There is a commonly encountered conventional distinction between coins and tokens such that coins are produced and issued by governments as legal tender, whereas tokens are produced and issued by private businesses and derive their value only from their redemption by the issuer. This distinction is useful for many purposes, but like most definitions, it runs into problems in situations where the real world turns out to be more complicated than the unstated assumptions that underlie the distinction.
One of these assumptions is that official money is actually produced and issued by governments. Leaving aside the very substantial problem of banknotes and other forms of non-metallic money, this assumption fits fairly well with the experience of coinage in twentieth-century practice in major economies, which of course is the formative experience of many recent numismatic writers, but it is not universally true historically.
In late medieval and early modern Europe, the applicability of this assumption to the way minting worked is ambiguous at best. For the most part, minting operations were farmed out to entrepreneurs, much like taxation and military recruitment generally were. The persons leasing minting operations would pay part of the proceeds to the government as seigniorage and keep the rest as their own profits. Thus, even though minting was carried out in the name of the state, authorized by a government contract, and often monitored by government officials, there is room for debate as to whether the production of coins can really be said to have been done by the government.
The issuing of coins is even more ambiguous, because coins were not necessarily produced for distribution by the government at all. For the most part, mints produced coins, for a fee, when people brought bullion to them. Coins were thus issued by the minting entrepreneur to mint customers based on demand, without any involvement of treasury officials.
This system minimized the capital requirements for the government, but inevitably the reliance on private entrepreneurs carried a large cost in terms of corruption, malfeasance, and inefficiency, in addition to the private profits taken from the minting fees. Thus, the most centralized states, such as late medieval Venice and Florence, as well as England under Henry VIII, sought to control minting directly. Nevertheless, not all kinds of coins were equally worth controlling.
In seventeenth-century England, for example, silver and gold coins were produced by the government, albeit still on the basis of customer demand. However, the need for small change was met by medieval-style farming out, in this case by granting contractors such as Lord Harington and the Duke of Lennox the right to produce and issue copper farthings in the king’s name in exchange for a hefty fee to the Crown. Although everyone agrees that the silver sixpences of Charles I are coins, writers disagree on whether to call the copper farthings coins or tokens, because they were made as official coinage by royal authority, but they were produced and issued as a private business venture.
The contracting out of coin production is not limited by borders. Already in the early modern period, and increasingly in more recent times, small states do not necessarily wish to make the substantial capital investments needed for a modern mint. Instead, the production of coins is contracted out to enterprises in other states. These mints may be private or locally public, but either way they are acting as private businesses in relation to the outsourcing government.
The lesson here is not that it is correct or incorrect to refer to certain items as coins or as tokens. Rather, it is that a sharp distinction that is clear and effective for the United States or the United Kingdom in the twentieth century is not always so clear for monetary systems that do not work exactly the same way. Definitions are tools, not facts, and like socket wrenches or screwdrivers, not all definitions are a good fit for every situation.
The motto of the American Numismatic Society is Parva Ne Pereant—“So the Small May Not Perish.” In the world of numismatics, it is the superstar coins that often grab all the attention—Eid Mar denarii, Brasher Doubloons, etc. The ANS has even produced several wonderful videos about these great (some would even say “greatest”) coins, now available for viewing on our YouTube page. But what about those “small” objects without the more well-known fantastic backstories? As the ANS continues to make duplicates from its collection available on its official eBay store some buyers have reached out to share their excitement over auction items they have won from the ANS, proving that even those seemingly pedestrian numismatic objects can be monumentally important to a particular collector depending on their interests.
One such object is a parking token from the Kings Highway Savings Bank in Brooklyn, New York. The ANS has a large and diverse array of transportation tokens, many of which have yet to be cataloged, and this particular parking token duplicate could be of interest to any number of collectors, perhaps those that collect bank-related items, parking tokens specifically, or numismatic objects related to specific roadways or highways. In this instance, the buyer happens to live just minutes from the bank in question, although the bank itself is long gone, and only the building remains.
The Kings Highway Savings Bank was a mutual savings bank founded in 1923 with William R. Bayes as its president, and stood at the southeast corner of East 16th St. and Kings Highway, situated between the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Midwood and Sheepshead Bay. There appeared to be several branches at one point, with this location (built in 1929) functioning as the main branch. Although the name of the bank is no longer visible on the facade, the building itself remains quite intact, and has hosted several different banks since then, most recently an HSBC branch that also appears to have vacated since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Despite the name of the original bank disappearing from the side of the building, the original doors are still there, and retain the seal or logo of the Kings Highway Savings Bank, as evidenced by the photos provided by the winner of the parking token in question.
The lucky bidder also provided this photograph of their new token in front of the old Kings Highway Savings Bank building, very much mirroring—intentionally or unintentionally—the other historic photos of the bank pictured in this blog post, right down to the car parked in the lower right corner of each photo. Furthermore, it is not entirely clear how this parking token was used, as there is no extant parking lot attached to the building, and it is in fact a very busy intersection with limited street parking today. Perhaps there was a nearby lot that patrons of the Kings Highway Savings Bank could park at, and if conducting legitimate bank business, would receive this parking token as a voucher for parking validation, and deposit it upon exiting to avoid paying the usual parking rate.
Is this story of a simple savings bank and its corresponding parking token “great”? Perhaps not in the grand scheme of things, but it is important to the person who now owns this token, and the purpose of the ANS is to house and maintain a repository of as many of these “small” historical objects as possible, so that they may not perish. It may also interest the reader to know that the Kings Highway Savings Bank is just one of many savings banks in southern Brooklyn whose original inhabitants have long departed, but whose historical buildings still remain. More can be found in this NYC Explorer blog post of 2014.
In other numismatic news, the American Numismatic Society held its annual Gala on Thursday, January 14, and it was also the first virtual Gala hosted by the Society. This format allowed for a greater number participants regardless of their location or time zone, and was a considerable success thanks to the hard work of everyone involved. This year’s Gala honored ANS benefactors Mark and Lottie Salton, and was a moving tribute to their lifelong involvement in the numismatic community. If you were not able to attend the Gala in real-time, do not fret; the ANS has posted the event in full to our YouTube page and we encourage you to watch the video to learn more about the lives of Mark and Lottie Salton, hear their stories, and discover how their gifts to the ANS have positively impacted the field of numismatics.
Opportunity often leads to innovation. Sometimes the events that contribute to an evolution of this nature are well-known and documented, while other times they are lost to history and only able to be speculated by present-day researchers. This is the case with the career of John Gibbs. In the course of the 1830s, his profession took a radical turn. While the exact details are currently unknown, the numismatic evidence of how his occupational path evolved creates a compelling story.
John Gibbs was born in Birmingham, England in 1809 and came to the United States as a young man with his father, William, having settled in Belleville, New Jersey. He proved to be very skillful and competent at a young age, and by 22 years old he owned and operated a stagecoach line that ran from Belleville to Newark (3 miles), and to New York City (8 miles). While little is known about the coach itself, Gibbs had a token struck for passengers to use. After purchasing a token, a passenger could simply exchange the piece for fare, and allowed Gibbs and other operators to not waste time waiting for customers to find the correct amount due or to have to provide change to customers. In 1831, this truly was an innovation and considered the first transportation token struck in the United States. On the obverse, the token reads “USM \ STAGE \ I. GIBBS | BELLEVILLE & NEW YORK,” while the reverse inscription states that the token was “GOOD FOR ONE RIDE \ TO \ THE \ BEARER” (fig. 1).
It was also around this time that Gibbs and Joseph Gardner leased a building on the property of Stevens, Thomas & Fuller—a brass-rolling firm—under the name Gibbs, Gardner & Co. From their landlords, Gibbs and Gardner procured brass sheet stock to manufacture buttons. Like other button-manufactories (most notably those in Birmingham, England), their skills came in handy to produce base-metal coinages during times of coin shortages. As a result, Gibbs, Gardner & Co produced some of the earliest Hard Times tokens in the mid-to-late 1830s for a plethora of private firms. He even made one for himself that states “J. GIBBS MANUFACTURER \ OF \ MEDALS \ AND \ TOKEN \ &c. | BELLEVILLE \ NJ.” The reverse displays a brigantine with the inscription “AGRICULTURE AND COMMERCE” (fig. 2).
Soon, his business began to thrive. Locals began to call the establishment “The Belleville Mint,” and other orders came in, most notably from individuals in the Montreal, Quebec area beginning in 1836. These were in the form of the “bouquet sou” tokens of Lower Canada. The Belleville Mint was not the first to strike these pieces, as a mint in New York State struck 500,000 pieces for the Bank of Montreal the previous year. These tokens proved popular in fulfilling the need for small change, and other individuals began to speculate on the them. In 1836, exchange broker, Dexter Chapin, commissioned the Belleville Mint to strike bouquet sou tokens and imported them into Lower Canada. While the quantity is not currently known, the Belleville Mint used at least 13 sets of dies, so it was, by no means, a trifling amount. These are, essentially, imitations of the pieces commissioned by the Bank of Montreal. Ultimately, others in Birmingham, England and Montreal also created dies and struck coins for this issue (fig. 3).
The Belleville Mint also struck a token for William Gibbs, the father of John. The obverse features a bull facing right with the inscription “A FRIEND TO THE CONSTITUTION.” The reverse, however, closely resembles that of a bouquet sou token, though with a legend that reads, “W. GIBBS. AGRICULTUREIST | N. YORK” (fig. 4). This was, perhaps, the earliest inclination that the Belleville Mint was involved with striking the pieces for Lower Canada.
While the bouquet sou tokens that the Belleville Mint struck can be considered imitations and not counterfeits—since they were accepted by the public as one in the same series as the originals, were (for the most part) were of similar weight to the originals, and the originals were not authorized by a legal entity—true counterfeiting efforts was not above the Belleville Mint. As early as 1835, large amounts of counterfeit coins flowed from the presses of this establishment. In June of that year, the operation was raided, the equipment seized, and Joseph Gardner, his wife, and an individual named John Campbell were arrested. The police discovered dies for Spanish and Mexican dollars, 1831 French five-franc coins, and a bag of counterfeit Haitian coins. In August of 1835, another haul of counterfeit coinage from the Belleville Mint was discovered by officials, when the schooner Charles Denison, sailed by Captain Cox arrived in New York City with 380 boxes, each containing 1,200 counterfeit dollars of Brazil (a total of $456,000), albeit struck completely in copper. At the time, however, United States law did not criminalize the counterfeiting of foreign copper coinage (only gold and silver), and the ship and its cargo were set free. The coins were then transported to South America where they were silver plated and released into circulation in Brazil.
The Belleville Mint also purportedly struck copper coins for Liberia, Brazil, and Haiti (fig. 5). However, some sources note that Stevens, Thomas & Fuller—from whom Gibbs and Gardner purchased their metal—struck these coins. It is also possible that “the Belleville Mint” consisted of both Stevens, Thomas & Fuller and Gibbs, Gardner and Co.—the two companies simply merged as one in the mind of the public. Furthermore, the legality of these pieces is also in question. Were they officially commissioned from the local entities of these places (like the Hard Times tokens), or outright counterfeits? More research is needed to fully answer these questions.
Later in life, Gibbs changed professions once again. By the early 1840s, the need for and popularity of Hard Times tokens subsided and orders stopped coming in. For Gibbs, perhaps this also led to the demise of his “front.” Without producing tokens for local merchants, how could he continue to cover up his clandestine operation of producing counterfeit coinage? By 1846, he left Belleville for New York City and set up shop on Forsyth Street. By 1856, he was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where he manufactured shade fixtures, buckles, lamp-burners, and other goods. Unfortunately, Gibbs did not leave behind any known written sources to help tell his story, and only the basics of his life are known through official documents, but the numismatic evidence that he produced allows for pieces of one man’s life, the history of metallic production in New Jersey, and the interconnectedness of this area to other, far-off places of the world in the 19th century to be better understood by present-day researchers.
On a recent trip to Montreal—which seems to date from a million years ago under the current lockdown—I noticed an antique store, full of memorabilia of all kinds. It was run by two men, the older of them the son of a Jewish man who had fought on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, then escaped to France, and again to Canada before the Nazis invaded. Many Spanish fighters had been interned in France in 1939, and most managed to escape or were freed by their French guards in 1940, often joining the underground army that fought against the occupiers until 1944.
The shop offered an unbelievable assortment of bric-à-brac, including old vinyl recordings, pictures, paintings, clothes, vintage household equipment, etc. I noticed a display of old coins, including few Roman bronzes. Among them were intriguing round cardboard coin-sized objects with Spanish-language stamps glued on one side. The owner explained they came from the Civil War, and had been used as emergency coinage. The obverse (?) displays the Spanish crowned arms, and the reverse an affixed stamp. He had four of them left, all of them with 10 centimos stamps, selling them for $3 (Canadian) each. I snapped them up as a nice souvenir from that trip to Montreal, and started researching their numismatic background.
Not surprisingly, the Republic of Spain had run short of cash shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War. The fractional coins—centimos—created by the coinage reform of 1869 had been issued in copper, bronze, and later cuppronickel. With even base metal in short supply, they vanished from circulation after 1936. Some issues in iron were attempted in 1937 and 1938, and barely circulated. The Nationalist side had their own copper and aluminium-bronze coinage minted in Vienna by their German backers. Paper Notgeld was issued as well by a range of local authorities.
These small pieces of circular board with the Spanish coat of arms printed on one side were issued in 1938 only it seems. Stamps were then affixed onto the reverse to give each piece a value.
The use of stamps on currency has occurred throughout the twentieth century for a variety of reasons. After the disintegration of the Austrian Empire in 1918, several successor states sort of nationalized the old imperial banknotes with stamps, to make them legal tender inside their new borders—Yugoslavia and Czekoslovakia for instance. A similar phenomenon occurred in East Germany and Japan, older banknotes’ legal tender being affirmed by the affixing of recent and politically acceptable stamps. In inflation-stricken 1945 Hungary, using stamps on banknotes represented an ill-fated attempt at curbing price increase. Lack of coinage led the French colonial authorities in various African territories in the early twentieth century to glue stamps on rectangular cardboards as provisional currency, soon to be replaced when coins and banknotes became available.
However, the Spanish Civil War scheme of using these carboard disks supplemented by stamps seems almost unique, maybe inspired by a comparable experiment—the US Civil War-era Encased Postage Stamps.
Emergency currencies have a long history obviously, and one may have in mind the Card Money of New France, that started as emergency currency to pay the soldiers in 1685, but circulated until the fall of Quebec in 1759. Much older, one of the first attested emergency coinage ever used belongs to the Athenian military commander Timotheus. He minted a range of bronze issues to pay his military expenses during a military campaign in the North Aegean region, probably around 362 BCE, after Perdiccas of Macedon had withdrawn his support. The coins were inspired by the regular Athenian silver series, with several key differences showing that it did not become official coinage. They would have been convertible into silver coins, so that merchants and soldiers accept them—see Kenneth A. Sheedy, “The Emergency Coinage of Timotheus (364–362 BC), in U. Wartenberg and M. Amandry (eds.), ΚΑΙΡΟΣ: Contributions to Numismatics in Honor of Basil Demetriadi, American Numismatic Society, 2015, pp. 203–24.
The dating, function, and iconography of Roman lead tokens from Spain have been objects of speculation among scholars for decades. Several of these tokens, with weights ranging from 4–400 grams, have been found in the Spanish region of Cordova, once part of the Hispania Baetica, an area known in Roman times for silver mines. Spanish silver mines were one of the most important sources of silver bullion for Rome, and the connected smelting activities took place on such a huge scale that the lead pollution generated by them is still traceable in the Greenland ice core. At the same time, Baetica was also an important producer of olive oil, traded all over the Mediterranean Sea. Spanish lead tokens then, made out of a by-product of silver smelting but possibly also connected to agriculture, represent a useful yet poorly understood tool to understand the economic organization of this province.
The Richard B. Witschonke Collection at the ANS includes 16 specimens of these tokens, nine of which remain unpublished. One of them (fig. 1) is a unique piece, part of lot of 10 Spanish lead tokens offered for sale in CNG MBS 67 on September 22, 2004 (lot nos. 1070–1079). The CNG catalogue offers the following description:
Obv. Nude male walking left, carrying bell(?) and shovel over his shoulder; P · S across field; all within wreath. Rev. Harrow (or miner’s axe?). Weight: 166.78 g
The identity of the man represented on the obverse, together with the function of the objects he is carrying, is a mystery. Is he a miner, carrying a shovel? This is the interpretation offered by F. Casariego, G. Cores, and F. Pliego, who first published this piece in their catalogue of Iberian lead tokens from Roman times. They classified this piece as part of the series de las minas (“mines series”), conventionally related to the Roman mining operations in Baetica. These mine tokens (figs. 2, 3, 4) are usually characterized by the presence of a man with a “shovel” (a conventional term; it is unclear what this is).
This representation closely resembles the miners portrayed on the Linares bas-relief (fig. 5). Moreover, some tokens of the series de las minas were found in the Roman mines of El Maderero (fig. 6) and of Posadas (fig. 7), both in the Baetican district of Cordova. The archaeological context suggests a dating in the first century BC for these tokens. According to this interpretation, these tokens may have served as a ‘company coinage’ for these mines, a practice well attested in modern times. This token and the others of the “mines series” would therefore be one of the first instances of this use of tokens.
However, some elements in the iconography of the token represented in fig. 1 do not seem to match this interpretation. The bell carried by the man with the “shovel” and the arrow on the reverse need to find an explanation. A possible solution for this enigma does not come from Spain, but from Central Italy.
In a series of articles, C. Stannard showed the certain iconographical relationship between lead tokens from Baetica and local bronzes from Central Italy. The motif of the man with the “shovel” is attested in the area of Minturnae, Naples, and Pompeii, where no connection to mining activities can be made (fig. 8). The man with the “shovel” was probably not a miner, after all. As represented in fig. 4, the most frequent iconography of this figure is a walking man, either naked or wearing a short tunic, carrying the “shovel.” In the Italian material, he often also carries an askos, an oil or wine jar; in the Baetican, a bell (as in the case of the token in fig. 1). Could the man with the “shovel” be a farmer? The farming context could help explaining the presence of a harrow on the reverse of our token. Moreover, M. P. García-Bellido argues that the letters P · S, appearing on the token at ANS and on other ones of the same series, could be interpreted as P(ublica) S(ocietas), a State-owned enterprise exploiting oil-production in Baetica. According to this second interpretation then, the tokens of the series de las minas were used as a “company coinage” in an agricultural context, not in a mining one.
The iconographical similarities between Baetican tokens and Italian bronzes bear testimony to the active commercial relationships between Italy and Baetica in the Age of High Empire (first–second centuries AD), especially wine and oil trade. Mount Testaccio in Rome, an artificial mound composed almost entirely of testae, fragments of broken oil and wine amphorae dating from the first– third centuries AD (figs. 10, 11) bears testimony to the enormous scale of this trade. While researching Mount Testaccio’s amphora stamps, B. Mora Serrano (fig. 9) noticed the correspondence between the names appearing on some tokens of the series de las minas and the ones on amphora stamps from Testaccio. He therefore argued that at least some of the Iberian lead tokens of the series de las minas are connected to the transport of the Spanish olive oil to Rome. It follows that the man with the “shovel” on the unique piece of the Richard Witschonke Collection would not be an Iberian miner, but rather an Italo-Baetican farmer, probably occupied in producing wine and oil to export to Italy.
However, neither the presence of a bell nor the generously ithyphallic representations (cf. fig. 4) of the man with the “shovel” are addressed by this interpretation. C. Stannard argues that these elements could be explained if these figures were mimes. The Roman mime differed from Greek Comedy in that actors did not wear masks, as in the images on the Iberian lead. According to Stannard’s hypothesis, the man with the “shovel” represents a mime, a decorative element on tokens that were used as a “company coinage” in the context of an Italo-Baetican oil-trade enterprise.
In sum, the identity of the man with the “shovel” on the token presented in fig. 1 raises historical and iconographic questions that show the strength of the commercial and cultural interconnections within the Roman world. Were the tokens of the series de las minas really connected to mining activities, as their findspots seem to suggest? Or were they connected to the trade of Spanish oil, as B. Mora Serrano posits? The debate is still open.
Two elements still need further interpretation:
Even if not univocally linked to mines, some tokens of the series de las minas did circulate in mining areas. It is therefore not possible to entirely dismiss the “mining” interpretation.
The findspots of some tokens of the series de las minas show that these kind of tokens were already circulating during the first century BC, so they could not be directly linked to the Spanish oil trade of the first and second centuries AD.
Not all the questions are solved, then. The mystery of “our” man with the “shovel” is still intact.
New hypotheses on the iconography and the function of the man with the “shovel” and the function of the fascinating Spanish lead tokens will be formulated at the interdisciplinary conference “Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities” at Warwick University (June 8–10, 2017), where all the published and unpublished lead tokens from the Richard W. Collection will be presented.
When thinking about the collection of the American Numismatic Society, the mind often leaps first to the trays of gold and silver coins, to beautiful and famous rarities, and the extremely valuable pieces that only a select few could ever hope to own privately. The shiny stuff has a great allure. There is no question about that. Who doesn’t like the warm glow of the Brasher doubloon or appreciate the rarity of the Confederate States silver half-dollar? I can personally attest to the great thrill of holding one of these in each hand while we were preparing the Drachmas, Doubloons, and Dollars exhibit for the Federal Reserve back in 2000.
This edition of Pocket Change, however, is not about such pretty and valuable coins. Instead it is about the coins in the collection that many readers may not know about. They are the forgotten coins, the odd coins, the sometimes distrusted and maligned coins. They are those humble and unsung heroes of the ANS cabinet—the lead coins.
It may come as some surprise (perhaps even shock) to learn that the ANS collection includes some 4,448 lead pieces (including ancient scale weights, seal impressions, medals, and modern fakes). These range in place and period from Archaic Greece and Classical India to the Netherlands in the sixteenth century and the United States in the nineteenth century.
Lead coins of all periods generally fall into one of four main categories:
Counterfeits intended to deceive the unwary in commercial transactions. This use of lead can be traced in the Western World all the way back to the late sixth century BC, not long after coinage was invented. Herodotus reports a rumor that Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, struck lead coins and plated them with gold (probably really electrum, an alloy of gold and silver) to buy off a besieging Spartan force in 525/4 BC. Despite the doubts of the Father of History, the ANS collection includes a Samian lead hemistater that tends to support the story as well as several Milesian lead issues of even earlier vintage (c. 560-545 BC). Although plated bronze cores seem to have been far more common than plated lead in later periods, lead counterfeits were still produced by unscrupulous individuals to pass as silver coins as late as the early twentieth century AD. The Society’s collection includes a number of lead U.S. half-dollars, quarters, and dimes that were cast from authentic silver examples, apparently for circulation.
Official coinages. When other forms of metal currency—especially copper/bronze—were in short supply, governments sometimes produced official fiduciary coinages in lead as a means of preventing the collapse of quotidian transactions. Thus, in southern China of the Ten Kingdoms Period (AD 907-979) lead coins were cast both officially and in private with value ratings against copper cash coins. Lead sporadically occurs as a coinage metal in India of the Classical Period (first-third centuries AD), especially in central India, but also later under the occupation of the English East India Company in the eighteenth century. The Company’s lead pice not only filled a need for low-value coinage, but also returned a hefty profit since the face value of the coin was much greater than the cost of the lead from which it was made.
These coin-like objects are distinguished from emergency coinages in that they were produced officially or privately usually to be exchanged for goods or services rather than to circulate as money, although in times when other low value coin was scarce they were pressed into service as emergency money. In Roman times, tokens, known as tesserae, were used by emperors and lesser officials in Rome and the provinces to distribute the grain dole and other bonuses to the populace. The also seem to have been used by private businesses. The ANS collection is notable for a group of tesserae from the Roman client-kingdom of Nabataea, which may have been distributed in the context of a religious celebration or were used as tokens to purchase votive gifts in a temple. English shopkeepers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also often produced their own tokens in part because there was rarely enough copper halfpence in circulation for daily transactions. Lead tokens made business more manageable and some of the more trusted issues even gained the status of local currencies. Lead tokens were still used by small businesses in North America and elsewhere in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Test strikes and patterns. As a soft metal, lead was often used for trial strikes at many mints in different periods in order to test the quality of dies and their engraving or as patterns for coins and medals not yet struck. The ANS collection includes a variety of lead trial pieces and patterns for U.S. coins that were ultimately rejected by the Mint. It also holds numerous lead trial pieces for medals struck or planned by the American Numismatic Society during its long history as a medal-producing institution. Indeed, even as late as the 1990s lead blanks were used to demonstrate hammer-striking when the Society used to have its open house at the old Audubon Terrace location. Some readers may still have one of these ANS “test strikes” carried off as a memento. As one of the demonstrators back then, I still have mine. Out of a concern for safety, all demonstration strikes made at the ANS now use plasticene rather than lead.
It is easy to love gold and silver, but this brief survey of the Society’s holdings of lead should shown that their humble cousin, lead, is of comparable interest from the historical and numismatic technical perspective. Just because they are often small, have less than stunning patinas, and could cause physical harm if you do not wash your hands after handling them, there is no reason why they should not sometimes share the spotlight with their shinier and more attractive relatives. After all, in some cases there might not have been the finished gold or silver coin in the trays if there had not already been a lead piece first.
On January 6, 1838, American polymath Samuel F. B. Morse and his partners Leonard Gale and Alfred Lewis Vail hosted a successful private trial of their new electric telegraph system. Morse was a celebrated painter who became fixated on the idea of creating an expeditious means of long-distance communication when his wife fell ill and died while he was away (the news, delivered by mail, arrived only after the fact). Morse’s signature contribution was adding extra circuits or relays to the existing electromagnetic systems, which ensured that the telegraphic signal would carry over longer wires. The first message that was transmitted that day was an aphorism: “A patient waiter is no loser.” (The more famous phrase associated with the telegraph, “what hath God wrought,” was sent in 1844 as part of a public demonstration of the new commercial telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.)
The electric telegraph expanded exponentially in the mid-nineteenth century, transforming commerce and communication throughout the United States and eventually around the world. The key to the globalization of the technology was overcoming the challenge of manufacturing underwater cables that were durable enough to survive and transmit signals across vast distances. The first successful effort to lay a trans-Atlantic cable was undertaken by the Atlantic Telegraph Company headed by Cyrus W. Field. On August 16, 1858, the first message was sent from England to the United states, which read: “Europe and America are united by telegraphy. Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.” Shortly after, Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan exchanged congratulatory messages, but the cable failed after just a few short weeks.
Nevertheless, the venture had demonstrated the viability of undersea cables, even if there were some technical issues that still needed to be worked out. The New York Chamber of Commerce commissioned a medal from Tiffany & Co. to celebrate Field and the engineers that had made the project possible. The richly symbolic result depicted Columbia and Britannia holding a cable across the globe. In the small cartouche below the figure of Mercury stands with the fruits of American commerce, which includes a beaver.
A more entertaining version of Tiffany’s rather formal medal were a series of tokens struck for the occasion by George H. Lovett of New York City.
Here an electrified handshake takes place across the Atlantic between ‘Brother Jonathan,’ a contemporary personification and parody of a New Englander, and a British gentleman. The latter asks “How are you Jonathan,” to which he responds “Purty well old feller, heow’s yer self.” Another fascinating momento from this event was a token produced by Granville Stokes, a merchant in Philadelphia who purchased a portion of the failed cable.
Stokes had the cable cut into quarter-inch thick slices and a suitable die was made to serve as a housing and advertising card for his business. It was then attached so that a cross-section of the cable showed as the reverse. It was not until 1866 that trans-Atlantic telegraphic communication was re-established when a new 1700-mile long cable went into operation.
The means by which signals were sent and interpreted via the telegraph was by what came to be known as Morse code. In this system, numbers, letters, and symbols were assigned a combination of dots and dashes that allowed for quick communication by simply tapping on a receiver. Skilled technicians could transmit a remarkable amount of text, up to 30 or 40 words per minute. A silversmith named S. W. Chubbuck from Utica, New York, seemed to have a particular interest in the Morse code system. This silver token is one of two minted, though more were made in bronze, and it depicts the full “Morse Telegraph Alphabet” and advertises his business, which apparently had a connection to the telegraph industry. Chubbuck later issued paper scrip during the Civil War that also included a tutorial in Morse code.
Perhaps the most famous bits of telegraphic numismatica are the Canadian nickels minted during the Second World War. New twelve-sided five-cent pieces were struck in brass and chrome-plated steel in 1943 amidst metal shortages caused by the war. As you can see, the device on the reverse was a torch splitting through a large V, which both indicated the denomination (5 ¢) and nodded towards the Allied ‘V for Victory’ campaign.
Some will note that the rims of the coin look a bit strange. This is because Thomas Shingles, the engraver of the Royal Canadian Mint, included a message along the rim in Morse code. Beginning at 6 o’clock (under the N) and reading clockwise it says:
We Win When We Work Willingly
Here’s a closer look at the top edge where the word “WORK” is spelled out: W (·——) O (— — — ) R (· — ·) K (— · —)
And with that short lesson in Morse code we end our short survey of the numismatics of the telegraph!