Craig Sholley submitted these comments in reaction to the piece last week on the Fugio Cent.
On the So-called Franklin Cent?
I read the most interesting article on Benjamin Franklin designing the Fugio (or Franklin) cent in
the November 20th issue of The E-Sylum. In fact, I found it so captivating that I had to click on
the link and read the full article. What a charming tale. I have just one small issue with the
story – it's simply not true.
Aside from designing the thirteen interlocking rings motif which was copied from Continental
currency and modified for use on a coin, Franklin had no connection whatsoever to the Fugio
cent. He most certainly did not design it and he most certainly had nothing to do with
establishing the weight standard.
How did this myth spring up? The term
Franklin Cent dates to at least the mid-19 th century, and likely much earlier. It was in common use by 1859 as John K. Curtis’ fixed price list of that year offered
Franklin Cents for sale at 25 cents to $1.50. The term was also used in auction catalogs by W. Elliot Woodward, Edward Cogan, and others from 1860 on. Since dealers and auctioneers were using it, the term had obviously been in common use for some time.
How did the term originate? According to an 1860 report on the numismatic holdings of the
American Antiquarian Society, the term arose from a belief that the motto
Mind Your Business was penned by Franklin. No proof of Franklin creating the motto is offered, nor can I find any.
The attribution of Mind Your Business, Fugio, and the sun and sundial, to Benjamin Franklin
apparently came about from a bit of
guilt by association. As Eric Newman noted in his
Continental Currency those features had appeared on Continental Currency, along with a
design that Franklin did create – the thirteen interlocking rings with the words
We Are One. Since Franklin was known to have created the
rings design, it
seems that people simply assumed he was responsible for the rest, and the myth was thus
As to the weight of the Fugio cent, it was Congress that established the weight, passing a law
on August 8, 1786 that established the denominations of and weight standards for United States
coinage. For the cent, the act specifically states, "That the two copper coins shall be as follows:
one equal to the one hundredth part of a federal dollar, to be called A Cent; And one equal to the
two hundredth part of a federal dollar, to be called A Half Cent. That two pound and a quarter
avoirdupois weight of copper, shall constitute 100 cents. There is no mention of Franklin in the
legislation or associated records. In fact, he wasn't even in Congress at the time; he was the
governor of Pennsylvania.
So, how did we get from a coin being nicknamed because it copied a saying thought to have
been created by Benjamin Franklin to Franklin having not only designed the coin, but also
setting the weight standard? For that we have only to thank the greatest echo chamber rumor
mill ever created – the internet.
In 2013, the Fugio Cent Wikipedia page was edited by an anonymous user using the IP
126.96.36.199. Previously the page stated that the Fugio Cent was thought to have been
designed by Benjamin Franklin. The anonymous editor altered that to state that the cent was
designed by Franklin. Who knows why. Maybe he (or she) truly believed that. Maybe it was
part of a coin promotion. Maybe they did it just to troll.
Whatever the reason, internet rumor mongers quickly spread the word to the point that today
there are dozens upon dozens of posts, each repeating the other in standard internet fashion,
claiming that Franklin designed the coin. Of course, no supporting evidence is offered.
"Evidence" is a dirty word on the internet. It is only necessary to be on the most popular side of
whatever meme or trope is being spread.
the Fugio Cent? If one means,
who created the various mottos and
features, other than the reverse design, we really don't know. It seems most likely that the
principles involved, those being James Jarvis, Abel Buell, perhaps along with members of the
Congressional coinage sub-committee and/or Board of Treasury, chose to copy the devices
from Continental Currency since they were publicly familiar.
However, if we mean,
who laid out the design such that the dies could be hubbed and it
reproduced well in striking, we can positively state that Abel Buell
designed the Fugio Cent.
Of everyone involved, Buell knew what would work for engraving, hubbing, and striking from his
experience in creating the dies for the Connecticut halfpence. He understood the relief and
layout necessary to properly reproduce dies and to strike reasonably attractive coins. Thus, the
credit should go to him.
I'll close with my favorite Abraham Lincoln quote,
Don't believe everything you read on the
internet. Yeah, I read that on the internet.
Perfect - thank you! As a numismatic literature collector I've seen many of the older references to the "Franklin Cent," and was hoping someone would pick up on that.
Those of you who attended last week's NNP Symposium panel session "Your Club Publication: Creating and Sustaining Relevance" heard me note that our readers are a prime source of content, and if something is of interest to one reader, it's likely of interest to others as well. But that doesn't mean the reader or I have reviewed or vetted what the third party produced. While I have an extensive U.S. numismatic library at my fingertips, I wouldn't have the time to do that even for the topics that personally interest me. Luckily we're blessed with readers who are not only versed in, but are experts in multiple areas of numismatics. So not much gets past them. A subsequent issue often contains comments or even detailed responses like Craig's.
One must always consider the source. The "Ben Franklin's Fugio Cent" article came from the Foundation for Economic Education, which describes itself as a "newsletter for free-market news and analysis." The Fugio Cent was just a jumping-off point for the writer and most of the article (which I didn't excerpt) discussed Franklin's proposed thirteen virtues for personal development.
Of all the internet platforms (lookin' at you, Twitter and Facebook)
Wikipedia is among the best at editing and moderation. There are real editors and enforced standards for citing resources. But without editors versed in numismatics, the question can become one of the sources the authors choose to cite. I'm happy to see references to the Red Book, American Journal of Numismatics, the University of Notre Dame Coin and Currency Collections, and most importantly, this year's announcement of PCGS's reclassification of the Fugio Cent as a regular-issue U.S. coin. But other citations include hobby newspaper articles and blog articles from commercial dealer websites, all of which can be guilty of copying mistakes published elsewhere, a common practice which predated the internet by thousands of years. Notably, the "was designed by Benjamin Franklin" line is not sourced.
Here's a general question - how many times must one walk past a pile of rubbish before one becomes complicit in it being there? Just because you didn't put it there shouldn't stop you from cleaning it up. While Wikipedia could have ended up as just another passing internet fad, it's gained staying power and influence, as the major search engines boost its ranking and feature its content. Here's what we published in The E-Sylum way back in October 2005:
"Our Featured Web Site last week was a section of the
Wikipedia, an "open source" web-based encyclopedia
project. I noted that "It is a very useful site, as long as
one remembers that it is maintained by volunteers and
should not be relied upon as the final word on any
Arthur Shippee writes: "Yes, it's maintained by volunteers
--such as yourselves. Actually, you folks might want to
think about making the Wikipedia a great numismatic site,
by editing the existing articles & adding new ones. That's
the theory behind the Wiki open-source idea. It's a very
interesting notion, and depends on the general good will
of the mass of users."
And here's an exchange from 2017:
Ron Haller-Williams writes:
"... "If you see something that's wrong in Wikipedia, CORRECT IT !!!" If you have the knowledge, then Wikipedia depends upon YOU. Until I made a change, it even had my wife's grandfather living over 20 years longer than he actually did. And I've probably made over 80 other changes, many relating to numismatic aspects."
"See something, say something" is good advice. And if more numismatists would get involved, many improvements could be made. -Editor
Are any other readers Wikipedia editors today? Would anyone like to become one? Let us know and The E-Sylum can be a platform for finding and correcting major errors in numismatic topics.
I reached out to reader and contributor
Gary Greenbaum for comment. Here's his response.
"Thanks for drawing my attention to the Fugio cent article.
"As you're aware, I'm active on Wikipedia, especially in the numismatic area. I've never looked at this article and was interested to read Craig Sholley's piece.
"Craig's interesting and well-written piece traces the statement in the Wikipedia article that Franklin designed the coins to an anonymous editor in 2013 and he continues along that line, suggesting from that acorn an internet myth grew. So when I got your letter, I went to the online searchable The Numismatist and searched
"There's quite a lot, some of it more nuanced than others. Mitch Sanders in his November 2009 article (at page 43) that "Franklin's designs also were used for the first official U.S. coin, the 1787 Fugio cent (the same designs appeared on paper money in 1776). Similarly, John J. Kraljevich Jr. (Freedom of Expression, April 2008, pp. 73-76) states that the Fugio cent is based on Franklin's designs and colorfully adds, "When the Congress decided to issue a copper coin in 1787, the body agreed in short order to use Franklin's cartoonthis in an era when Congress moved even slower than it does today. Other articles paint Franklin's connections with varying degrees of certitude. Even Edward C. Rochette, for whom the ANA's Money Museum is named, stated (
Franklin was right: time flies, April 1994, pp. 543–544),
Now I understand why Benjamin Franklin wanted a sundial and the word "fugio" placed on the first coins issued by the authority of the United States government."
"I found most interesting the report in the January 1958 issue of a reward offered by E.J. Theisen for proof as to the authorship of the Fugio cent. The result: "The offer of $250.00 for information as to the author of the design on the Fugio cent and his own interpretation thereof, which closed Oct. 24, 1957 did not elicit documentary evidence of this nature. There were only six entries, evidencing a lack of interest and acceptance of the current belief as to the author and the interpretation of the design. All entries inclined to the author being Benjamin Franklin, and much research to this end was made by Mrs. Marianne F. Miller of Albuquerque, N. M. which, however, failed to meet the requirements of the offer. Theisen seemed inclined to believe that the designer was Francis Hopkinson, and hoped that future research would back that claim, but apparently that never came to pass. (
Reward fails to uncover author of Fugio cent, p. 22)
"I've changed the article (as Craig, or anyone else, could do) to say that
by some accounts Franklin designed it; that seems to be where it should rest. If the numismatic world, and the journal of the ANA cannot dismiss Franklin's authorship as a myth, don't expect Wikipedia to. Wikipedia is a tertiary source, meaning it relies on secondary sources such as journal articles for its information, and the ANA's journal, what we Wikipedians would call a
reliable source, can't decide on the level of Franklin's involvement. Personally, I have no idea if he was involved. But this isn't an instance where vandalism to Wikipedia started an internet myth."
"I probably should do some Wikipedia editing. The problem I have is I'd end up spending a majority of my time editing the problems I see in various numismatic and related pages instead of researching and writing articles.
"Hopefully, E-Sylum can energize some readers to become data reviewers and editors. If so, I'd be happy to email them a file of all of my past articles as reference material. Most of them are extensively footnoted with sources."
"I was aware of the numismatic references to Franklin supposedly designing all of the devices. However, I will point out that in reviewing the internet postings on the subject starting in 2013, I did not see any reference to any numismatic source.
"I did see a few posts referring to Wikipedia, the first one being in August 2013 on Now I Know (https://nowiknow.com/a-penny-earned/). Since that post is about 2 months after the Wikipedia edit, I concluded the edit was the original source. The rest of the posts I found simply echo-chambered each other.
"That is not surprising. I find that most general internet posts do not reference professional publications. Rather, they simply repeat something found somewhere else on-line."
I confirmed that the Wikipedia article has been changed. Thanks, all!
To read the Wikipedia entry, see:
To read the earlier E-Sylum articles, see:
THE WIKIPEDIA AND NUMISMATICS
THE MAKING OF A WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE
READER NOTES ON WIKIPEDIA
BEN FRANKLIN'S FUGIO CENT
NNP SYMPOSIUM 5 CONCLUDES
Wayne Homren, Editor
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