US Coins

Meeting standards for research Colonial America

Colonial America column from the Feb. 22, 2016, Weekly issue of Coin World:

Since the days of Joseph B. Felt and his 1839 book An Historical Account of Massachusetts Currency, Colonial numismatics has long been focused on historical research and academic understanding more than any other American numismatic specialty. Felt became one of Massachusetts’ best known historians after Gov. Edward Everett placed him in charge of sorting two centuries’ worth of government archives.

Sylvester S. Crosby began work on his magnum opus, The Early Coins of America and the Laws Governing Their Issue, years before its publication in 1875. At first, Crosby was merely one member of a committee assembling the book, but the group’s efforts ended up on a single set of shoulders. 

Though Crosby became the sole author, The Early Coins of America engendered a long American numismatic tradition: depending upon the efforts of earlier researchers to find the truth while seeking the counsel of contemporary experts for advice, additional research, and editing.

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Felt’s research became the cornerstone of Crosby’s chapter on the coins of Massachusetts, and other chapters relied heavily on other earlier works in the fields of numismatics and history.

Meanwhile, Crosby’s introduction thanked most of his contemporary luminaries in the Colonial American numismatic field. Researchers Charles I. Bushnell and William Sumner Appleton materially added to the publication, while collectors like Lorin Parmelee and Matthew Stickney and dealers like W. Elliot Woodward and Ed Cogan lent coins for study.

Crosby’s book is still as important today after nearly 150 years as it was when printed.

One can imagine that without the assistance of Crosby’s many friends, and without leaning upon the work of earlier researchers, the book could well have contained inaccuracies that would have left it in the dustbin of history. 

Today, most publications are carefully vetted, edited, and built upon the work of earlier researchers. Those announcing new discoveries are considered by other acknowledged experts before being placed in print, lest an embarrassing error be placed on the historical record. Crosby and Felt’s footnotes and acknowledgments indicate the extent to which they were seeking truth, wherever it could be found.

Today’s writers and researchers have a responsibility to meet or exceed that golden standard, for the good of their contemporaries and those who will write in the future.

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