstrates how the rebellious Americans aspired to create a new and ‘loftier’ way forward, hence the ‘excelsior’ motto. But they also continued many British traditions as the state seal was in effect simply a replacement for the Crown Seal of a now-discredited king.

The practice of using a seal or emblem to create an impression that validated a document or the contents of some container extends into antiquity. The study of such seals as a source of historical information is known as sigillography. The ANS holds a wide array of seals, which due to some linguistic imprecision, refers to both the device used to make an impression and to the impression thus made. Pendent seals came into vogue in the West during the eighteenth century, but prior to that a range of device were used across different cultures, from signet rings to cylinder seals.

ANS, 0000.999.36791
ANS, 0000.999.36791

One of our largest collections of materials in this vein are scarab seals. This specimen is a Phoenician one dating to roughly the 5th century BCE. Amulets and seals in the form of scarab beetles were popular in Ancient Egypt, and this device reflects something of the cross-cultural influences that the broad maritime commercial trading network maintained by the Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean allowed for. There is a tripartite division to the matrix with eagles above and below a line of letters from the famed Phoenician alphabet, from which modern Arabic script derives. The design has been incised on the flat face of a small piece of marble so that it creates a reverse impression in relief on whatever material was being imprinted.

This post marks my first foray into sigillography and one that I hope has illuminated something of the legal, symbolic, and political process by which land was acquired and disposed of in the colony-cum-state of New York. I have also included a full transcription of the document below the fold with the printed sections in bold and the handwritten passages in italics.

Matthew Wittmann

Sources: Calendar of N.Y. Colonial Manuscripts (1864); Alfred Lee Donaldlson, A History of the Adirondacks, Vol. I (1921); Dominque Collon, ed., 7000 Years of Seals (1994).

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