US Coins

Garrett Collection book choice for desert island read

Perfect numismatic book for a desert island: Q. David Bowers’ masterwork, The History of United States Coinage as Illustrated by the Garrett Collection.

Image courtesy of Joel Orosz.

Not long ago, when music mostly came in the round — vinyl LPs or plastic CDs — there was a popular party game called “Desert Island Disc.” Everyone chose a single album they couldn’t live without if stranded on a deserted island, and defended their choice. This month, let’s play “Desert Island Numismatic Book,” and choose a single volume we’d cherish if washed up on Gilligan’s Isle.

That’s a tough call for any numismatist. Crosby’s Early Coins of America; Julian’s Medals of the U.S. Mint; Newman and Bressett’s Fantastic 1804 Dollar; Taxay’s U.S. Mint and Coinage? Good choices, all, but my selection would be Q. David Bowers’ masterwork, The History of United States Coinage as Illustrated by the Garrett Collection

Dave Bowers has written so many wonderful numismatic books, specialized and wide-ranging, popular and scholarly, but to me, The History of U.S. Coinage tops them all. It’s nine books rolled into one: a history of American numismatics; the story of the U.S. Mint; the recounting of how two generations of Baltimore’s Garrett family built a superb coin collection; the saga of colonial and state coinage; the history of Washington pieces; the story of federal coinage; the skinny on territorial/pioneer gold; a “you-are-there” account of the California Gold Rush; and a guide down the byways of numismatic Americana. And then add three appendixes on the behind-the-scenes dealmaking that enabled the Garretts to build their incredible coin collection!

So how did Dave cram all of this into a 572-page book? Double print columns helped, but mainly by a judicious choice of information, focusing on the most important coins of each series, and providing background needed to understand each issue’s context and significance. For example, so many Uncirculated 1773 Virginia halfpence are available because Col. Mendes Cohen of Baltimore owned a keg containing many thousands, which were dispersed slowly from 1875 to 1929, when the last 2,200 of them were sold at auction as a single lot!

The History of U.S. Coinage is a great reference work, but my favorite part is three chapters of appendixes full of correspondence between the Garretts and assorted coin dealers and fellow collectors who helped them build a stellar collection. T. Harrison Garrett, the father of both the collection and the two sons who eventually inherited it, did considerable business with Harold P. Newlin, a fellow numismatist from Pennsylvania. Newlin offered Garrett a 1615 Sommers Island coin, better than the Mint Cabinet’s piece, which, Newlin claimed, had been “rubbed on a brick to make it discernable.” Sometimes, proposed deals seemed a mite shady, as when Boston’s W. Elliot Woodward offered Garrett a set of 14 silver 1879 patterns: “I am informed that no other set ever left the mint …the owner will not sell them to me unless I pledge myself not to put them in an auction sale.”

There is plenty more in The History of U.S. Coinage to while away the hours until you are rescued from your deserted island. And the good news is that the book is relatively cheap to buy: five printings from 1979 through 1988 have kept it in good supply. Numismatic booksellers usually stock copies, often signed by the author himself.

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