The Theatre at New York token has long been popular in American
circles. This is due in no small part to its listing in A Guide Book
of United States Coins. It has always been one of my favorites, and
one of these days I’ll have to buy one. This is easier said than done
as fewer than 20 are known.
The cornerstone of the theater was laid on May 5, 1795, on Chatham
Row, New York City. At first called the New Theatre, the facility
officially opened on Monday, Jan. 29, 1798. Featured was William
Shakespeare’s As You Like It, preceded by an address by Mr. Hodgkinson
and a prelude by Mr. Milne, and followed by Purse, or American Tar, a
musical entertainment. Up to about 2,300 people could be seated.
In 1806, the building was sold to John Jacob Astor and John K.
Beekman for $50,000. They were the owners on May 25, 1820, when it
burned to the ground.
The copper tokens measuring 34 millimeters were issued in England
about 1798 as cabinet pieces for collectors. Benjamin Jacob cut the
dies, and they were struck in the factory of Peter Skidmore in London.
The obverse view of the theater was copied from Longworth’s American
Almanack, New-York Register and City Directory, 1797, in a sketch by
In March 1872, The American Historical Record published a detailed
article, “The First Theatre in America,” illustrated with the sketch
shown here. This attracted the attention of a reader, J.N.I., of
Bridgeport, Conn., who sent a letter published in that journal’s June
issue, which stated in part about the sketch:
“That it was the original design for the theatre I have no doubt,
but a vast amount of evidence forces me to the conclusion that the
actual building was never finished in accordance with it. ... I have
been familiar with many persons, now deceased, who were contemporary
with its erection, and I never knew one to say that its front was
other than rough and entirely unembellished. A gentleman told me that
he could remember the Park Theatre from the year 1800, and that it
always presented a most unsightly appearance, and that a row of beams
protruded from the front walls above the doorways, and beneath the
first range of windows, to which it was intended to connect a portico
or colonnade over the sidewalk, but being prohibited by the city
authorities, the beams remained bare projections for many years. ...
Numerous other parties resident in New York at the time of its
destruction all assert that the building was then entirely destitute
of architectural ornament.”
Q. David Bowers is chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries
and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC. He can be reached
at his private email, email@example.com,
or at Q. David Bowers LLC, Box 1804, Wolfeboro, NH 03894.