Farmers markets and roadside stands start popping up all over the
countryside this time of year, injecting agriculture into the
collective consciousness. Colonial Americans, from the inner city to
the furthest frontier, were pretty much in touch with harvests of the
country’s natural wealth.
This awareness of agriculture makes itself known on early American
coins and paper money, too.
In Connecticut, grape vines make an appearance on the reverse of
their 1785 to 1788 copper coins, replacing the Union Jack of Great
Britain on the shield beneath the seated figure. The grape vines
symbolized the fact that the initial settlers of Connecticut were
transplanted from Massachusetts, just as a vine cutting can be planted
and flourish. Such symbolism is probably lost on Connecticuters today.
In the 1730s, Dr. Samuel Higley used three hammers on his Higley
coppers, preferring to draw attention to the colony’s iron deposits
rather than its agricultural wealth. Higley, of course, controlled one
of the larger mines in the state.
Vermont Landscape coppers of 1785 and 1786 are perhaps the most
obvious agriculturally inspired early American coins, showing a plow
in a field surrounded by Vermont’s Green Mountains. On Vermont’s 1786
and 1787 Mailed Bust Right coppers, well struck examples will show
three wheat sheaves on the reverse shield.
New Jersey, even today called the Garden State, depicted a
horsehead and plow on its Confederation-era coppers, a clear reference
to the state’s agricultural prowess. The New Jersey coppers’ design is
based on the state shield of 1777, designed by Pierre Eugene du
Simitiere, one of America’s first notable coin collectors and the
subject of one of the best numismatic biographies of all time, The
Eagle That Is Forgotten, by Coin World columnist Joel Orosz.
Paper money shows everything from the “sacred cod” of
Massachusetts (on notes from 1776 and 1778, engraved by Paul Revere)
to a large bundle of wheat on the back of 1776 and 1777 Delaware
notes. Wheat also appears on Continental Currency, comparing the
threshing of wheat to the growing pains of a new nation, with a Latin
inscription translated as “it is enriched by affliction.” Cornucopias
are also appropriately plentiful on currency of the era.
Voltaire’s 1759 classic “Candide” ends with the suggestion to
“cultivate your garden,” an Enlightenment-era sentiment of
self-improvement. Modern collectors can cultivate a whole garden of
flora and fauna on coins and paper money, and may find their
collection improved in the process.
John Kraljevich Jr. is an independent professional numismatist and
researcher specializing in early American coinage.