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A Favorite Medal 

By Q. David Bowers, Co-Founder

Author: Q. David Bowers / Wednesday, August 01, 2018 / Categories: From the Desk of Q. David Bowers

A Favorite Medal 

Picking up on my comments on medals in my last blog, for this issue I mention one of my favorite medals—struck for the 1838 bicentennial of the city of New Haven, Connecticut. Key in its production was John Allan, recognized today (in 2018) as the first rare coin dealer in America. He was a jack of all trades, in a way. As early as 1815, on Pearl Street, he was booking passages on ships, an activity he continued into the 1830s. Typically, passengers and freight were registered on packets to and from Greenoch, Scotland. Trusts and estates were a large business as well, and he dealt in real estate sales and rentals.

In 1862, Walter Barrett in The Old Merchants of New York City included this about him: 

 

“He was what was called an accountant in the early part of this century and for many years afterward. Mr. Allan accumulated a snug property and for many years has been engaged in settling up complicated accounts. Probably he has settled more estates than any other man or ten men in this city He is more lithe and active than half of our youths of twenty. He is famed for an antiquarian collection of everything relating to our city.”

 

John Allan co-designed the New Haven bicentennial medal working with Ithiel Town in 1838. The dies were engraved by Charles Cushing Wright. There were two obverses, the first signed by Wright, and one reverse. Town was an architect and author of some renown, and with his partner, Alexander J. Davis, drew plans for the Connecticut State Capitol, the New Haven City Hall, the capitol buildings of North Carolina and Indiana, the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut, and other important structures. Town seems to have been a collector in his own right and offered “four or five hundred coins, medals, &c., in gold, silver, and copper” for sale in New York in 1842.

In its issue of October 1839 an article by John Allan, “On Coins and Medals with a Notice of the Medal Which Has Been Recently Struck to Commemorate the Settlement of New Haven, Connecticut,” was published in the American Journal of Science and Arts. This reflects his broad knowledge. Excerpts:

 

On Coins and Medals

“As to the question, at what period of the world the study of coins and medals commenced, or at what precise time thy were first fabricated, we are ignorant, although several writers have endeavored to trace their origin to a very remote antiquity. The states of Italy were the first, after the revival of literature and the fine arts, to commence the study and striking of coins and medals; and the modern governments of Europe have all, more or less, followed their example.

“Novelty, beauty and sublimity are the three great sources of moral and intellectual pleasure, and the incitements to these are well supplied by medals. 

“They display the usages of society, and the habits and forms of persons, with whom history having made us acquainted, we long to see the faces on which their minds and characters were impressed. From a similar feeling we are delighted with the exhibition of the battles, edifices, religious rites, costumes, and innumerable other interesting circumstances belonging to the age, or illustrating the characters and actions of eminent individuals

“Hence Greece and Rome, the noblest states in ancient times, were most distinguished for their attachment to and production of coins and medals. A vast number of these have been spared by the destroyer time, to attest the pains and success with which they were executed, thus evincing the high importance attached to them in their ages, not only in commemorating passing events, but as gratifying the wish of posterity, to look back into remote times and thus to obtain the most important aids to history.

“No adequate conception can be formed by persons who have paid no attention to the subject, how highly subservient medals may be made to the gratification of private taste, to the perpetuation of the memory of objects of personal history, of domestic endearment, and individual honor; to the illustration of the success of well laid plans of public enterprise, to the commemoration of marriages and births, to perpetuating the knowledge of new inventions, and of the memory of men eminent for learning and talent, and for public as well as private virtues.

“As medals are the least perishable of all the materials upon which the artist displays his powers, they continue current on the tide of time when the productions of all other arts have sunk into oblivion.

“A desire to possess modern as well as ancient medals exists at present in the most distinguished academies and among individuals of all enlightened countries. Medals are eagerly sought for public libraries and museums, and governments employ the mint in striking medals and coins to heighten the splendor of the existing administration and to extend an perpetuate their civil and military renown.

“Another source of pleasure and amusement which attends the study of medals is the finish and beauty displayed in their workmanship by designers and engravers… Several medals were struck at Paris to commemorate the American Revolution. Congress, some years since, made an appropriation to have the whole series placed in the national library at Washington; the vessel that had them in charge (if I recollect right) was lost, and whether any further action has been had, or any progress since made, I am ignorant.

“A medal was struck on Commodore Truxton's victory,—and another on the war with Tripoli under Commodore Preble.

“Medals also were struck by order of Congress, to carry down to posterity the naval victories of the United States, in the late war with Great Britain. In 18[26], a medal was struck to commemorate the union of Lake Erie with the Atlantic, by the great canal. Since that time, no medals worthy of commemoration have been executed either by individuals, or any of the states or cities of the United States, till lately, New Haven in the state of Connecticut, has taken the lead, and on the return of the second centennial anniversary of the founding of the colony by Eaton and Davenport, has had a medal engraved and struck to commemorate the first settlement of the city…”

 

The preceding article is one of relatively few published prior to 1840 on the subject of numismatics in America and the appeal thereof.  Today, such medals sell for less than $1,000 each. Now and again we have them in our auctions.