First Read: U.S. Liberty Head $20 Double Eagles: The Gilded Age of Coinage

First Read, a CoinWeek continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature…. 

Essay by Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek……

 

U.S. Liberty Head $20 Double Eagles: The Gilded Age of Coinage by Q. David Bowers with Robert Galiette

USLibertyHead2 First Read: U.S. Liberty Head $20 Double Eagles: The Gilded Age of CoinageIt’s easy to take Q. David Bowers for granted.

The Hobby’s elder statesman (were he a Senator, he’d be called a “lion”) shows no signs of stopping. Bowers, who turns 76 in October, devotes much of his time these days to writing. His ongoing turn as Whitman’s numismatic editor has been Yeomanesque in terms of its transformative qualities.

His prodigious output has set a benchmark by which all present and future writers in the field will be measured. Others have carved out their own niches, but few can match Bowers gift as a numismatic storyteller.

In his latest work, Bowers collaborates with financial historian and series specialist Robert Galiette to take on America’s highest denomination circulating coin, the gold double eagle.

The book, U.S. Liberty Head $20 Double Eagles: The Gilded Age of Coinage, examines the 60 year period of the coin’s production, focusing on the social, industrial, and financial aspects of the American experience.

While it follows the year-by-year structure we’ve come to expect from books like this, it eschews the “by the numbers” approach (you know the drill; mintage numbers, flawed certified grade population reports, and somebody’s best guess at coin values–usually with no explanation of methodology) that can lose sight of what makes Numismatics interesting in the first place.

It’s a refreshing approach, and one that we think could gain some traction if only other writers would see the benefit of Bowers’ formula and frame their narratives by remembering that coins serve as a tool of commerce, struck for the benefit of the people that use them.

No doubt Galiette was aware that the two writers were treading down a road less travelled with this approach. “I had wanted to write about financial history and economics”, Galiette told us during a March telephone interview, “and Chris [Karstedt] and Dave would remind me it was a book about $20 Liberties.”

Ultimately, Galiette’s instincts were on the money, so to speak.

Readers who want to get a feel for the period will find the various topics and tangents interesting.

We found fascinating the stories of hooliganism in California at the height of the gold rush and historical documents that recount the tremendous difficulty the Mint endured to supply the branch in San Francisco with acids for assay purposes. Not to mention Bowers’ and Galiette’s knowledgeable insights into America’s 19th century silver euphoria, which drastically changed the course of American monetary policy and ultimately led to an epic political battle between the Silverites and the gold bugs in the latter part of the 19th century. A fight that, some might say, still echoes in modern day monetary policy.

Galiette provides a bevy of images and notes about financial instruments typically absent from books about coins. Prominently displayed–and equally compelling–are rare stock certificates for the first American petroleum company, banknotes, shell cards, and bonds. Distilled over the course of 361 pages is the sense that the $20 double eagle meant something, and that America’s rise in global stature was made possible in some measure by its newfound financial strength brought about the discovery of California and Alaska gold.

Of course, there are points in the book where Bowers reveals his nerdy side.

eldorado First Read: U.S. Liberty Head $20 Double Eagles: The Gilded Age of CoinageIn one passage, Bowers excerpts a long 19th century passage about the famed El Dorado gambling den, where in 1850 its halls were filled with “men in black clothes, immaculate linen, and shining silk hats.” Where there were “merchants, lawyers, and doctors; miners in woolen shirts, greasy Sandwich Islanders, Chileans and Mexicans; Irish laborers, Negroes, and Chinamen, some crowded round the tables intently watching the games, others lounging about, smoking, chewing, spitting, drinking, swearing, now and then dropping a dollar,or five, or ten, or twenty, or fifty-dollar piece, with real or well-feigned indifference as to the result.” (32)

A contemporary reader might squirm a little due to the racialist language (greasy Sandwich Islanders? Negroes? Chinamen?). For Bowers, however, the passage offers amusement by way of a glaring numismatic error: “$50 coins did not appear until 1851…. [and] the only $20 coins available in San Francisco in 1850 were federal double eagles, but most of those were used to pay customs duties and did not circulate in the marketplace.”

Only a seasoned numismatist would catch that mistake!

Another amusing anecdote concerns a clever “financial” trick. Banks would stave off runs by having employees take stacks of gold coins and wait in line to make a deposit, only to take the deposit out the back door and go through the process again until the panic was relieved. Nowadays, the banks and the Federal Reserve just print money to balance the ledger, but it’s amusing to read about the ways we used to get the wool pulled over our eyes.

These kinds of stories within stories drive the narrative of the book. Each anecdote is bite-sized, with just enough information to be credible but not so much as to be boring. What’s presented here isn’t a complete history but rather an easy-to-pick-up look at the period with a heavy emphasis on money, the Mint, and the people who played a role in the money’s creation.

Cynics will likely note that it’s the marketing of Galiette’s so-called “Gilded Age Collection” of $20 Libs that serves as the pretext for the publication of this volume, especially since it was released under the Stack’s Bowers Galleries imprint, and not Whitman, Bowers’ more mainstream venue. There’s certainly precedent for this in Bowers’ back catalog, and those works have proven to be long lasting. Bowers’ work on Garrett in particular is a stone cold classic.

1852o2 First Read: U.S. Liberty Head $20 Double Eagles: The Gilded Age of CoinageAnd while it’s true that Stack’s is in possession of and will carry out the sale of this historically significant set of classic American coins, Galiette and Bowers exercise tremendous restraint in their discussions of any particular coin, relegating most of their coverage of the set to beautiful full-page color images sans text and marketing hype.

Still, this approach might rub some readers the wrong way. We admit, we were confused at first and a little disappointed with the volume when we realized that the authors had no interest in putting forth a definitive treatment of this largely misunderstood and wholly taken for granted coin series (what Longacre’s double eagle lacks in beauty it more than makes up for in brutal difficulty of finding truly nice examples). Which brings us back to the title of the book, U.S. Liberty Head $20 Double Eagles: The Gilded Age of Coinage.

This book isn’t just about $20 Double Eagles. Its scope is broader, contextualizing not just specie money but also the relationship Americans of the 19th century had with the many different financial instruments that were at their disposal.

Perhaps a better title for the book would have been The Gilded Age of Coinage: An American History Told from the Perspective of the $20 Double Eagle and Those Who Used It To Build an American Empire.

(If that’s too political, I also considered “…and Those Who Spent It.”)

What makes numismatic study interesting is how endlessly diverting it becomes when you consider that a single well-worn coin tells the story of dozens of years, millions of people, and an untold number of discrete transactions. That same coin also tells the story of an artist, a government, the machinists who set the dies and ran the presses, and ultimately the motives of the society that produced it and how they viewed themselves.

The study of money is the study of civilization, and our use of money makes us participants in its story. It’s because of the sheer scope of the field of the numismatic inquiry that no one book will ever successfully articulate all of it, which is why the idea of a definitive volume on any particular aspect of coin study should be rejected on its face.

You wrote the definitive book on American coinage? And it’s 2000 pages long?

Well, good for you.

We’ll take efforts like this one from Bowers and Galiette, thank you very much. Work like this shows the way forward by focusing on the little stories and trying to provide context. They trust the reader to understand that these are just jumping off points in a much larger story.

***

U.S. Liberty Head $20 Double Eagles: The Gilded Age of Coinage
by Q. David Bowers with Robert Galiette
361 pp. Stack’s Bowers Galleries. $35 (through May 1).

To place an order, please contact Stack’s Bowers directly, or call Jen Meers.

 

***

charlesmorgan First Read: U.S. Liberty Head $20 Double Eagles: The Gilded Age of CoinageCharles Morgan is a member of the American Numismatic Association, the American Numismatic Society, the Numismatic Literary Guild, Central States Numismatic Society, and the Richmond Coin Club. Hubert Walker is a member of the American Numismatic Association and the Numismatic Literary Guild. Together, they have written numerous articles for publication online and in print, including two 2013 NLG award-winning articles for CoinWeek.com.

Want to know what we’re up to? Follow Charles on Twitter.

 

© April 2014 COINWeek.com, LLC.

 

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