The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 17, Number 49, November 30, 2014, Article 2


John Mutch writes:

On Monday the postalperson delivered my copy of the Q. David Bowers' Shell Card book - as announced in the Nov-Dec 2014 TAMS Journal, p.171. It looks wonderful!

Alan V. Weinberg writes:

A visually impressive book. The imaging is as good as it gets, particularly for some of the more difficult to photograph pieces. The text and narratives are excellent.

With permission, here is an excerpt from Dennis Tucker's preface to the book. Thanks. -Editor

Guide to U.S. Shell Cards As Q. David Bowers points out in chapter 1 of this masterful study, there are few areas of American numismatics that haven’t been examined, often in great detail, by collectors and historians. Bowers himself is well known as a researcher par excellence. His work in many coinage series has yielded a library of standard references, their subjects ranging from Buffalo nickels to gold double eagles, from the earliest colonial American tokens to the most recent commemorative coins. But until the publication of this work, the The Token and Medal Society Guide to U.S. Shell Cards 1867-1880 , no book-length study of these fascinating advertising tokens had been attempted by Bowers or anyone else.

Shell cards were a post–Civil War phenomenon, mostly hailing from New York, Boston, Chicago, and other large United States cities in the East and Midwest, although smaller quantities came from other regions. Coin-sized in diameter, these pocket-piece advertising tchotchkes often had coin-like designs, a feature that made them eye-catching and popular. They were constructed so that a business’s advertisement was either embossed on one side or inserted, in print, a few under a thin mica window.

From early on these advertising tokens were well received. Those that came with a small mirror fixed to one side were useful; those with a coin-like Liberty Head, Liberty Seated figure, or heraldic eagle warranted a double-take; and no matter the design, a shell card was more substantial—less ephemeral—than a paper coupon, printed card, or other throwaway advertisement. By the 1870s numismatists were actively seeking shell cards as collectibles. Early studies of them as such included auction-lot cataloging and listing by coin dealers and collectors, such as J.M. Tilton of Cincinnati.

These early efforts were thin in details. In 1920 Harry A. Gray made a more in-depth study, by die and variety, in The Numismatist, the journal of the American Numismatic Association. These foundations were built upon by later researchers and enthusiasts, the likes of Ralph Mitchell, Russ Rulau, Arlie Slabaugh, George Fuld, David Schenkman, and Steve Tanenbaum.

From the 1960s on, old and previously unpublished collections came to light, new varieties were cataloged and added to the hobby community’s knowledge base, and researchers shared their findings in the Token and Medal Society’s TAMS Journal and other publications. But no magisterial treatment of shell cards—their history, their motifs, their die varieties, their manufacturers and distributors, and the like—was compiled, until now.

Only Dave Bowers, with his steel-trap memory, extensive and well-maintained research files, and encyclopedic knowledge of all things numismatic, could have authored this richly layered volume. His study goes far beyond a mere listing of design elements and assignment of catalog numbers. The famous Bowers style is not simply to physically describe a coin, token, or medal, but to firmly establish it within its historical context. He tells the story of each shell card’s issuer and its birthplace, painting a picture of, for example, Macon, Georgia, in the early 1870s, where B.A. Wise & Co.—“Importers of Table and Pocket Cutlery, Stoves, and House Furnishing Goods”—ballyhooed their wares with published cries of “Cooking Stoves! Cooking Stoves!” and “Hoes! Hoes! Four hundred dozen Scovill Pattern English Hoes!” (in Southern Farm and Home magazine).

Where was each shell card issued? Who distributed it? How large is it; is the edge plain or does it have tiny holes so the interior can serve as a pincushion? Did its maker also create Civil War tokens, during the recently subdued interstate quarrel? Was the shell card known to early collectors, and if so, where has it been written up? In earlier catalogs, were any mistakes made that modern research has corrected? All of these queries are within Bowers’s purview. He provides answers where a less disciplined researcher might not even see questions.

In the The Token and Medal Society Guide to U.S. Shell Cards 1867-1880 , Q. David Bowers takes a subject that might otherwise be esoteric—understood and valued only by specialists—and broadens its appeal to touch on every facet of American life in the 1860s and 1870s. The past being prologue as it is, we cannot overestimate the value of that interdisciplinary approach. Bowers’s shell cards may be rare, fragile, and small enough to hold in your hand, but they’re only windows; his true subject is nothing less than the rich and colorful panorama of America itself.

Dennis Tucker
Atlanta, Georgia

Shell cards book sample page

Alan V. Weinberg adds:

In my opinion the title of the book should just be "Guide to U.S. Shell Cards 1867 - 1880 " The cover reference to The Token and Medal Society is in smaller letters above the title and NOT part of the title.

I'm surprised they left out "Embossed" and separated the term "Shellcards" into two words. I'd always seen them for many decades referred to as "Embossed Shellcards".

Dave Bowers writes:

This was an especially fun/challenging project as no BOOK or in-depth study had ever been done on this very extensive series. It was very stimulating to try to sort out who did what. After I finished the basic book, Evelyn Mishkin (who did much to get the Civil War Token Society's third edition of the Civil War Storecard book, coordinated by John Ostendorf, out the door) did remarkable things with refining and research, and Bill Hyder did the very impressive graphics.

I think that some of the specialties or niche areas of numismatics will expand greatly. I love a gem 1879 $4 Stella worth the best price of $200,000, but for the same price someone with a quotient of intellect and love for history could spend 10 years building a collection in some out-of-the-way series.

From the Token and Medal Society (TAMS) web site:

TAMS Guide to U.S. Shell Cards 1867-1880 by Q. David Bowers.
Hard-bound, 360+ pages, full color catalog of U.S. Shell Cards.
The first book-length treatment of these early examples of American advertising tokens. Over 1,000 shell cards described and most illustrated in color. The study includes a history of shell cards, their makers, and rarity information for many pieces.

Price: $55.00 TAMS Members Price: $40.00
Shipping and Handling for this book: $5.00

To order a copy, see:

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
NEW BOOK: U.S. SHELL CARDS 1867-1880 (

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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