This week’s Internet message reflects on a presentation I gave at the American Numismatic Society on December 14, 1999, “The Washington Excitement of 1859-1885.” This was one of a brilliant series extending over several years titled The Coinage of the Americas Conference, which drew scholars and others to the Society to give presentations. Unfortunately those events are no longer continued.
I was first on the program and told of the enthusiasm for Washington tokens and medals that commenced in a large way in the 1850s. This was the decade of the rise in popularity of illustrated books in America, and several titles were published with scenes from the life of Washington from childhood onward, through the Revolutionary War, on to his presidency. During the same time in the late 1850s, Edward Everett led a movement for the public acquisition and restoration of Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. Everett, prominent in Massachusetts and at one time the president of Harvard, later became known as “the other” person speaking beside Lincoln when the latter gave the Gettysburg Address in 1863.
By 1859 there was wide public interest in Washington. Then came the numismatic “excitement” I mention in the title of my presentation. Medals depicting Washington, the Revolution, and other events were made from dies by Robert Lovett, Jr., George H. Lovett, and others, and were widely sold.
In the meantime Mint Director James Ross Snowden, who had held his post since June 1853 and had developed an interest in numismatics came to fore. For a number of years he helpfully provided Proofs, restrikes, and other items to collectors for a modest fee. By early 1859 requests for same had become so intense that Snowden decided to turn it into a business. He was building the Washington Cabinet at the Philadelphia Mint and announced that in exchange for specimens that he needed he would provide rare patterns and the like. This soon went underground, old dies dating back to the Gobrecht coinages of 1836 were dusted off, and restrikes were made, not for open trade but for secret sales to favored people with connections to the Mint, most particularly William K. Idler, a local jeweler and coin dealer who had just entered the numismatic trade. The Washington Cabinet did indeed expand, and in 1861 Snowden’s large and impressive book, Washington and National Medals, was published to wide acclaim. In the meantime, Mint officials were taking in secret profits estimated to be many thousands of dollars per year, with no oversight or complaint, except that certain dealers such as Edward D. Cogan, who were not on the Mint’s list of favorites, were not happy. In various forms this production continued until Snowden was long gone, until it ended in the summer of 1885. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of restrikes, illogical die combinations, and other special pieces were made and sold with few records being kept. Today these account for perhaps 90% or more of all pattern coins in existence. Numismatists can be collectively grateful for this caper.
On February 22, 1860, the month and day anniversary of George Washington’s birth in 1732, a beautiful display was mounted at the Mint, with special medals available for purchase. Today in 2013 Washington tokens and medals are still very popular and our auctions that contain interesting pieces, which happens regularly, always attract a wide and enthusiastic audience.