E-Sylum readers know I have a soft spot for merchant counterstamps on coins, and used to have a nice collection of them which I sold through American Numismatic Rarities in 2006. Matthew Wittmann of the American Numismatic Society has published a great article on the Sprague & Blodgett’s Georgia Minstrels counterstamp. Here's but a short excerpt, so be sure to read the complete article online.
One of the most popular and complicated cultural forms that enlivened popular entertainment in the nineteenth-century United States was the minstrel show.
While musicologist Dale Cockrell has usefully detailed the longer historical trajectory of blackface performance in the United States, the immediate origins of the minstrel show rested on the spectacular success of Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s performance of “Jump Jim Crow” in the late 1820s and 1830s. This was a ribald song-and-dance routine that Rice, a white actor, performed dressed as a ‘black’ man with tattered clothes and his face blackened with burnt cork. His success opened the floodgates of blackface entertainment as white performers and musicians all over the country began ‘blacking up.’ By the 1840s, groups like the Virginia Minstrels and Ethiopian Serenaders were offering full-evenings of entertainment know as minstrel shows that featured songs, dances, and skits.
One particularly difficult thing for many people to understand is how and why African-American performers began to appear in minstrel shows in the decades after the Civil War. The reasons are of course manifold and complex, but essentially there was an opportunity available because minstrel shows were a form of entertainment that already featured ‘black’ performers. African-Americans were able to capitalize on white fascination with black life by playing up their novelty as “genuine Negroes” and offering ostensibly authentic performances of plantation life in contrast to the “counterfeits” of white minstrels. Because of its association with the South and slavery, the moniker “Georgia” came to signify that a minstrel troupe was made up of African-American performers. The formula proved strikingly successful, and by the 1870s there were a number of black minstrel troupes touring the United States, despite what was often an acrimonious relationship with the white theatrical establishment.
It was in this context that the Sprague & Blodgett’s Georgia Minstrels known to numismatists came about. Z. W. Sprague was a longtime manager of white minstrel troupes associated with the city of Chicago. Wash Blodgett was an agent for assorted traveling entertainers, most notably working for the magician and ventriloquist DeCastro.
The countermarked coins associated with Sprague & Blodgett were thus produced sometime between the fall of 1876 and the spring of 1878. 1949.22.1.revIn Gregory Brunk’s comprehensive catalog of countermarked American currency, he lists ten specimens of the countermark on Liberty Seated half dollars, with a date range from 1862 to 1877. The ANS specimen is an 1877 half dollar minted in Carson City, Nevada.
It is not clear precisely how these countermarked coins were used. While they obviously served as a kind of admission check for the show, the denomination of the host coin was actually the same price (50¢) as a ticket for the performance. In this context it seems likely that they were distributed by an agent of the Georgia Minstrels to get favorable publicity from the press or to ensure the goodwill of the local community by giving away some free ‘tickets’ to the show. Although a few circus countermarks are known, this seems to have been the only minstrel troupe to use them.
I never owned one of these, but what a great coin! And on a CC half, no less. Neat piece.
To read the complete article, see:
ADMIT ONE: SPRAGUE & BLODGETT’S GEORGIA MINSTRELS
Wayne Homren, Editor
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