The best way to learn about early American coins is to study the coins themselves.
The second best way is to read the books, articles, catalog descriptions and assorted ink spills of all the people who took the time to study the coins before you.
The third best way, a distant third in my Luddite and bibliophilic opinion, is the Internet.
In the last several years, several excellent Web resources have sprung up that are of great assistance to enthusiasts of early American numismatics.
Using them without a library of real books is, to my mind, a bit like doing shots of sausage gravy: tasty, perhaps, but lacking the real meat.
The best of these sites is maintained by Louis Jordan of the University of Notre Dame.
Titled “The Coins and Currency of Early America” and available at www.coins.nd.edu/, the Notre Dame site is one-stop shopping for good, accurate history of a wide variety of early American coin and currency issues.
With nearly all of the original sources quoted by Sylvester S. Crosby in his still-important 1875 Early Coins of America further annotated by an experienced modern numismatic historian, if “The Coins and Currency of Early America” was a published book it would belong on everyone’s bookshelf.
The Web site should be first on your list of Colonial coin bookmarks online.
Another august institution that focuses its bandwidth on Colonial numismatics is the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Authored and designed by their curator Erik Goldstein, Colonial Williamsburg’s Web display at www.history.org/history/museums/coinExhibit/ combines superb images of the world-class coins donated by the late benefactor Joe Lasser with Goldstein’s accurate interpretation of the place of coins and currency in early American history.
While not as fact-rich as the Notre Dame site, the Williamsburg site offers excellent context and far better photography.
Getting the facts
Another frequent stop as I do quick research online is Professional Coin Grading Services Coinfacts.com site.
Edited by Colonial coin expert Ron Guth, the site has been in the process of an update (and is now restricted to paid subscribers for some content) for a year or two.
The old site, which remains online, contained more information than the spiffy new one, including images of Colonial coin die varieties, rarity ratings and more.
The new site includes better photography and more up-to-date market information, but still hasn’t caught up to the old site in its quantity of raw useful facts.
I’m hopeful that the old content will be entirely converted in time.
Good and bad
The rest of the Internet is full of information, some good, some bad.
Google Books includes many out-of-print references, including early auction catalogs and still-useful book titles.
Auction house archives include a wealth of information mixed with inevitable commercial considerations and occasional incorrect information, but they should not be overlooked.
Academic sites, such as the University of Virginia’s Leslie Brock Center for the Study of Colonial Currency (http://etext.virginia.edu/users/brock/) are geared more to historians than coin collectors, but what coin collector couldn’t benefit from a little more historical knowledge?
And don’t forget your favorite numismatic literature dealer’s site. Books still rule as treasuries of information.
John Kraljevich Jr. is an independent professional numismatist and researcher specializing in early American coinage.