Tag Archives: penny

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.

TM-IndianHeadCent

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.

TM-LincolnCent

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.

TenVisit

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.

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

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

 

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