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The E-Sylum:  Volume 11, Number 18, May 4, 2008, Article 7

BOOK REVIEW: 1794: THE FIRST UNITED STATES DOLLAR BY JACK COLLINS

Ever since the passing of Jack Collins I'd been curious to
learn the fate of his manuscript for a book on the 1794 dollar.
It would have been a shame for the project to come to naught.
While in the end no author or publisher took over the task of
completing the unfinished book, last year Jack's fellow
Californians George Kolbe and Alan Meghrig published a copy
of Jack's last working draft: "1794: The History and Genealogy
of the First United States Dollar" by Jack Collins and Walter
Breen. Their two-paragraph introduction sets the stage well
and I'll reprint it here:

 "Over a decade has passed since Jack Collins left us and,
 finally, his numismatic magmum opus is in print.  Given Jack's
 penchant for procrastination, perhaps he will forgive us for
 taking so long.  Plans to edit Walter Breen's contribution to
 the work, to gather the relatively little data needed for the
 census and, as time went on, to bring the census up to date,
 never reached fruition.  The volume in your hands is as Jack
 left it in 1996.  Some of the assertions and concepts in the
 History chapters may not be entirely reliable; little in the
 Genealogy portion of the book - truly its heart - needs revision.

 "In 1996, the valuable numismatic information contained herein
 was largely unpublished and even today Jack's work is of
 considerable merit.  In the intervening years, much of the
 groundbreaking research present here has found its way into
 auction catalogues and other works, via the small number of
 working copies of the book that Jack sent to numismatic students
 for review.  The present volume sets the record straight."

The spiral-bound 8 1/2 by 11" publication has 269 numbered
pages plus a five page bibliography and several pages of
"Extras" such as lists of Acknowledgements, Illustrations,
Notes, and needed illustrations and priced realized lists.
The meat of the book for many would be the Condition Census
(chapter VI).  This is the Genealogy section, where the bulk
of Collins' illustrations appear as intended - they had been
pasted into an early mockup of the book.  The compilation was
the result of some twenty years of effort by Collins to piece
together information about the coins from long ago collections
and auction sales.  While not numbered, I counted approximately
125 pieces.  Each is described individually along with its
ownership and price history.

Particularly fascinating when viewed through the lens of
history are the various "improvements" prior owners imparted
on the coins.  "Many of these were counterstamped, all of
which have apparently been subsequently repaired.  Several
of the counterstamps were recorded long ago... Perhaps the
most famous of these counterstamped 1794 dollars was the one
that first appeared at the 1883 auction of the John Marr
collection, which displayed script letters G W within an oval
frame, leading some to speculate that this was originally
owned by George Washington ... but the point is now moot,
as the counterstamp was removed in recent years at the
direction of some idiotic dealer in a misguided attempt to
"improve" the coin; both sides have been reengraved, the
obverse crudely enough so that the portrait now has the
appearance of a cartoon!"   A number of pieces are illustrated
with before and after photos showing how the coins have been
cleaned, toned, filled, reengraved or otherwise doctored.

So why call this a Genealogy?  Well, I suspect this is Breen's
contribution and it's a metaphor also used in the first five
history chapters covering the development and history of the
dollar.  For example, Chapter 4 is titled "Alexander Hamilton,
Grandfather of the 1794 Dollar" and Chapter 5 is "Parents and
Obstetricians of the Federal Dollar."  A similar idiosyncrasy
was threaded throughout the 1981 Swiatek-Breen Encyclopedia
of U.S. Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins, where a crime-solving
theme was used.  Section headings included The Corpus Delicti,
Clues, Opportunity, Motive, Suspects, etc.  Used once in a
short article it's clever, but in a book level treatment I
find it tiresome.  I hope not to turn a page in the Collins
book and learn who or what was the "Second Cousin Twice Removed"
of the 1794 dollar.

These first five chapters encompass some 65 pages and seem
to be a fine overview of the history of the dollar coin,
beginning with the fifteenth century silver trade thaler coins
of Archduke Sigismund of Austria. These chapters have no
illustrations, although placeholder graphics are sprinkled
throughout.  It's unfortunate, for I'll bet the final book
would have been a visual delight for numismatists and anyone
else with an abiding interest in the history of world trade.

The bibliography is extensive and not to be overlooked.
A number of important and interesting publications are
referenced.  One I'd be curious to read is an article by
Curtis Nettels published by the University of Wisconsin in
1934 titled "The Money Supply of the American Colonies before
1720".

It's quite a shame that Collins' 1794 book never came to full
fruition, but as Kolbe and Meghrig noted, his work already
lives in the many articles, books and auction catalog
descriptions based on his pioneering work on the topic.
Congratulations, Jack!

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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