The most common numismatic book (21 million copies sold!) is also
the most collectible one: A Guide Book of United States Coins
by R.S. Yeoman, also trademarked as The Official Red Book.
Interestingly, though, “Yeoman” was not the author’s real name, and
when this yearly series started, “Red Book” wasn’t part of its title.
First published in 1946, with a cover date of 1947, the volume’s
formal title was A Guide Book of United States Coins. In
1963, after its scarlet covers had caused collectors to universally
call it the “Red Book,” Whitman Publishing incorporated “The Red Book
of United States Coins” into the formal name at the top of the title
page. By 1979, the title page-topper was “The Official Red Book of
United States Coins,” and by 1999 that phrase was emblazoned in gold
on the front cover.
The man who first compiled the premier retail price guide for
American coins, born Richard S. Yeo, was Whitman’s resident marketing
expert. It was Yeo who popularized Whitman’s line of coin boards and
who coordinated the company’s first foray into numismatic publishing,
A Handbook of United States Coins (the wholesale price
guide fondly known as the “Blue Book”).
When he compiled the first Blue Book (1941, cover date of 1942),
Yeo adopted the pen name of “Yeoman,” probably from a desire to
preserve his privacy. R.S. Yeoman, however, proved much more adept at
editing price guides than at blending into the background.
The coin hobby expanded rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s, and
the sales of both Red and Blue books kept pace, as did the fame of
their editor. By 1965, the 19th edition of the Guide Book sold a
staggering 1.2 million copies, a record unmatched since, and the quiet
Mr. Yeoman had become “Mr. Red Book,” the coin hobby equivalent of a
He was so successful because he always recruited the best brains
in numismatics to be contributors and editors, thus improving every
edition over its predecessor. In 1956, a bright young collector named
Ken Bressett had the moxie to present Yeoman with a list of errors he
had found in the latest edition; an impressed Yeoman promptly engaged
him as a freelancer for the next one. When Yeoman was ready, in 1969,
to hand over the editorial reins, Bressett took them, and holds them
to this day.
Ken Bressett’s stewardship has been so successful that he is
widely known as “Mr. Red Book,” just as his mentor was 40 years ago.
It was on Yeoman’s watch that Red Books first became collectible, and
during Bressett’s tenure, collectors’ passions have turned obsessive.
During the late 1960s, pioneering numismatic booksellers like
Frank Katen and George Frederick Kolbe began to regularly offer older
editions of the Guide Book in their auctions and price lists.
By the start of the next decade, collectors were trying to piece
together complete sets, in uniform condition, with unfaded red covers
and gilt (the gold cover lettering) still brilliant. The keys to such
a set are the first five editions, spanning the years 1947 to 1953
(two of the five editions covered two-year periods). The king of them
all is the first edition — or, more accurately, the first editions —
of 1947. Next month, we will tour the market for Red Books, and
discover some surprising information — including the thriving market
in Red Book error collecting!
JOEL J. OROSZ is a charter member of the Numismatic Bibliomania
Society and co-author of The Secret History of the First U.S.
Mint. He can be reached at Joeljorosz@gmail.com