The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 23, Number 19, May 10, 2020, Article 24


In the April 2020 issue of Penny-Wise, the official publication of the Early American Coppers club (EAC), Bill Eckberg published an article titled "The Coins Tell Their Story Best". With permission, here's an excerpt. -Editor

How do we do research into old coins? In general, we look at the artifacts left behind by history – in this case by the mints – with a critical eye as a way to understand what went on: the who, what, where, when and how of the coins we love and collect. There are many sources of information that can be useful in this research. They are broadly considered primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are closest to the origin and so are considered the most reliable sources of information

Secondary sources
Most of the information we get about coins comes from secondary sources. These include books (e.g., The Red Book, Sheldon, Wright, Newcomb, Cohen, Breen, etc.), articles in journals and magazines and on the internet. These are useful, but they always reflect the biases – even if unintentional – of the writers, so we need to take them with a grain of salt. It is also often difficult to figure out where the ideas presented as fact originated, especially as many, if not most, numismatic researchers of the past did not cite their sources and often just repeated older (mis)information. Secondary sources with copious references are far more reliable, because at least we can figure out where to turn for corroboration and correction, but at best all secondary sources remain subject to inadvertent copying errors and the like.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, official government reports, such as the annual reports of directors of the Mint, are also secondary sources. They are summaries of what happened. But mints are both factories and government bureaucracies, and official reports are frequently written in such a way as to promote the point of view that the writer wants to present. The information in such reports is not necessarily wrong, just not necessarily the whole truth; it is often possible to shade a technical truth to give a very false impression. It’s what we, today, call “spin doctoring.” An interesting example of this would be Robert Scot’s letter to Congress describing the creation of cent dies. One might think it a primary source, since Scot was the man who made the dies, but his description of how he claimed to do it does not square with the evidence from the coins themselves, as we shall see.

Secondary sources can still be quite useful, but it is very important to keep a healthy skepticism about everything we read in such sources.

Primary sources
There are several general types of primary sources. The first would be physical artifacts from the mint, especially coins.

US Mint Steam coinage press As an example of a second kind of mint artifact, the first steam-operated coinage press that the U.S. Mint owned still exists and can be seen at the American Numismatic Association’s Edward C. Rochette Money Museum. We can examine it and, with some engineering knowhow, deconstruct how it worked. The Mint saved its galvanos and some master dies beginning around 1860, so we have physical evidence of how the coins were made after that time. However, we have almost no surviving presses, dies, hubs or master dies from the early days of the U.S. Mint, when our early coppers were produced, so that’s not an option for us.

A third kind of primary source would include internal documents recording the movement of materials within the mint. It was essential that the Treasurer, Assayer/Refiner and Chief Coiner keep careful records of the movement of gold, silver and copper between them. Each was responsible to account for all of the metal that he received, and he had strict rules about what he was allowed to do with it and how and when to do it. That is why each officer with a responsibility for coinage metals had to post a bond equal to several years’ salary before he could handle gold or silver.

The coins are the most reliable primary sources. They can’t lie or shade the truth about themselves; they can only stand as mute relics of their time. If we study them, we can learn much about what they were made of, how they were made, etc. One way to do this is to compare different coins’ many physical characteristics. That can sometimes identify if the planchets were from a common source or not. Another is to compare the products of different dies. Recent digital imaging technologies have made this a far easier and more precise way to study coins. For example, digital overlays showed how Henry Voigt used templates to lay out the reverses of the Chain cents.

1793 cent overlay 1793 cent overlay2

Coins can tell us more than any other source about how they were made. Though previous authors had supposed that each Wreath and 1793 half cent obverse working die was individually hand-engraved, in fact, all were produced from hubs. The illustrated overlay of the Sheldon-10 and -11 varieties, coined at least ten weeks apart, shows conclusively that the dies were created from the same hub, and that the hub contained the entire face, neck, bust and main masses of hair. The hair received additional engraving in each working die. Figure 8 shows the hair of the two coins with the common features removed, leaving only the individual hairs that are unique to each die. Similar overlays showed that not only were the two 1793 half cent obverses produced from the same hub, but that same hub had actually been created in 1792 for the obverse of the disme pattern!

I'm proud of my numismatic library. Some 3,000 volumes, all close at hand, holding scads of great information on U.S. coins, medals, tokens and paper money. But as Bill points out, these are all mostly secondary sources. That's why my favorite parts of most books are the bibliography, footnotes and endnotes. Where is the author getting their information from? If they're not using primary resources and good old fashioned detective work, they may not be adding much value.

Remember our profile a couple weeks ago of author and publisher Paul Withers? "Being a numismatic publisher is like being a detective who applies the ABC principle. What's that? Assume Nothing. Believe Nothing. Challenge and check everything. Do that well and the book stands a reasonable chance of being good..."

The best numismatic authors are detectives, starting and ending with facts, using careful observation, brainpower and even experimentation in search of the truth (not unlike the team that investigated the Morris 1792 Silver Center Cent - see the article elsewhere in this issue). -Editor

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:

For more information on Early American Coppers, see:

Wayne Homren, Editor

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