Q. David Bowers outdid himself. Far more than yet another interesting book about fascinating highlights in numismatics, Colonial and Early American Coins is a new standard reference for the new century. That is highly appropriate because as divisive as our politics can be – Howard Fast to Ayn Rand; Al Franken to Ann Coulter – perhaps no period of American history collects liberals and conservatives, paleos and neos, traditionalists and libertarians, as does the colonial and early federal. Proof of that is the fact that the popular edition of this book sold out rapidly.
(An earlier version of this review first appeared in the Central States Numismatic Society Centinel in the Autumn 2009 issue.)
“Colonials have always played to a fairly lively market, but a small one in comparison to federal coins,” Bowers replied to me via email (04/30/2009). “I am not aware of any time in American numismatic history, from the 1850s when collecting became popular, down to the present day, that, for example, a basic 1652-dated Pine Tree shilling in Fine grade has declined in value. A charting at ten-year intervals will show an increase. The reason for this is that Colonial coins have little if any interest to “pure” investors or speculators. Instead, the market has been completely comprised of buyers who are interested in Colonial coins and their history, and who cherish their ownership.”
Like other works in the Whitman Encyclopedia series of books, this volume also adheres to a standardized format that meets the most important needs of the broadest set of collectors. Each entry has a new Whitman number along with the variety numbers from the previous standard references, Ryder, Maris, etc., and an estimation of rarity. Most of the entries carry a vector of prices for grades Good through Mint State. (Others are seen too seldom at auction.)
Like the colonies themselves, modern numismatists are united in diversity. Opinions run deep. The Articles of Confederation showed that some of the founders contemplated Canada’s joining the new union. Yet, this book contains no Canadian coins. However, Hogge Island and Hibernia coppers have long been accepted as belonging to the colonial family. Those are listed at the back, because just which branches of the family tree are theirs is debatable.
“Wood’s Hibernia coins were made for Ireland, as were Voce Populi coins. Some of these may have circulated in the United States, but that does not make them ‘Early American’ issues,” Bowers wrote in reply to my question on that point. He said, “Circulating even more extensively in the United States were Spanish-American silver coins, which, indeed, were Legal Tender, but they are not considered to be ‘Early American coins’,”
The same observations came from enthusiasts James Higby and Robert Leonard in emails to me (both 05/12/2009). Said Higby: “The situation is far more contentious in the field of Early American Coins (a term for which I praise Bowers for making part of his title)… The most-consulted authors of general compendia on the topic have been Crosby, Mossman, Breen, Raymond, Vlack, Yeoman, Bressett, Nipper, and now, Bowers … [They] seem to agree, for example, that the various state coppers (Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, Connecticut, and New Jersey), as well as the Fugios, are legitimate to collect as ‘Colonials’, but beyond that, the various authors often part company.” Bob Leonard pointed out that the inventory of “U.S. colonials” was “basically frozen at the inception of U.S. coin collecting: the list of Colonial and Early American coins in W. C. Prime's Coins, Medals and Seals (1861) is very little different from that in the 1947 Red Book.”
The careful collector will also want to make corrections to the book because typographical errors are inevitable. In an email to me (5/11/2009), James Higby cited these glitches:
In the New Jersey section the picture on page 169 for obverse 56 is actually that of obverse 55, which can be seen on page 165. The written description of obverse 56 which accompanies the erroneous picture is accurate. The written description of 56-n on page 183 is accurate except for the call for handles on the plow, which is not a feature of obverse 56, but of obverse 55 and others. In the Connecticut section the pictures on page 138 for reverses gg.1 and gg.2 do not match the accompanying written descriptions in terms of the placement of the hand relative to the E in INDE.
But, of course, we happily collect errors, don’t we?
You can read McCullough’s John Adams (or watch the video), but to feel the cobblestones under your feet, you need to hold a coin in your hand. This book provides the framework for understanding the numismatics which is the physical evidence of the taproots and bedrock of our nation.