New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Collecting

Pocket Change

If you want to find a mirror of a society’s ideal—the image of what it hopes and imagines itself to be—public sculpture is as good a place as any to start, and none is more common or readily available than the public sculpture we carry around with us on the coins in our pockets.

This year will bring some changes to the world’s most common public sculpture, the Lincoln penny. The occasion is the Lincoln bicentennial, and the Mint is happy. Collectors and speculators were glad to pay $8.95 for the two-roll sets of the new coins (worth $1.00) that went on sale on February 12, 2009 and sold out within a month. And so far few have complained about the new reverse design, which represents the Kentucky log cabin at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site. (Of course, that cabin is itself a representation of someone’s idea of the original structure.)

Three more designs, one to be issued every three months throughout the year, will represent respectively Lincoln’s education, his pre-Presidential careers as lawyer and politician, and his Presidency. In 2010 and beyond, the Mint will issue yet another reverse, “emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country.” So there will be five new designs, each issued by the mints at Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco (each mint’s coins has a special mint mark, P, D, and S, respectively), creating fifteen new coins for the delectation of collectors within less than thirteen months.

The original Lincoln cent, designed by Victor David Brenner, reflected the genius of the sculptor and of President Theodore Roosevelt, himself an aesthete, who forced change on the Mint bureaucracy of his day because he found the coinage of the United States unworthy of a great republic. It still is. For the most part, the heroes on our coinage and paper money depict the men considered great half a century ago.

Surely John F. Kennedy’s reputation has undergone re-evaluation since he replaced Benjamin Franklin on the half-dollar in a moment of national grief. Walt Whitman, George Gershwin, George S. Kaufman, Jonas Salk, Earl Warren, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Sojourner Truth—from the arts and sciences alone the list of possible alternatives to the present set of political icons on our coins and currency (which date from the New Deal or before) is almost limitless.

All this brings to mind something I thought about while emptying my pockets the other day.

At some time in the last century, I was taken to a Broadway revival of the musical comedy “1776.” In one scene, an actor named Paul Michael Valley, who played Thomas Jefferson, briefly stood in profile, silhouetted against an open door. Some suburban housewife in the next row murmured to her neighbor, “He looks just like the guy on the nickel.” Indeed, he did, which may explain his casting.

Anyway, while putting my pocket change on the dresser, I noticed one of those odd nickels struck by the Mint to commemorate the bicentennials of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The obverse looked like the Man in the Moon. Of course, the head was still old Tom’s, but the image had changed.

The Purchase itself was commemorated in 2004 by adapting the design of Jefferson’s Indian Peace Medal for the reverse of the five cent piece. The Indian Peace Medals, a British tradition continued after Independence, were large, attractive silver medals awarded by the United States to Indian chiefs or other important men on such occasions as major conferences or the signing of treaties. Intriguingly, this custom reflected the European tradition of exchanging decorations at historic moments of concord, which the United States has otherwise never adopted.

In place of the King appeared the current President, and on the reverse, in Jefferson’s case, appeared two clasped hands, the one to the right with a metal wristband such as frequently worn by Indian chiefs, and the one to the left with an army officer’s braided cuff, all beneath a crossed hatchet and inverted peace pipe. The medal also bore the words, “Peace and Friendship.”

Many of Jefferson’s medals were given to Indians during Lewis and Clark’s expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast between 1804 and 1806. They are mentioned in the Expedition’s Journal as among the articles taken for presentation to the Indians. On August 1, 1804, the Journal records the gift of a “First Grade” medal and flag to a “Grand Chief,” medals of the Second Grade to lesser chiefs; and of the Third Grade to inferior chiefs. Certificates to accompany the medals were also issued, such as one surviving in a California collection which refers to “the special confidence reposed by us in the sincere and unalterable attachment of War Charpa the Sticker, a Warrior of the Soues Nation, to the United States…”

Later in 2004, the Mint issued yet another kind of nickel with a reverse featuring one of the Expedition’s flatboats, driven by both sail and poles, like a Mediterranean war galley.

In the spring of 2005, the year of the coin I found in change, the Mint had doubly changed the coin. The obverse had Jefferson’s profile, oddly presented as to leave the coin resembling the Man in the Moon, with the word “Liberty” in Jefferson’s handwriting. The reverse adapted one of the Mint’s most popular designs, James Earl Fraser’s Buffalo nickel of 1913-1938, for the next coin in the series. Over 1.2 billion Buffalo nickels were struck during that quarter-century. They have now vanished from circulation. But as late as the 1960s, one still found Buffalo nickels in change, with the stern profile of an austere Indian warrior on the obverse and the massive buffalo on the reverse.

Fraser’s visual economy in its design is profoundly moving: without a touch of sentimentality, few accessible works of art so powerfully visualize the nobility of tragedy. And his commanding, virile bison dominates the design of its coin.

But as is often the case in the Mint’s modern adaptations of older designs from a heroic past, the modern buffalo, despite its unequivocal masculinity, lacks confidence. It seems neutered, almost cringing, standing, somehow off-balance, on a small, sloping patch of prairie, fenced in by the words “United States of America.”

In the fall and winter of 2005, the coin was changed yet again: the Man in the Moon obverse was coupled with a new reverse, a view of the Pacific Ocean with a quote from Captain Clark: “Ocean in view! O! the joy!” The minor irritant here is that Clark, whose writings betray a libertarian, if not Shakespearean, attitude toward standardized spelling, had written “Ocian.” While the Oxford English Dictionary includes “ocian” among its citations, the Mint corrected Clark’s usage. According to CNN, when questioned about this, a Mint spokeswoman answered, “We didn’t want to confuse anyone into thinking we couldn’t spell.” Again, a lack of confidence, this time in the reality of Clark’s spelling.

The following year showed the most unusual change in the design. Even as Monticello returned to the reverse, the obverse had Jefferson gazing at the viewer in one of American coinage’s first full-face designs. This is unusual for a technical reason. Coins first show signs of wear on the highest point of the design. The traditional profile tends to wear gracefully. But a full face design tends to wear out nose first.

The most notorious example of this was Copper Nose coinage of England’s King Henry VIII. By the 1540s, Henry was running out of money due to his personal and public extravagance. He both raised taxes and debased the coinage, transforming the nominally silver shilling to a copper coin which was dipped into a silver nitrate solution. Electrolysis left a thin wash of silver on the coins.

Instead of a conventional profile, the new coins bore the King’s facing image, executed with surprising candor, bearded and repellently bloated. Even a little wear on the coin’s highest relief – which with a facing portrait is the nose – revealed its copper core. As the coating wore off the most prominent feature – Henry’s nose – it became reddish brown. Hence, the king acquired the nickname “Old Coppernose.”

Such a sobriquet is unlikely to be attached to Jefferson, who is, after all, nearly two centuries dead. His coin is silver-colored metal all through. But the full face design is off-putting and unattractive, and one hopes the Mint will return to the customary usage in its future coinage.

May 19, 2009   No Comments

Nassau Street

“Nassau Street—where stamp collecting began.” (Old advertising slogan of the Subway Stamp Co., formerly of 111 Nassau Street in lower Manhattan)

Nassau Street was named some time before 1696 in honor of William of Nassau, the Dutch prince who became King William III of England in a 1689 coup d’etat. Now largely a pedestrian mall, it winds south from its intersection with Park Row at Printing House Square to Wall Street. Much of it is lined with late-Victorian office buildings, their imposing masonry and cast-iron facades rising almost unnoticed above the frenetic retailing on their ground floors.

For roughly a century, from the 1860s through the 1970s, Nassau Street was the mecca of American philately—postage stamp collecting. Some called the neighborhood the Stamp District. Entire buildings, like the Morton Building at 116 Nassau, were filled with stamp dealers. Sanders Zuckerman, who has been selling stamps in the area for fifty-nine years—the Daily News proclaimed him “a legend in the stamp business”—says collectors came from all over the world to buy and sell stamps.

Stamp collecting was a new fad in the 1860s. The first postage stamp, Great Britain’s one-penny black, had been issued only in 1840; the first known American stamp collector, William H. Faber of Charleston, South Carolina, began collecting in 1855. New York’s first stamp dealers appeared in the early 1860s. They did business along the fences of New York’s City Hall Park, where stamps were pinned up on boards for the delectation of passersby.

Open-air merchants—whether street pharmacists dealing in controlled substances or vendors selling souvenirs from a cart—are marginal people, engaged in what the Marxists call the early stages of capital accumulation. The man who made stamp dealing a business and Nassau Street the center of American philately was John Walter Scott (1845-1919). Scott had dabbled in stamp dealing in his teens while working as a merchant’s clerk in London. He emigrated to New York in the summer of 1863. At first, this did not seem to be a good idea. There were no jobs: the draft riots in early July had devastated much of the city. Scott’s job search was so unsuccessful that he even considered enlisting in the Union army.

One day, according to Edwin P. Hoyt’s One Penny Black, Scott struck up a conversation with an outdoor stamp dealer in City Hall Park. The dealer advanced him about a hundred dollars’ worth of stamps, which Scott agreed to sell as his agent. He was amazingly successful: he was soon earning $30 a month, roughly the wages of a skilled workman, and quite enough for a single man to live on. Scott then wrote to his sister, who began buying and sending stamps to him from England, and he went into business for himself.

In 1868, he opened an office on Nassau Street. He had been issuing one-page monthly price lists since June 1867. In September 1868, Scott issued a paperbound booklet, A Descriptive Catalogue of American and Foreign Postage Stamps, Issued from 1840 to Date. With the knack for self-important publicity that marked or marred him throughout his career, Scott trumpeted the pamphlet as the “16th edition” of his catalog. This was because he was counting each of his one-page lists as a separate earlier edition.

In the same year, he published a stamp album, a book with blank pages on which collectors might affix their stamps. He also started the American Journal of Philately. He was not the first American philatelic journalist: S. Allan “Just-as-Good Taylor had first published his Stamp Collector’s Record from Montreal in December 1864. (A brilliant counterfeiter, he openly insisted his stamps were “just as good” as the real things.) Scott finessed this fact, as he did most facts that inconvenienced him: his official biography says that he published the first “important” American stamp journal.

Truth presented no barrier to the vaulting imagination of J.W. Scott. He claimed sales of 15,000 albums. There were then probably not 15,000 stamp collectors in the world. His competitors claimed Scott had reduced lying to a science. No one cared.

Like most entrepreneurs, Scott was extraordinarily self-interested. A true child of the Gilded Age, he would turn a blind eye to others’ dishonesty if he could turn an outwardly licit dollar from it. Thus, he often dealt with “stamp finders,” men and women whose nose for rare stamps was often aided by a knack for larceny. Scott never asked where the stamps came from. One of his pet finders, known only as “Mr. McGinnity,” had “entered” the Philadelphia Customs House and raided its records for old stamps; another stamp finder raided the New York Institution for the Blind. He carried off numerous stamps clipped from its old correspondence, promising to return to pay for them. (The Institution is still waiting for the money.)

Scott also lobbied the United States government into cheating collectors by reprinting its old and valuable postage stamps. He even produced what were politely called “representations” of rare stamps, such as the so-called Postmaster stamps issued by individual American post offices before 1847, when the government began issuing its own. Such shenanigans put Scott, in some ways, on a par with “Just-as-Good” Taylor.

Taylor’s boast that his counterfeits were better than the originals was often true. (One scholar characterized Taylor’s forgeries as “fine engravings, totally different from the crude typographic printing” of the real stamps.) By the early 1870s, Taylor was part of the “Boston Gang” of crooked dealers and journalists, specializing in inventing South American issues. Years before El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and Paraguay had released their first stamps, for example, the Boston Gang was printing and selling bogus stamps from these countries, backed by supposedly official documents, which were themselves forgeries. Taylor published equally fictitious articles about these stamps in his magazine, which helped create a market for his product. Only an age that combined slow communications with exploding collector demand for exotic stamps made this possible, and, at the end, only a federal counterfeiting rap brought him down.

Other hustlers were equally artistic, like Sam Singer, the repairman. Torn or mutilated stamps have no value to collectors. According to Hoyt, Singer could take a half-dozen mangled stamps and from them manufacture a composite that fooled most collectors and dealers. Like Taylor, he was proud of his work: he became so good that he sometimes bought stamps that he himself had repaired, not realizing until later that they had been damaged and mended. When the millionaire collector Colonel Edward H.R. Green found himself with one of Sam’s specials, he purchased a magnifier that could enlarge a stamp’s image from one inch to four feet square. It cost him $22,000; the movers had to remove the doorframe to bring it into the Colonel’s townhouse on West 90th Street.

In this century, Nassau Street’s most flamboyant dealer was actually an honest man. Herman “Pat” Herst Jr. (he was born on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1909, which led his friends to nickname him Pat) graduated from Reed College and the University of Oregon in 1932. He then came east by jumping a slow freight and riding the rods. He landed a twelve-dollar-a-week job as a runner for Lebenthal & Co., the municipal bond brokers, that took him into the Stamp District, where he met several Lebenthal clients who collected stamps when not clipping coupons. They rekindled his childhood interest in philately: he began buying and selling stamps as a vest-pocket dealer. By 1936, Lebenthal was paying him $28 a week; his stamp dealings earned twice that, and he left Wall Street for Nassau. His business became so heavy that he welcomed an elevator operators’ strike: it let him catch up on his paperwork.

He published a newsletter, Herst’s Outbursts, from 1940 until 1968. It charmingly combined self-promotion, anecdotes about stamps, and a passion for trivia. (A friend once asked, “Pat, what’s the population of Cincinnati?” Herst replied, “Yesterday or today?”) He also published columns and articles in the philatelic press. Eventually, he recycled his journalism into a series of popular books. Nassau Street, his memoir of stamp dealing in the 1930s and 1940s, has sold more than 100,000 copies in seven editions since 1960.

Herst was among the first dealers to abandon the bustle of Nassau Street. In 1945, he moved his family and his business to Shrub Oak, N.Y., then a hamlet with a population of 674. As he received more than 100,000 pieces of mail a year, the local post office was immediately reclassified from third to second class. However, at that time even a second-class post office did not make household deliveries. From his love of trivia, Herst knew that an 1862 law permitted private posts under just these circumstances. With the help of his children and their German shepherd, Herst’s private post delivered mail door to door for two cents a letter. Naturally, he issued his own stamps, including one depicting the dog. Most went to collectors.

Today, though now headquartered in Ohio, Scott’s still publishes its annual catalog of stamps of the world. From J.W. Scott’s one-page “first edition” it has grown to six massive paper-bound volumes. Scott’s also publishes numerous stamp albums, including the renowned Scott’s International. Volume 1, which is somewhat thicker than the Manhattan Yellow Pages, houses nearly every stamp issued by every nation in the world between 1840 and 1940. Volume 2 only reached 1949. Subsequent albums now appear roughly every year to accommodate the gushing flow of stamps from every nation in the world, most meant for sale to collectors rather than for postal use.

Nassau Street is no longer the mecca of American philately. Even Sanders Zuckerman characterizes himself as the last of the dinosaurs. Gentrification, soaring taxes, rising commercial rents, and increasing competition from mail-order dealers operating from low-tax, low-rent states forced most dealers to move or close during the late 1970s. Today, the Verizon Yellow Pages lists only three dealers in the Nassau Street area under “Stamps for Collectors.”

Zuckerman, who operates Harvey Dolin & Company from 111 Fulton Street, usually wearing a necktie with a pattern of postage stamps, also sells coins, baseball cards, and World’s Fair and World War II memorabilia to get by. He says young people don’t collect stamps. When recently asked why he was still in business, the old man shrugged. “I like the place and I like the people,” he said. “I’m not going to retire till they close the lid on me.”

New York Press, November 5, 2002

February 13, 2009   Comments Off on Nassau Street

Stamp Acts

Acurrent off-off-Broadway production, Miami Beach Monsters, revolves around the notion that several classic movie monsters, now retired to Florida, are rediscovered thanks to a new issue of commemorative postage stamps. (Dracula, apparently, complaining he never consented to the use of his image). This charming notion is already old-hat: the United States Postal Service has honored Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolfman, not to mention Daffy Duck, Buggs Bunny, Sylvester, and Tweety Bird. Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner will join them later this year.

Stamps 2000, a poster at the General Post Office on 34th Street, illustrates the commemorative stamps the Postal Service intends to issue during the coming year. There will be at least 113 of them. Indeed, the United States now issues so many varieties of postage stamps with such enthusiasm that one might forget they are merely adhesive receipts for prepaid postage on items of mail.

The English “commemorative” is derived from the Latin commemorare: to recall or put on record. Its postal use is now sufficiently common that the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (second edition, unabridged) includes it among its definitions: postage stamps “issued to commemorate a historical event, to honor the memory of a personage, etc.” They are themselves memorials or reminders, making honorable mention of something worth remembering.

Consider that: they remind us of the things that should be remembered, that deserve to be.

Why does the United States issue so many commemorative stamps? It is not that we have so many great men and women or so many more notable events. It is for money. There are millions of stamp collectors willing to pay for nearly every bit of postal paper that drops from a government press.

A century ago, the United States rarely issued commemoratives. A non-collector may probably find a good collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century U.S. stamps quite boring. Throughout the Gilded Age, the post office used a series of classical designs, all nearly as forgettable and monotonous as the interchangeable presidents of the time (each looking like one of the Smith Brothers, Trade and Mark), picturing the nation’s great dead men. In 1869, the post office released its first pictorial issues: stamps that bore images other than those of dead politicians. Each denomination illustrated something different—a ship, an eagle or a steam locomotive, for example. Some were even printed in two colors. They were quite controversial: James Gordon Bennett the elder wrote in the New York Herald that he feared the government might be “changing stamps as often as every six months, not giving the people a chance to get used to one variety before it was withdrawn and the people’s eyes startled by another.”

But as a rule from 1840, when Britain issued the first postage stamp, until, say, 1894, most countries viewed stamps as utilitarian: more or less elegant as the nations’ tastes required (if memory serves, Luigi Barzini argued in “Italy and Its Aristocracy” that an evidence of the decline of the nobility in Italian public life was reflected in the architecture of its buildings, the courtesies, even in the typography of official documents and the design of its postage stamps).

In 1894, Their Excellencies Tonnini and Marcucci, co-Regents of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino (a tiny independent country on the Northern Italian peninsula), professional politicians pressured by a rising national debt, yet averse to increasing taxes, envisioned that the pocketbooks of the world’s millions of stamp collectors, rather than of the few thousand Sammarinese, might be opened to swell the coffers of San Marino. They released a special issue of finely engraved stamps bearing portraits of the co-Regents with views of the interior and exterior of the National Palace.

Several months later, stamp sales alone had retired the national debt and financed a sewage system. San Marino has since issued many, many, many different kinds of stamps: internal postage, external postage, airmail, semipostal, postal tax, postage due, airmail postage due, postal tax due, and thousands of commemoratives: all beautifully produced stamps showing national and international heroes, ships, locomotives, military uniforms, dinosaurs, aircraft, castles, temples, and so forth. All are valid for postage, of course, and all are intended not to carry mail but to land in stamp albums around the world. The sale of postage stamps is perhaps the country’s leading industry, having edged out wine and marble some time ago, and one understands heroic equestrian statues of Tonnini and Marcucci have been raised in the city of San Marino itself. Forty years ago, the little country was issuing fifty-six different stamps a year. Now, it releases new issues several times a week, and apparently there is no end to the demand. San Marino, all thirty-eight square miles of it, has issued more stamps than nations a thousand times its size, and without shame.

The United States Post Office first established a philatelic agency in 1921 (“philately” is the English term for stamp collecting, from the Greek philos, “fond of,” and ateleia, “exemption from tax”; together, the words mean nothing, though they may suggest that a sender’s prepayment of postage exempts a receiver from paying it). In 1932, the United States elected a philatelist to the presidency. One of FDR’s enduring achievements was increasing the number of commemorative postage stamps issued by the United States and his successors have followed his example.

As I get older, the stamps commemorate people and events I remember myself. Sometimes, the result is surprisingly good. The ongoing “Black Heritage” series hit its high note last year by honoring Malcolm X: a splendidly designed stamp showing him alert, active, and thoughtful. Greatness is a remarkable thing; thus we can honor without irony a man once known as “Detroit Red” and “the Harlem Asp,” “a hustler, a pimp, a dope addict, a gambler, a numbers pusher and a thief”—as the political historian George Thayer noted—because he transformed himself into a dynamic, vitriolic preacher and teacher, and then into a practical, heroic visionary. I think of Ignatius Loyola, who aspired to a life of unending sensation: wenching, drinking, and fighting, until he turned to God from sheer boredom; and Malcolm X somehow comes to mind.

As I believe this would be a better country if he had lived, so I used dozens of these stamps on my mail. They are handsome, and I wanted to honor not only what was, but also what might have been. Apparently, I am not the only one who felt this way. The stamp honoring Malcolm X is one of the few recent commemorative stamps to sell out long before its planned withdrawal from sale.

This year’s honoree in the “Black Heritage” series, Patricia Roberts Harris, is something of a contrast. She is pictured with a nice smile, a nice hairdo, and a nice, puffy yuppie woman’s bowtie. The Honorable Harris was a Jimmy Carter Cabinet official and college professor—an upper-middle-class political hack, one of that elite whose finest flower was the late Ron Brown, high class legal hustler and Cabinet officer immortalized by Al Sharpton as “Ron Beige.” Harris was even ambassador to Luxembourg, the foreign service’s most blatantly political appointment. Without white folks’ patronage, she was nothing: her 1982 campaign for mayor of Washington, D.C., against the egregious crack-smoking adulterer Marion Barry—he stomped her into the ground— illustrated the hoary truth that universal suffrage eliminated the elite and their tools from elective public office.

Besides, the revolution meant justice for all, not the gravy train for some.

Another set of stamps, “Stampin’ the Future,” used four designs submitted by children from eight to twelve years old. The set’s title, with its dropped final consonant, is as condescending as its designs are crudely repellent.

And even where the design is classic, the publicity is bland. The Florida statesman Claude Pepper is being honored this year in the “Great Americans” series. The poster describes him as a “champion of elderly rights.” Thus, one might never know he was a tough, wily, radical politician and a magnificent orator, whether on ceremonial occasions or on the stump, tie askew, fists waving, and the crowd surging to its feet. V.O. Key wrote of him, “In Senator Pepper’s races the division has been most concretely drawn. There is never much doubt about where Claude stands.”

Because he was a great whirlwind campaigner who brought New Deal projects and military bases to his state, he was elected twice to the U.S. Senate, only to lose in 1950 to a McCarthyite opponent who called him “Red Pepper.” More than a decade later, Pepper went to the House of Representatives at an age when most men retire, and held his seat until his death in 1989.

I chatted with him, briefly, when he held a hearing with the City Council President in City Hall’s old Board of Estimate room in the mid-80s: he was nearly as old as the century himself. His eloquence and genuine though elaborately Southern courtesy nearly concealed an extraordinarily alert, subtle intelligence, a genius for cross-examination, and a gentle admiration for the splendid charms of our vivacious staff intern. He was among the last men in Congress to have served there during the New Deal. Long after he must have realized that social justice would not be realized in his lifetime and perhaps never, he still remembered what it was to be poor and to have no hope. He stood for so much more than “elderly rights”—yet another intrinsically meaningless phrase that, in context, merely signifies taking tax money from the working poor, skimming off salaries for public and not-for-profit sector administrators, and passing the rest to the impoverished elderly.

Worst of all is “Celebrating the Century,” a series of ten sets of fifteen stamps, one set for each decade. Perhaps the concept itself is flawed. Certainly, the means of selecting the stamps for the last few decades have been. Postal customers have chosen the topics by voting: yet another weakness of universal suffrage. As Albert Jay Nock observed, as against a Jesus, the historic choice of the common man goes regularly to some Barabbas.

Thus, for example, the stamps commemorating the 70s honor Big Bird, disco fever, the smiley face and Secretariat winning the Triple Crown. (No one thought of Nixon in China.) The set for the 80s, which was released on January 13, 2000, is worse. Cabbage Patch Kids; cable television; video games; The Cosby Show, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. There is a stamp, too, for Cats. The American musical theater of our time is represented thus: music composed by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber with verse by T.S. Eliot, a St. Louis-born Harvard man and anti-Semitic elitist who renounced American citizenship to become a British subject.

Are these the things that should be—deserve to be—remembered? I think not. Such choices are the fruit of our society’s truly remarkable ignorance of our own history—even that of our own times. Cicero observed that those who have no knowledge of what has gone before them must forever remain children, and the infantile nature of the selections disturbs me.

As does the evasive quality of what we are commemorating. Last year the stamp “Honoring Those Who Served” purported to pay tribute to “the many millions of courageous men and women in public service and the military who have served or presently serve our country.” This vague, ambiguous purpose is a politician’s dream. What is courage in these diverse contexts? Thus we reach for a lower common denominator. Everyone goes into the pool: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Douglas MacArthur, and the creep behind the counter at the Parking Violations Bureau.

For some reason, I think of my father’s eldest brother, a paratrooper who vanished in the fighting for the Remagen Bridge more than ten years before I was born. For my family his remains are the War Department telegram and a few fading photographs. His body was never found. We don’t even know if he was brave. My father has no memory of him. Perhaps the stamp honors my uncle, too. But the wider we cast the net and more thoroughly we work out the logic of the language defining the stamp’s subject—the person, institution, or event we honor—the less meaning it has. The stamp might honor even me for two decades’ public service, working for the City of New York.

But when everyone without distinction is honored, no one is distinguished. That’s not much of an honor at all.

New York Press, February 2, 2000

February 10, 2009   Comments Off on Stamp Acts

Small Change

The Lincoln cent was first struck in 1909. Its obverse portrait of the sixteenth president, designed by Victor David Brenner and bulldozed through the Mint bureaucracy by President Theodore Roosevelt, is the nation’s oldest circulating coin design. With over a billion pennies minted annually, this portrait is the world’s most frequently reproduced work of public art. One can find it in any gutter.1909svdb_cent_obv

Nearly 225 years after the first Independence Day, we still call the cent, our smallest copper coin, after a British coin, the penny, which dates back over two thousand years.  In the  third century B.C., the Romans first coined the denarius, their standard silver coin, which was about the size of our dime. It was probably the coin handed to Jesus of Nazareth when he was asked whether paying taxes to Caesar was lawful; thirty of them were the blood money paid Judas Iscariot.

The emperors gradually debased the denarius, alloying its silver with ever-larger proportions of copper until no silver remained. After the Legions withdrew from Britain in the fifth century A.D., British kings struck crude imitations of the denarius, which invading Angles and Saxons called “penning” or “pfennig.”  Hence, penny.

The North American British colonies used English money—pounds, shillings and pence—yet they lacked small change. Some places used wampum, Native American money made from beads. Connecticut made corn legal tender at two shillings a bushel and New York at five shillings a bushel. Congress made nails legal tender by size, which is why some are still called three-penny nails. The most common coins were Spanish milled dollars, the famous “pieces of eight” (so called because their value in Spanish money was eight reales). The Americans, logically, valued a reale at 12½ cents (the old jingle, “Shave and a haircut, two bits,” refers to a 25¢ visit to the tonsorial parlor).

The federal government was too broke to strike its own coins; small change was a chaos of state and foreign coins, and merchants’ advertising tokens. The Continental Congress and the colonies had financed the Revolution with oceans of heavily discounted paper money. A horse worth 80 Spanish dollars cost $2,500 in paper money. Nor were the colonies’ monies at par with one another: one New Hampshire shilling was worth nearly five-and-a-half South Carolina shillings.

gouverneur-morrisIn 1782, Gouverneur Morris wrote a report describing the “perplexing…and troublesome” exchange rates among state currencies. He suggested a federal mint and a national coinage that would reconcile the different state currencies with an extremely complicated system involving a common denominator of 1,440 units.

Perhaps only two men in the United States understood what Morris had in mind. The other man, Thomas Jefferson, had a better idea. In July 1784, he published an article in The Providence Gazette and Country Journal stating the obvious: Morris’s scheme would prove enormously cumbersome in day-to-day business. Jefferson proposed a decimal system: “The most easy ratio of multiplication and division is that by ten. Everyone knows the facility of Decimal Arithmetic.” He suggested using the dollar, divided into dimes (even today the coin worth one-tenth of a dollar is denominated “one dime,” not “ten cents”), and copper coins worth one one-hundredth of a dollar, which became the cent. Finally, in April 1792, Congress established the U.S. Mint, which struck the first copper one-cent pieces in 1793. From the beginning, the public called them pennies.Penny Auction

tn_1857_flyingeaglecentThe first cents were larger than today’s quarters. They were unpopular and expensive to produce. From 1850, the Mint experimented with possible replacements. In 1857 the Mint struck the first small cents, bearing a flying eagle. Two years later, Liberty appeared on the penny, wearing an Indian war bonnet. The model was no Indian:1859_indiancent1 the designer, James Longacre, apparently popped an Indian headdress on his pretty daughter Sara. But charming Sara was merely a model for an allegory. Placing an historical person on a coin was seen as monarchical and inappropriate for a republic. This suited the Mint bureaucracy, who seemed more concerned about whether their coins would stack for easy counting than their physical beauty.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Charles Barber had been chief engraver of the Mint for nearly a generation. Barber was competent without the slightest spark of creativity. His masterpieces were the so-called Barber dime, quarter and half dollar, first minted in 1892. The three designs were virtually identical, distinguished only by size and denomination. However, they were easy to mint and stacked well.

In 1905 Theodore Roosevelt dined with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose sculpture the President admired. Behind the Rough Rider wielding the Big Stick was a naturalist, man of letters, and aesthete, who took as strong an interest in public art as any president since Jefferson. The conversation drifted to the beauty of ancient Greek coins, which Saint-Gaudens described as almost the only ones of real artistic merit. The President, asking why the United States could not have coins as beautiful, challenged the artist: if Saint-Gaudens would design them, Roosevelt would mint them.

double_eagle_1907_ultra_hr_obv_trompeterThe sculptor and the statesman collaborated to make coins beautiful. Their triumph is Saint-Gaudens’ “Standing Liberty” twenty-dollar gold piece, first struck in 1907. On the obverse, a voluptuous Liberty holds aloft in her right hand the torch of Enlightenment and in her left the olive double_eagle_1907_ultra_hr_rev_trompeterbranch of peace.  On the reverse, an eagle soars above a sun rising in glory. Saint-Gaudens died before he could design a new cent. Roosevelt had another artist for the job.

Victor David Brenner (1871-1924) was born in Lithuania on June 12, 1871. His father, an artisan, taught him engraving and jewelry-making in his shop (Father also carved gravestones). He also saw that Victor was instructed in history, languages, and the Talmud. In 1890, Brenner arrived in New York, and worked as a die cutter while attending Cooper Union, the Art Students League, and the National Academy of Design. Five years later, he began executing art medals for the American Numismatic Society. In 1898, he began three years’ work and study in Paris, where he won a bronze medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

brennerIn 1908, Brenner was commissioned to create a bronze plaque for the centennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1909. Around the same time, the Panama Canal Commission also retained him to design a medal. Its obverse would bear President Roosevelt’s profile. T.R. posed at Brenner’s studio. The President openly admired the plaster patterns for the Lincoln plaque and later suggested to his secretary of the treasury that Brenner’s portrait of Lincoln should appear on a coin. Consequently, Brenner was the only person invited to participate in formulating the new design, much to the chagrin of Charles Barber.

Brenner’s constraints were set by law. A one-cent piece was 19 millimeters in diameter and weighed 3.11 grams. It would be struck on bronze planchets, blank discs of copper alloyed with tin. The design had to include a date and mintmark; the words “Liberty,” “In God We Trust,” “E Pluribus Unum” and “The United States of America”; as well as the denomination, “One Cent.” The design also had to prove simultaneously easy to strike, long-wearing in circulation, and appealing to the eye.

The coin’s obverse replicates the centennial plaque’s bust. However, Brenner’s challenge in designing a penny was the relief, the relationship of the coin’s features to its field, the flat surface of the coin. When a coin executed in bas-relief (with the features extending above the field) is circulated, the design’s high points show the most wear. Brenner executed the cent in lower relief than the plaque, sacrificing depth and detail to meet coin production requirements and extend its circulating life.1909svdb_cent_rev

Brenner’s design for the reverse was brilliantly successful. The words are rendered in a slender Gothic font inspired by the Vienna Secession, and two stylized ears of durum wheat enwreath the denomination. Though the obverse is traditional, the reverse is late art nouveau, perhaps with a strong flavor of art deco. At the bottom, Brenner placed his initials, V.D.B.

He created three-dimensional plaster models, twelve inches in diameter, of the coin’s obverse and reverse, with the relief in proportion to the finished coin’s. Once approved, the model was thinly plated with copper and placed on a pantographic reduction lathe. This machine’s tracing tool transferred the details in miniature into a soft steel blank, the master hub, which was then heat-treated, or annealed, to harden it and then used to make the master dies from which the working dies are made.

The planchets were mechanically fed into the coin presses, which struck each planchet with three dies in a cold-strike process. A feeder placed the planchet on the lower or anvil die; a ram then forced the upper die against the planchet. The pressure compressed the metal, which flowed outward against the collar, which in turn forced it back into the cavities of the upper and lower dies. This took a fraction of a second.

The Lincoln cent was first issued on August 2, 1909. Crowds swarmed the Sub-treasury in Wall Street to purchase them. Three days later, however, coin production was halted due to a media-created controversy over Brenner’s initials on the reverse. Barber gleefully ground the initials entirely off the master dies. In 1918, after Barber’s death, Brenner’s initials were quietly placed on the lower edge of the truncation of Lincoln’s bust.

Brenner’s reputation soared. He executed hundreds of tablets, commemorative medallions and prize medals. His work is in the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musee d’Orsay, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Smithsonian. He is considered the most capable designer, engraver, and cutter of medals in his time. He arrived in New York a tradesman; his industry and determination transformed talent into genius.1959-penny

However, none can foresee the enduring power of mediocrity. In 1959, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Lincoln, the Mint replaced Brenner’s simple reverse with a bland rendition of the Lincoln Memorial. The design was created in-house; no outside submissions were considered. Some compare it to a bus or a trolley car.

After 230 years, the penny, now struck on lightweight copper-plated zinc planchets, lives on borrowed time. Its major constituency, the zinc industry, helps keep it alive through its support of a lobby, Americans for Common Cents. Their strongest argument against its abolition is that all prices would then rise to the next five-cent increment. No politician wants that responsibility.

The penny is now only the small change required by state sales taxes. Once it was part of the blood-money of God.

New York Press, May 15, 2001

February 5, 2009   1 Comment