US Coins

Odd and curious history

When I was a kid the “Believe It Or Not!” cartoon panel was a regular feature of our town paper. Today, the creator, Robert Ripley, is forgotten by most, perhaps except for visitors to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Web site, which I didn’t even know existed until I looked for Ripley on the Internet while writing this column. So many Web sites and so little time. Perhaps there are 5 million Web sites? Or 25 million? Who knows?

Anyway, in his day Ripley invited readers to submit odd and curious items. My Aunt Elsa Garratt sent in an item about a huge cast iron anchor made in Sweden, but never used. Ripley turned this into a cartoon and sent her a book of past columns as a thank you.

Today in numismatics you don’t have to look far to find all sorts of curiosities, such as new quarter dollars that are made of silver, weigh 5 ounces, and, although legal tender, really have nothing to do with money. Then there are “nickels,” more properly the 5-cent coins, which should really be nicknamed “coppers,” as they are 75 percent copper and only 25 percent nickel.

Violations of the law

In this vein, here is a favorite anecdote told by the late Louis E. Eliasberg:

“A story which I once read that impressed me was about two men who, in 1932, walked through the streets of Baltimore, one carrying a pint of whisky on his hip and the other carrying in his pocket six $20 gold pieces. In 1932 the man who carried the whisky was violating the Prohibition law, and the man carrying the double eagles was within the law. Consider their plight when two years later, in 1934, the man carrying the gold pieces was violating the law, and the man with the pint of whisky was within the law.”

Another odd and curious item

The time is June 1862. You have three $10 bills issued by the United States government — a Continental Currency bill from Revolutionary War days, a demand note from 1861 and a just-issued legal tender note. You go to a bank to cash them in for silver and gold coins.

You are told that the government repudiated the Continental Currency notes long ago and your bill is worthless. The demand note can be exchanged for a gold coin, but as there are none in circulation, the paying teller has to go into a vault to get one for you. He then informs you that the legal tender bill is, indeed, worth $10, as it states on its face, but it can only be exchanged for other paper money, not for silver or gold coins.

Q. David Bowers is chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC. He can be reached at his private e-mail,, or at Q. David Bowers, LLC, Box 1804, Wolfeboro, NH 03894.

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