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Numismatics In The 1850’s, 1858-1859

The Beginning

In the late 1850s the hobby of coin collecting became wildly popular. We continue with this timeline from Dave Bowers’ popular book, The Expert’s Guide to Collecting and Investing in Rare Coins, sets the scene for all of the activity:

The Years 1858-1859

Cent-Collecting Fever

The stage was set, and thousands of citizens cherished their sparkling new Flying Eagle cents while contemplating the disappearance of the familiar copper ‘pennies’ of childhood days. Pocket change and cash drawers were searched, and soon quite a few collectors had strings of such coins dating all the way back to the first year of issue, 1793, but perhaps lacking the rare 1799, 1804, 1815 (which was never struck, but few were aware of this), and 1823. The earlier coins were apt to be well worn, with dates and designs barely visible. The most recent ones showed blushes of orange mint color. Edward Cogan, an art dealer in Philadelphia, was asked to sell a friend’s collection of copper cents, and sent out listings, inviting bids by mail, closing on November 1. Bids were received from 19 people. A 1793 Chain cent sold for $12.67, a 1793 Wreath cent brought $5.13, a 1793 Liberty Cap realized $7.25, a 1799 cent sold for $7, and an 1804 brought $5.50, among others. The total amount realized for the collection of cents from 1793 through 1858 was $128.68. This was exciting news, was picked up by the local papers and was soon reprinted throughout the East. Cogan was deluged with letters from people wanting to buy and sell coins. Soon, he decided to become a professional numismatist.

Societies Formed

On January 1, the Philadelphia Numismatic Society was formed, becoming the first such group in the United States. In March, teenaged Augustus B. Sage and friends founded the American Numismatic Society in New York City. By late summer 1858 there were nearly a dozen dealers active in the United States, including, in New York City alone, the venerable John Allan, and at least three young men: Augustus Sage, Henry Bogert, and John Curtis.

Proof Coins Popular

Proof coins became popular this year, and an estimated 210 sets of silver denominations were sold, plus a larger number of copper-nickel Flying Eagle cents. Proof gold coins were available singly, and the dollar was the most popular denomination in this metal, probably with a sale of a few dozen or so.

Important Coin Book Published

In 1859 the first important numismatically-oriented book was published in America, An Historical Account of American Coinage, by John H. Hickcox. The slim volume included 151 numbered pages plus five pages of illustrations, the last by John E. Gavit of Albany, a well-known engraver of bank notes. Hickcox had spent some time in research and had contacted historical societies and several numismatists as well as Mint Director James Ross Snowden. Only 200 regular copies were printed, and these were mostly sent to libraries and historical societies. For collectors there was no single readily-available source for information, and many still sought the elusive copper cent of 1815, not realizing that none were minted that year.

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