US Coins

Coin World entered a hobby on fast track

During her 23-year tenure as editor of Coin World, Margo Russell spent many occasions testifying before Congress on concerns of the numismatic hobby.

Coin World photo.

I continue my reminiscences of the late Margo Russell, who served as editor of Coin World for 23 years, beginning in 1961. I also share memories of my interfacing with the newspaper during that time.

The first issue appeared April 21, 1960, with veteran newspaperman D. Wayne (“Dick”) Johnson as editor. The subscription rate was $3 per year for 52 issues.

In the meantime, in the late 1950s into early 1960, coin investment was as hot as a firecracker. The main focus was bank-wrapped rolls of coins from cents to half dollars. Each month many “wanted to buy” advertisements appeared in Numismatic News, The Numismatist, and The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine. These rolls of coins were easy to buy and sell, and no numismatic knowledge was required. The rise in the roll market carried other series along with it, but with less fanfare. Proof sets, which had suffered a market crash in 1956, gained new strength.

Commemorative coins, usually available in Uncirculated grades, were likewise attractive to investors. To a lesser extent other American series from half cents to double eagles, from Colonials to patterns, participated as well.

In May 1960, just as Coin World was getting started, the unexpected happened. At both the Philadelphia and Denver Mints the Lincoln cents made early in the year were with a “Small Date.” Not tiny, to be sure, but noticeably smaller than the “Large Date” that soon replaced it. Collectors and in particular investors scrambled to lay their hands on the Small Date coins. It developed that Denver Mint cents of this variety were quite common, but Philadelphia Mint coins were relatively scarce.

Before long, a $50 face value bag of Philadelphia Mint Small Date cents was valued at $5,000, then $10,000, and then the news broke that a barber who was lucky enough to get a $50 bag at a bank sold it for $12,000. Time magazine published a story, and others picked up the news. Excitement prevailed nationwide, and all of a sudden everyone wanted to learn more about coins. Subscriptions to Coin World came in faster than they could be counted, and before long, tens of thousands of people were reading it each week, then at one later point, over 100,000!

What happened next is revealed by two accounts, each differing slightly. After a more than a year in the editor’s chair, Dick Johnson contemplated the great success of Coin World and asked the publisher, J. Oliver Amos, for an appointment, this per Amos’ telling me at the time. This was arranged, and Dick arrived with his lawyer, who led the conversation, stating that Dick deserved a raise or otherwise he would leave. “I accept your resignation,” J. Oliver said as he extended an arm to shake Dick’s hand. That was that. Dick left.

Dick Johnson had a different take. He said that when he joined Coin World its outlook was uncertain, and he was promised a share of the profits if it succeeded, which of course it did. When this did not materialize, a meeting was called, which resulted in his leaving. He went on to become prominent in the field of medals, especially with the Medallic Art Co. Today, we are frequent correspondents.

Not long afterward J. Oliver asked me if I would consider being editor of Coin World. I replied that I was highly honored, but I enjoyed my rare coin dealership so much that I was going to remain in that trade.

As an interim he selected Margo Russell, a seasoned reporter for the Sidney Daily News, to take over until an editor could be found.

None was found.

Margo went on to become one of the most prominent people in numismatics, was given about every award in the book, and stayed in the post until she retired 23 years later, after which Beth Deisher was given the position. I am getting ahead of the Margo story here. More about her next week.

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