Spending Time on a Desert Island!

Normally with my weekly blogs I create them myself. But this week I am going to let others take charge. In the June 15 issue of Coin World, editor William T. Gibbs said this:


“Joel Orosz’s ‘Numismatic Bookie’ column this week poses an interesting challenge: ‘This month, let’s play “Desert Island Numismatic Book,” and choose a single volume we’d cherish if washed up on Gilligan’s Isle.’

“Given some time to think about it, we’d all likely be able to select one book to take with us while stranded on a desert isle.

“Which brings us to this important point.

“In all of the excitement over auctions of major named collections like Partrick, Newman, Gardner and Pogue, or the scramble to acquire the United States Mint’s latest must-have limited edition offering, it is easy to overlook what is arguably one of the most important segments of our community: numismatic literature.

“Numismatic books, auction catalogs, price lists and price guides, Mint reports and other forms of literature all play vital roles in telling the story of our hobby. And recently, numismatic literature has soared to new heights. If 1907 to 1921 was the Gold Age of U.S. Coin Design, the last decade or so has been the Golden Age of Numismatic Literature.

“As I look at the bookshelves in the Coin World offices and reference library, and my own personal library at home, I marvel at the breadth and depth of hobby literature today.

“Researcher-writers like Joel Orosz, Q. David Bowers, Roger Burdette, Philip Mossman, Fred Reed, Roger Siboni, John Howes, A. Buell Ish, John Adams, Anne Bentley, Leonard Augsburger and a host of others have produced a remarkable body of work in this century.

“And then there are the catalogers who have produced incredible catalogs for dozens of auctions of collections big and small.

“Traditional publishers like Whitman and auction firms such as Heritage and Stack’s Bowers Galleries, too, deserve credit for publishing books on increasingly specialized series: If you collect only Peace dollars, there’s a book for that series. How about a book on the 1822 Capped Head half eagle or Draped Bust half dollars of 1796 and 1797. Yes, they exist.

“If you will excuse me, I need to go read a book.”


The article he referred to by Joel Orosz, “Desert Island Book: Selecting just one numismatic book,” appeared two pages later:


“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 offers Garret a set of 14 silver 1879 patterns. ‘I am informed that non 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.”


First of all, a nod goes to both Bill Gibbs and Joel Orosz for these nice words. I am prompted to reminisce about this book when it was first issued. The occasion was our sale of the Garrett Collection in 1979 for the Johns Hopkins University. In visiting the university in Baltimore and going through the Garrett correspondence, I copied about 4,000 pages of interesting letters, invoices, and more. Returning home I spent a number of months putting them in order, using them as a basis for a book covering all United States coins. The first printing in September 1979 was, if I remember, about 4,000 copies, which sold out in a matter of days to advance subscribers. Additional printings were made with the result that somewhere around 15,000 copies are in print. Examples are widely available on the Internet.


This remains one of my favorite books of all time. It is decades later, and perhaps if Whitman Publishing would want to consider an update and revision, I might just do that.


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