One of the volumes that the curatorial staff often consults is a folio-sized hardbound ledger that records the first half-century of acquisitions and accessions by the American Numismatic Society. The title page of the volume has a hand-written note indicating that it was presented to the organization, “while yet in its infancy,” by William Leggett Bramhall in December 1858. The American Numismatic Society originated out of an informal meeting held on March 15, 1858 at 121 Essex Street in New York City, which was then the home of a young coin enthusiast named Augustus B. Sage (1842-1874).
A constitution and by-laws were subsequently formulated and then adopted by the fourteen assembled members at the first official meeting of the Society on April 6. The ANS was one of many learned societies that formed in the nineteenth century and its library and collection quickly became an important repository of numismatic knowledge and objects.
Over its five hundred pages, the accession ledger details the growth of the collection from the time of the founding of the Society in 1858 through December 1904. As indicated, the ledger was not given to the ANS until December 1858, but it records donations going back to April 1858 when the Society was founded. All of these early entries are in the hand of Edward Groh (1837-1905), a founding member who first became curator in 1859, so we presume he simply transcribed this information from an earlier set of records when he assumed the position. The ledger starts with a listing for a lot of fifty-two coins and tokens donated by Sage.
The first item accessioned into the ANS collection was an 1825 ‘Classic Head’ half cent.
For those not familiar with how museums and libraries manage their collections, the object number typically begins with the year that a given item was acquired and then a number is assigned for that lot or accession within the year, hence 1858.1 (year.accession) for Sage’s donation, 1858.2 for the subsequent donation by Edward Groh, etc. Finally, each specific item is given a number when it is cataloged, the result of which is a unique number identifying the object.
A ‘Hard Times token’ in Sage’s donation thus has the same numbers to start, but an object number that is particular to it:
1858 (year) | 1 (accession#) |14 (item#) = 1858.1.14
This 1837 token was issued by Henry Crossman, who was a manufacturer of umbrellas with a shop on Chatham Street, which is now known as Park Row.
Beyond the U.S. coins and tokens in Sage’s initial donation to the Society were a mixed bag of foreign coins. Perhaps the most interesting of these was a counterfeit 1832 eight reales minted in Mexico. Through the 1850s by far the most common coins used as hand-to-hand currency in the United States were Spanish silver coins minted in the Americas. Indeed, it was not until the Coinage Act of 1857 repealed earlier acts “authorizing the currency of foreign gold or silver coins” that Spanish coins began to be pushed out of circulation in the United States. This counterfeit Mexican dollar indirectly reflects the ready availability of Spanish coin and the polyglot monetary system of the antebellum United States that created such problems for ordinary people and opportunities for counterfeiters.
The Society’s inaugural accession ledger is an invaluable resource, one that allows us to reconstruct the history of the collection in considerable detail. The final entry in this first ledger was recorded on January 14, 1904, and it was not a coin, but a decoration. Richard W. L’Hommedieu was a prominent Brooklyn attorney and Republican politician who fought for the Union in the Civil War with the 139th New York Infantry Regiment. He was wounded at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm in 1864 and remained active in a variety of veteran’s organizations, one of which issued this insignia to its members.
The system of using pen and paper to document accessions to the Society’s collections continued all the way into the early 1980s when a computer database replaced the ledgers. And while nearly all of our curatorial work these days is done in digital form, the ledger serves as a reminder of our Victorian roots.