ANS Library Acquires Rare Bushnell Volumes

By David Hill

Charles Ira Bushnell had one of the top two or three coin collections in the United States in the nineteenth century. He famously sparred with Augustus Sage, the teenage co-founder of the American Numismatic Society, in the pages of the New-York Dispatch, and Sage later put him on the first token in his Numismatic Gallery series. It was the sale of Bushnell’s collection that supercharged the careers of the Chapman brothers of Philadelphia. And now it appears that Bushnell was at the center of what may have been the first numismatic society formed in the United States.

Title page from the second volume of Bushnell’s Crumbs for Antiquarians

And yet, Bushnell remains a tough figure to pin down when it comes to the facts and details of his life. Apparently, this was even true in his own day. When he died, the editors of the American Journal of Numismatics had hoped to honor him, one of its first subscribers, with a lengthy writeup but were only able to scrape together a few sentences. Even today, with all of the modern research and genealogical records at our fingertips, it can be hard to extract the facts from over a century’s worth of repeated errors concerning his life. A little time spent on FamilySearch seems to at least confirm that Bushnell was a New York lawyer and that he and his wife Abby (Little) had a son, Giles, who died in 1906 at 53, and a daughter, Annie, whose death at 17 in 1872, according to Édouard Frossard, caused Bushnell to abandon numismatics. He died 8 years later, aged 59, on September 17, 1880.

Bushnell on Augustus Sage’s Numismatic Gallery token no. 1 (ANS 0000.999.48109)

Given some of the mystery that still surrounds his life, anything that adds to our understanding of him is welcome, so we are pleased to have acquired Bushnell’s extremely rare publication, Crumbs for Antiquarians. In this two-volume set, which shows that his love for history went well beyond numismatics, Bushnell brought together ten booklets self-published by him in limited numbers from 1859 to 1866, which he had distributed to acquaintances. Only one of these, a second edition of his work on New York business tokens, is numismatic, and it is the only one written entirely by him. The rest are the soldiers’ memoirs of the Revolutionary War, which Bushnell discovered either as manuscripts or that he found in long-forgotten publications. Bushnell wrote introductions and lengthy notes to accompany the texts, elaborating on the narratives with anecdotes and copious added details—marriage dates, battle casualties, town populations, building measurements—that he extracted from local histories and genealogies.

The two-volume Crumbs for Antiquarians

To Bushnell, these booklets served a moral purpose, reminding readers of the depredations their ancestors had endured as they fought for independence. “Very few of the present generation appreciate the sufferings and sacrifices which were made by our forefathers in the war of the Revolution,” he wrote in the introduction to the narrative of Levi Hanford. “While we enjoy the blessings which have descended to us, we little think of the immense cost at which they have been obtained.” He wrote these words at the height of the Civil War, and Bushnell, a New Yorker, made sure to credit the soldiers of the South for their role in founding the nation. “The deeds of Southern patriots, their valor and their sufferings,” he wrote in the section on Tarleton Brown, “have been but little credited.”

The narrative of Levi Hanford is one of ten booklets included in the volumes

Whatever his motivations for publishing, the Crumbs demonstrate Bushnell’s love of American history. After his death, his “Library of Americana,” was auctioned by Bangs and Co. It included 2,634 books and was particularly strong on the Revolutionary period, Indian wars, and U.S. naval history. He had also collected autographs, engravings, wooden printer blocks done by Alexander Anderson (“father of American wood engraving”), and various relics and other curiosities—things like Revolution-era shoe buckles, cloth from a mummy, and bird cages and napkin rings made out of wood salvaged from old churches. 

It has been claimed that Bushnell only printed fifty copies of Crumbs for Antiquarians, but given their scarcity today, the real number may have been much lower. We are pleased that one set is now preserved in the ANS Library and we are grateful to David Fanning who contributed to its purchase.