Philadelphia publisher and collector Andrew Madsen Smith produced a
107-page pocketbook-size volume that covered the breadth of American
coins in remarkable depth some 65 years before coin collecting got its
bible, R.S. Yeoman’s A Guide Book of United States Coins (the
Red Book) in 1946.
The Illustrated History of the U.S. Mint was produced for the
better part of two decades, first by Smith and later by George Evans.
As the years went by, the book grew to nearly 200 pages and included
24 pages of photographic plates.
Each edition is a treasure, but the first, printed in 1881, speaks
especially to its day.
The title page contains a line drawing of William Barber’s
wordlessly eloquent Lincoln and Garfield medal. The quarter-size medal
has no legend but shows the busts of Abraham Lincoln, assassinated in
1865, on one side and James A. Garfield, assassinated in 1881, on the other.
The Mint, which rushed the medal into production just a few weeks
after Garfield died on Sept. 19, 1881, charged $9 for gold medals and
60 cents for silver.
Smith charged 40 cents for his book, about twice the hourly pay for
a coal miner at the time.
The current Red Book lists for $16.95, several dollars less than the
average underground laborer’s pay of $23.51 an hour.
The earlier book functions as a guide to the Philadelphia Mint,
showing how and where coins were made in the late 1800s. The text also
includes a catalog of American coins, from the 1616 Sommer Islands
pieces to the then-current Seated Liberty federal coinage.
The rarest coin, the book says, is the unique 1849 double eagle — a
coin that was then sequestered in the U.S. Mint Cabinet and is now in
the Smithsonian Institution.
“The next in rarity is the half eagle of 1815, for which, it is
said, the King of Sweden, to complete his collection of U.S. coins had
to purchase one at the enormous price of $2,000.”
With about a dozen specimens known, the 1815 Capped Head gold $5
coin is rare, but not nearly the second rarest. In 2009, a Mint State
64 piece sold for $460,000.
Eighty years before Eric P Newman and Kenneth E. Bressett reported
on the origin of the enigmatic coins in their 1962 book The
Fantastic 1804 Dollar, Smith noted, “It is alleged the dies were
not made in 1804, but many years later, to be used in presenting the
pieces to a foreign representative.”
The 1881 book is available at used bookstores and online at eBay at
prices anywhere from $10 to $100 depending on the whim of the seller.