The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 24, Number 11, March 14, 2021, Article 15


Dave Hirt writes:

"In the August 1937 Numismatist, page 717, John F Jones has a short article, with a picture titled Columbia Farthings. I had never heard of these items! Jones quotes Lyman Low, (who knew a bit about tokens), as saying, "From whence they came and whither going, no man knoweth"). They seem to have been struck in the early 1820's, and seem to be of British workmanship. Perhaps they circulated during the "Hard times period"..

"Low sold examples in his Cutting sale in 1898, as did David Proskey in his R. C. Davis sale in 1890. I am sure that some of our amazing readers know about these items also!"

Great question. I was unfamiliar with these as well. Here's an excerpt with a portion of the article image. -Editor

The late Lyman H. Low, in one of his earlier catalogues, listing these pieces, said: "From whence they came, and whither going, no man knoweth, " and most American writers on coins since then have accepted this statement as a fact.

In 1898 Mr. Low, in the Colonel Cutting catalogue, attributed fifteen of these pieces with bust to right, and two with bust to the left, seventeen pieces believed to be all different, " as belonging to the United States of Colombia, South America.

Before this in 1890, in the R. Coulton Davis catalogue, listed under the United States early colonial section—"Miscellaneous Pieces Used in America"—David Proskey, then one of our most learned numismatists, offered in No. 2457, "ten Columbia farthings, all from different dies, " without making any further comment, and in No. 2458 stated, "Similar (Columbia) obv. , reverse, crown between branches of oak, rose, thistle, and shamrocks;

Columbia Farthings

It seems strange that Nelson, Atkins, Hazlitt and other English writers on the native copper coins do not mention these pieces, which in design and execution plainly show evidence of British fabrication during the 1820- 1830 period, and which must have been struck in large quantities and then shipped to America.

They are an interesting series, fairly well-coined, with enough variation in the dies to make them attractive to the new collector, besides being an inexpensive lot.

Probably seventeen different dies, with the additional rare muled coronation reverse, will cover all known varieties, but the question still remains: Are they to be classed like many other Irish tokens among our early U. S. colonials, or more properly attributed to the longing for justice and freedom (like unto "Columbia" ) among our Irish brethren across the sea, who perhaps flooded our land with these little tokens to awaken aid and sympathy for their cause?

A search on the Newman Numismatic Portal turned up this 2002 article from the Numismatics International Bulletin, Vol. 37, No. 5. -Editor

Jørgen Sømod, Frederiksberg, Denmark

Columbia Farthings is a name used by numismatists for some copper coins or tokens, which on the obverse shows a left or right-wing portrait of a man. If the portrait is right-wing it also will have above or below the legend COLUMBIA. The reverse shows a standing or sitting allegorical woman holding scales and a sword. An obverse-die with COLUMBIA above is known muled with the reverse-die to a jeton in occasion of the coronation of George IV 19th July 1821. The socalled Columbia Farthings look immediate like official English farthings from George IV and William IV and because of the known mule, dated 1821 it is stated, that they are struck in Birmingham. As far as known, they are cataloged first time in Josef Neumann, Bescreibung der bekanntesten Kupfermiinzen, Band 3, Prag 1863, where they are traced to the Southamerican country Columbia. Same tracing is found for the pieces, which were in the Jules Fonrobert collection, sold in Berlin 1878. Later times numismatists agree that they are not from the Southamerican country, because they never are found there.

It was suggested they were sent into circulation in areas in present Canada or U.S.A., but nobody could make any proof of it. Because of that Columbia Farthings have for a long time been one of the big mysteries in numismatics. The question about them were brought on the internet mailinglist It was then shown, that Columbia Farthings were unknown to most American collectors and dealers and that they on the common American coinmarket are scarce. As an answer to the questions on Mr. John M. Kleeberg, ANS told: The American Numismatic Society has 28 Columbia farthings in its collection. Those with a provenance come from three sources: 1931.58 (one example) from the Canfield collection; Canfield was a US collector of the 1890s-1920s, who specialized in Connecticut coppers, but also collected many other series; 1940.88, (several examples), from the purchase of the collection of John F. Jones, a US collector of the 1890s-1920s, who sought to assemble an example of copper coins from every country in the world; 1975.117 (several examples), donation by Henry Gruenthal, probably the remnants of the Harry Prescott Clark Beach, Jr. collection, a collector of New Jersey coppers and other coins who was active in the 1920s- 1940s.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Columbia farthings were collected in the belief that they were part of the US "colonial series." You should find them if you look through old Woodward, Frossard, or Steigerwalt catalogues. But that does not mean that they ever circulated here, because the dealers of the time often bought bulk lots in European auctions (we know that many US dealers were active buyers at the LeGras sale in Paris and at the Fonrobert sale in Berlin) or imported privately acquired bulk lots just to have material to sell to collectors. Columbia farthings are apparently absent from the most important Canadian hoard of coppers (12,000 coins, of which McLachlan went through 5,000): the Bank of Montreal hoard deposited in 1837 - see R. W. McLachlan, "A Hoard of Canadian Coppers" in: The Canadian Antiquarian and Numismatic Journal (July 1889) pp. 27-34. Columbia farthings also appear to be absent from the Aaron White accumulation (nearly 100,000 copper coins) of coppers of the 1860s, which was assembled in Connecticut: Walter Breen, "Survey of American Coin Hoards," The Numismatist, October 1952, pp. 1007-1010.

Further Mr. Andrew in United Kingdom could tell: Yes, the Columbia ‘Farthings’ are found in dealers’ miscellaneous boxes. I have four different varieties but know of another collector who has about nine. He also has a total of some 700+ of them so he has quite a lot of duplicates! They are quite common but I think interest in them is limited. If, however, we knew where and when they were used then it would be a different matter. Rather than noting where dealers have them it would be more interesting to find where metal detector users have dug them up. I believe they were used as currency of some sort, somewhere in the world. There are too many of them around and they often show signs of circulation for this not to be the case.

It can now be concluded, that Columbia Farthings alone were manufactured in Britain and sent into circulation in England. The former dating, round 1830, is undoubtedly correct. The question is now: Why were they made? As an answer should be mentioned, that for years it was in Britain a tradition, that the major part of minor currency was private tokens of which many were without a name or issuer, why these token issuers just by issuing made their profit. An Act of Parliament declared them illegal in 1817, except for tokens of the Birmingham Workhouse and Sheffield Overseers of the Poor which were current until 1820 and 1823 respectively. The token issuers got then their business destroyed. By using the word COLUMBIA, it may be assumed the issuers tried to let people believe that their illegal tokens instead were money from an area in North- or Southamerica. Because many areas had the name Columbia, it would be difficult or rather impossible to discover the swindle.

Dave Hirt adds:

"Thanks for the information. The Columbia pieces are a real numismatic mystery! That both you and I were unfamiliar with them is remarkable.

"The article in the Numismatics International Bulletin raises as many questions as answers to me. The article states that Columbia pieces may be found 19th century auction catalogs, Woodward, Frossard, etc, But I do not remember seeing them there.

"WHERE DID THEY CIRCULATE?? That McLachlan found none in a 12,000 pc Canadian hoard seems to rule out Canada. The same for the USA with none found in the Aaron White hoard of 100,000 pcs. Perhaps if an English collector had 700 of them, they were NOT exported. BUT, WHY don't English writers on copper coins and tokens mention them???"

All great questions. Can our readers provide any insight on this? Thanks. -Editor

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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