Numismatics and Material History in Academia

Primarily two groups address the study of coinage: numismatists and scholars who examine material culture and its social and cultural significance. There is a record of numismatists writing on this subject since the nineteenth century both domestically and abroad, published in periodicals, newsletters, and annals discussing the imagery, history, and economic impact of coins. However, the hobby of collecting coins itself traces back to the European Renaissance when the wealthy elite possessed the disposable income to invest in money. Julius Caesar collected coinage from across his empire, earning numismatics the title of the "Hobby of Kings." Numismatists are unique in their study of coins. Numismatists' foci and personal interests range from admiration of the coins' history and cultural significance to the artwork, even as base as their potential as an investment. Historians' interest in numismatics, however, possesses much less personal relevance to the researcher. Instead, historians who have written about coins focus on money's place within the realm of material history. While historians also often write about the material culture, artwork, or economic implications of numismatics, the purpose of the study between these two groups differs. Historians care less about the intrinsic value of coins but instead seek to use them as mediums to explore a particular period, cultural practice, or evidence of economic change. Instead of the coins being the focus of the interested party's study, historians use currencies to a different end.

The history of patriotism and commerce within the United States is well-documented and well-examined by academic historians from almost every methodology. The exploration of the material history associated with these fields is narrower but still accessible by evaluating national landmarks, historic financial institutions, or state flags. Furthermore, numismatics, or the study or collection of coins, currency, medals, and tokens, combines all three disciplines. The nature of this analysis is unique as few people have written or engaged with this particular aspect of material history that is American coinage. Those that have are those within the narrow field of numismatics. The focus on African Americans as historically underrepresented populations narrowed the lens for contextualizing the mintage of relevant coinage and currency; however, primary source documents are the principal repository of information regarding the money itself. This analysis illuminates the history of African Americans on American money and why that even matters, and to whom. The existing sources pertaining directly to race in American numismatics stem from numismatic magazines and online "popular news" sources, lacking many examples of scholarly and peer-reviewed literature.

Numismatists concern themselves with three primary fields within the hobby: history, artistry, and investment. Despite being three very different perspectives, texts discussing these aspects of the hobby have often appeared together in publications specific to a particular coin club, a regional organization, or a national magazine. These organizations and publications dating back as early as the eighteenth century, often writing directly to the Mint and Congress regarding the design, mintage, and composition of coins and Mint-made medals. Though once possessing more sway with these authorities as the Mint was still establishing itself and those educated enough to have expertise on the topic were much fewer as in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, these groups now have similar influence due to the sheer volume of individuals in their ranks. Articles published in CoinWeek, The Numismatist, and the yearly publication of R.S. Yeoman's The Official Red Book: A Guide of United States Coins are the preeminent sources of what matters to coin collectors at any given period and how they feel about the coins in America's past and present.

The interests of those in the hobby are often determined by those deemed the experts in the field such as Walter Breen, R.S. Yeoman, and Q. David Bowers, much like how trendy clothing is determined by celebrities and designers themselves when what is truly interesting or fashionable is subjective. Walter Breen contributed immensely to the numismatic community with his literature in the numismatic journal Numismatist in the 1950s. He also wrote Proof Coins Struck by the United States Mint, 1817–1901, and Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins seminal resource on United States coins and their history today. His "Breen numbers" included within his encyclopedia are prolifically used to attribute varieties of coins and their respective die states. R.S. Yeoman is the author of much of Whitman Publishing's literature on a variety of U.S. coins and tokens. However, he is most notably responsible for the yearly price and information guide first published in 1946, The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins, and succeeded in this task by his assistant Kenneth Bressett upon his retirement in 1970. Yeoman famously created coin folders to collect and hold various coins one may recognize having ever collected the U.S.'s Statehood Quarters. Q. David Bowers is the former owner of Bowers and Stacks-Bowers Auctions, known for their billions in coin sales. However, he also is an author of over fifty books on U.S. coinage. His intimate involvement in numismatics earned him the title of "Numismatist of the Century" from COINage magazine. He served as president of both the Professional Numismatists Guild (1977–1979) and the American Numismatic Association (1983–1985). Bowers even wrote articles for various coin publications about the Susan B. Anthony Dollar and how it indicated a new era for women in numismatics.

Numismatists are an incredibly vocal group and are commonly known to write en masse directly to the state government, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and the Mint to praise or condemn particular coins. Numismatists often request specific designs and defend the pieces they care about in danger of significant alteration or removal, such as the cent, known colloquially as the penny, or the replacement of Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill. As such, numismatists hold a significant amount of sway over coinage globally. Numismatists have a record of affecting the design, subject matter, circulation, composition, and profitability of several pieces of American coinage. Despite accounting for a significantly smaller mintage than circulating coins, commemorative coins produced by the United States Mint account for almost the entirety of the department's profits. The only way for the Mint to profit from circulating coins is to assign them a value greater than production cost, often negligible, or to replace worn-out coins in circulation and reuse their metal content. The numerous commemorative coins produced by the Mint each year are sold significantly above their production costs, providing the government with seigniorage, or "money that will go into the government's general fund and are budgeted by Congress just like tax revenue, often used to pay off the ever-increasing national debt." As stated by Mitch Sanders of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), "When considering the economics of numismatics, you can be sure that the forces of supply and demand are ever-present, shaping the numismatic marketplace." As such, the Mint must make coins that people care about, whether by controlling the mintage and thus the scarcity of a particular mintage or by making the subject attractive to the interested public.

Numismatists also forced the change of the composition of some coins in the 1960s as collectors began hoarding pieces containing silver, such as the dime, quarter, and half dollar, causing the investment made by the Mint in the production of these coins not to return as they did not circulate. Numismatists even have caused the recall of coins during the middle of their initial month of release. For example, when numismatists felt the initials of the 1909 Lincoln Wheat Cent's engraver Victor D. Brenner were too prominent on the coin's reverse, the thousands of letters resulting from the public uproar forced the Mint to recall the dubbed "VDB cents" and alter the dies to remove the initials altogether. While it may seem as simple as ceasing the coin's production, changing numerous coin dies, identifying and recalling the controversial coins, and rereleasing the altered coins is an expensive and tedious task. While numismatists are few compared to the overall American public, they are the loudest voices which are often the ones that are heard and thus heeded.

Cultural historians study how coins were minted, circulated, and collected and what these coins meant to the people who used them. For example, Linda Colley and Kathleen Wilson studied early examples of coins as a mode of defining the "British identity," yet find much of their current use and imagery to be very exclusive to the part of the United Kingdom that does not belong to "little England." Material historians like Colley and Wilson expressed that coins are a better source of national identity than films or literature. One may otherwise study as these objects of "struck identity" are much more tangible and visible than their media counterparts. Despite this, coins often remain mundane so that the general public often ignores their significance. By reading numismatists' texts regarding the current state of coinage, material historians identified the stagnation of national identity correlating with America's lack of significant change in their coinage in the last century and exclusionary imagery of the aforementioned British coinage. The stagnation in United States coinage is partially related to an 1890 law stating changes in the design of regular-issue U.S. coins cannot be made more frequently than once every 25 years unless Congress enacts legislation mandating a specific change. Treasury officials previously claimed the counterfeiting of our coins and currency is made more difficult by rare design changes, claiming familiar designs condition the public to detect counterfeits more readily.

Material culture of the United States is an established field with a broad interest in diverse methodologies; however, coinage is often not the primary choice of domestic artifacts. Instead, other "American heirlooms" such as the Liberty Bell receive more attention. Despite this, parallels exist between these two types of objects. Their use is significant to the narrative of material culture. Robey Callahan claims these "cultural heirlooms" were initially created as a commodity but achieved relevance beyond their practical use. They did so through the significance they adopted relevant to the American public: symbols of freedom and patriotism synonymous with America itself. Both subjects also have relevance as examples of government-sponsored craftsmanship and artistry. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts later sponsored examples for the relevant population of artifacts of material culture. When coins do receive the attention of historians, it is often the means to study how they act as cultural artifacts. This attention grants insight into military power's representation through the numismatic imagery, the extent of influence an empire based on where clusters of that empire's coinage appeared, and how the images on the coins changed during times of governmental upheaval. Rome is a popular subject of interest that combines all three of those interests. The vast empire experienced many leadership changes and relied on the coins to portray the empire's ideals through the array of images featured on the pieces.

It is also essential to understand the process through which coins are conceived and approved. The image selected for each coin passes through a congressional proposal that includes the purpose and desired subject of the new coin, Mint design choices, initial artist renderings, repeated editing by the Mint, congressional committees, and stakeholders, and the final sculpture and mintage of the coins. The process is detailed and precise, with the aforementioned individuals and committees collaborating to create the final product. Despite the Mint operating for over two centuries, this process changed very little and only in the increasingly higher quality of the final strike and coin. Just as their process of conception and mintage remains similar, so do the patriotic and commercial overtones that define each coin.

While academic literature exists regarding African Americans' presence in specific coinage, the trend of women's disappearance and future within American coinage is barren. Today, African Americans matter to numismatics because they are essential to numismatic history, reclaiming this honor steadily since Booker T. Washington appeared on his commemorative half dollar in 1946. Therefore, a comprehensive history of African Americans on United States coinage is essential to a modern understanding of said coinage. In addition, an evaluation of why these coins evolved and often failed is needed to understand why attempts persist in reintroducing them in modern legislation.



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