For more than a decade, I’ve had the privilege of teaching a class on
early American numismatics with my friend Erik Goldstein at the annual
American Numismatic Association Summer Seminar.
It started simply enough, covering Colonial coins, along with some
world coins and a few relevant medals. At some point along the line we
added coverage of Colonial paper money, then more on medals, until we
were completely overwhelmed.
Faced with a finite amount of time to cover nearly endless material,
we split the class in two, covering all the stuff included in the “Red
Book” (A Guide Book of United States Coins by R.S. Yeoman) in
one class, then the following year covering all the stuff beyond the
This year, we decided we could spend a whole week talking about just
other material made of metal. We called the course “Colonial
Americana: Medals, Metals, and More,” and filled out a lengthy
syllabus with everything from love tokens to calendar medals, from
Indian trade silver to the Comitia Americana medal series.
The material almost overwhelmed us once more.
Starting with the nature of trade in post-contact America, our class
examined items that were once confined to the catch-all category “odd
and curious money.” Beads ranged from the sorts traded by the first
Spaniards, to show up in the modern United States just decades after
Columbus, to the Russian beads that Lewis and Clark encountered at the
From trade axes to finely made silver brooches, we allowed
archaeology and original documents to help us define the original
“money” of the American frontier.
Once we got to items that were actually round, we really hit our
stride, covering all the ways a coin could be altered to change its
usage during its useful life: cutting, plugging, engraving, and more.
We even studied holes.
From there, it was just a short jump to medals, struck and cast.
Military medals worn during and after the Colonial-era wars, fraternal
badges depicted in 18th century paintings, and medals pressed into
service to award to Native Americans all got their due.
It took us two full days before we even got to Betts medals. The
Betts series, as cataloged by C. Wyllys Betts in American Colonial
History Illustrated by Contemporary Medals, was examined
frontwards and backwards, in pictures and in hand. The class saw early
Washington medals, Indian Peace medals, medals they knew and medals
they’d never dreamed of.
We never even got to calendar medals. Alas, it’ll be a few years.
Next year’s seminar will discuss nothing but paper. I can’t wait!