By Harvey G. Stack, Senior Numismatic Consultant
I have received many requests to discuss the coin dealer atmosphere in New York in the early part of the 20th century. I have done several articles in recent years, to which this series can be added.
In modern America, 75 years is an unusually long time for any firm to flourish under the same ownership. In the effervescent world of professional numismatics, such a span of years has been enjoyed by only a single family firm, Stack’s of New York City. Founded during 1933 by Joseph B. and Morton Stack, the company continues today, as dynamic as ever. Recently we expanded to include our private auction gallery and additional research facilities.
Think of it! Over 75 years! Also consider that our first auction was held in 1935 — no other American professional numismatic firm existing today can claim such a record.
Because Stack’s has occupied a pivotal position in the world of numismatics throughout this time, this is more than the history of a single firm. It is actually a panorama of the whole numismatic world from the 1930s onward.
In the Beginning: The 1930s
By any objective standard, the early 1930s were grim years for America and scarcely the time to begin any new business. An estimated 12 million Americans were unemployed in what historians believe was the lowest point of the Great Depression. During 1932 and 1933, hundreds of banks had failed after vainly struggling to survive in the wake of the epic stock market crash of October 1929. American agriculture was in crisis as continent-sized dust storms and historic floods ravaged the country’s heartland. As acres of irreplaceable topsoil blew in clouds that covered entire states, many observers saw nature in full-scale rebellion against generations of carelessness and abuse from deforestation to deep-plowing of the Great Plains. Some wondered if any meaningful recovery would ever be possible.
New York City’s plight was especially severe. Today the ‘Twenties’ are remembered as a glittering era of high living, symbolized by the Charleston, flappers, speakeasies, Prohibition, and, perhaps, the life of the fictional Great Gatsby. Wall Street’s big bull market, the Florida real estate boom, the advent of crossword puzzles, the Teapot Dome scandal, and the self-congratulating politics of ‘Coolidge Prosperity’ are memorable as well. But, the Twenties had a darker side that is less often recalled.
A Reginald Marsh cartoon in The New Yorker during the presidential campaign of 1928 perfectly captured the city’s ambivalence in this era. Among a street filled with raggedly dressed, milling unemployed men under an elevated railroad in lower Manhattan is an obviously down-and-out derelict saying with great seriousness, ‘Oh, Al Smith’s all right, but I’m fer leaving prosperity alone.’ As some observers such as Congressman Fiorello H. La Guardia knew, many thousands of New Yorkers knew ‘Coolidge Prosperity’ only through what they read in the newspapers.
Then came the October 1929 crash, with its epicenter on Wall Street. The city was hard hit and slowly sank into a trough of unemployment and despair, crippled by a municipal government saturated with corruption at every level and staffed with inefficient political hacks appointed by the dominant Tammany machine.
Appalling conditions were revealed by Judge Samuel Seabury’s investigations. New York City’s flamboyant Mayor James J. Walker, ‘Gentleman Jimmy,’ to admiring thousands before the crash, went from the living symbol of the care-free flapper decade to a grotesque reminder of a time that suddenly seemed light years away. Just as President Herbert Hoover receded into history before the advance of newly inaugurated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the disgraced Walker and his machine replacement John P. O’Brien yielded to the Fusion and Reform administration of Fiorello H. La Guardia.
The New Deal and La Guardia brought hope to nation and city, each with an admixture of lively controversy, but no real recovery was in sight in 1933. Ex-bankers sold apples in the shadow of the newly opened and under-occupied Empire State Building as pedestrians hurried by, perhaps whistling ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.’ Economists regard the year as the worst in history for the start-up of new businesses.
Everybody seemed to agree that ‘Confidence’ was lacking. Venture capital was definitely in hiding and those businessmen with the means to begin new ventures sat tight, expecting the Depression to worsen. This was the attitude that President Roosevelt deplored in his upbeat inaugural address, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’
The Stacks Arrive
This was the New York City to which Joseph B. Stack and his brother Morton returned in 1933 after engaging in the jewelry business in West Virginia. Both were born in New York City, ‘J.B.’ in 1891, and Morton in 1901. Associated with them in the early years was their sister Shirley, born in 1904. The family, however, knew New York well, both its great underlying strengths and its present difficulties. This knowledge already went back most of a century, as family tradition recalls a forebear Maurice Stack, who operated a foreign exchange business on Nassau Street in lower Manhattan as long ago as 1858, but whose history seems elusive today.
The new business opened at 690 Sixth Avenue, on the corner of 22nd Street. (The avenue was officially renamed Avenue of the Americas a few years later, but no real New Yorker will ever use that name.) Early newspaper advertising reveals that the brothers planned for their new business to be active in several areas, of which coins were only one. In these difficult times, they knew that middle class New Yorkers had other things to sell, in addition to coins. They plainly intended to serve a public that might have to sacrifice all kinds of treasures to survive in the depths of the Depression.
Gold was an area of broad commercial interest. On April 5, 1933, newly inaugurated President Roosevelt issued his famous Executive Order mandating surrender of all gold coins and notes to the nearest bank operating under supervision of the Federal Reserve System. Little noticed by a docile public was the section which allowed citizens to keep ‘rare and unusual gold coins of special value to collectors,’ and fewer citizens questioned the dubious constitutionality of the new Administration’s whole gold policy.
The Gold Order turned the attention of many well-to-do Americans toward coin collecting, including a Baltimore mortgage banker of whom much would be heard in the following years, Louis E. Eliasberg. To thinking citizens of means, the disappearance of gold coins from circulation after 138 years made them an instant collectible, an asset worth having (things haven’t changed much now!).
Obviously printed after April 5 was a notice in metropolitan newspapers, ‘Stack’s, located at 690 Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, announces that it has been authorized by the U.S. Gov’t to buy old gold, jewelry, teeth, silver and platinum. They also buy old coins and pawn tickets here and pay very liberal prices.’ Other advertising copy frequently ran virtually identical language, adding ‘Cash paid Immediately for Old Gold. Postal Money Orders sent out same Day. We have been in business for 75 years.’ (Again, this harkens back to the Maurice Stack tradition of 1858.)
Another ad of this vintage announced ‘Highest Prices Paid for OLD GOLD. MAIL or BRING in your old Jewelry-- Watches-- Rings-- Teeth-- regardless of how broken. Money Orders remitted same day and we will hold your jewelry 4 days subject to your acceptance. Safeguard by Insuring Mail. We are Licensed by U.S. Government. Licensed and Bonded by New York State.’
A larger art-bordered ‘tombstone’ ad widened the spectrum of the new firm’s interests, ‘Phone Stuyvesant 9-2615. HIGHEST PRICES PAID, Old Gold-- Silver-- Coins-- Platinum-- Stamps-- Antiques-- Licensed by U.S. Government, New York State, Established 1858, 690 Sixth Avenue, Cor, 22nd Street, New York City.’
Plainly the partners intended to leave no stone unturned in their first investigation of possible profits. Times were difficult, and a dollar profit here, another dollar there, contributed to the New York business building a sound footing and a good reputation.