For more than 25 years, Richard Doty was entrusted with the keys to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s legendary coin vault, which houses some of the most important coins in the world. Doty’s “America’s Money, America’s Story” is one of the most respected books on the subject of U.S. coins and currency, and his last book with Whitman Publishing, “Pictures From a Distant Country,” focused on obsolete U.S. currency. You can see samples from the Smithsonian’s U.S. coins collection at their “Legendary Coins and Currency” microsite, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
When I was 8 years old I had a friend named Jimmy Hood. His father was in the army, and he had been on the staff with General MacArthur when MacArthur was effectively the boss of Japan right after World War II. Jimmy had some Japanese and Chinese coins, so we swapped a few things, as kids will do. And at that point, in 1950, I just got hooked on coins.
I also had some paper currency when I was a kid, thanks to a friend who had been in the Flying Tigers. He brought back some Indian rupees and some Chinese private bank notes from the early 20th century. I admired the engraving, but for an 8-year-old kid, paper money was a bit abstract.
When I was growing up in Oregon in the 1950s, early ’60s, we were still using silver dollars. When you’ve got something like that in your hand, you know it’s money—it has heft, it has weight. It’s funny: I wrote an entire book on obsolete bank notes, but I never actually collected them.
My background was extremely lower working class, so there was very little money to actually buy anything. So I started out with a few world coins and traded them for various things. I got into U.S. coins just by looking through loose change. People did that back in those days—stuff seemed to circulate longer. You had a lot of Buffalo nickels, for example, occasionally a Liberty Head nickel or a Barber quarter or a half, things like that. And you had these silver dollars that the banks didn’t want. They were like 70 years old at that point. You could go in and buy one at face value.
So I made out all right and kept going with the collecting. And then when I was 13, I discovered Roman coins, and I could not believe that anything that old even existed. “Two-thousand years old? Come on, get out of here!” You could pick up Roman coins for 50 or 75 cents each. They weren’t attributed, and they were rather the worse for wear. It was third-century stuff, basically, and not worth much, but they were old and historic.
In fact, I think I’m probably more of a world collector than a U.S. collector. I have some U.S. coins, and I used to like U.S. large cents when I was younger, but I’ve been collecting ancients and world stuff more than anything else. In my job here at the Smithsonian, I have to know a little about everything, basically. I’m curator of everything, from ancient Greek to modern U.S.
Collectors Weekly: How long have you been at the Smithsonian?
Doty: Twenty-four years. I came here in 1986.
Collectors Weekly: In that time, how have your interests evolved?
Doty: Well, for example, I wrote this book on obsolete currency called “Pictures From a Distant Country.” The book, which is being published this year by Whitman, focuses on the images on 19th-century obsolete currency, the stuff that we used until the Civil War got us into Federal currency. These images tell us a lot about how the people of the time thought about everything from the role of women to African Americans, who were still slaves. The notes also reveal how the country viewed Native Americans, which industries were most important, and what progress and national identity meant.
If you want to see what a locomotive in 1855 looked like, there are daguerreotypes for that, but if you want to see what it meant to the nation, take a look at a note with a train on it, spewing fire and steam and chugging its way into the future.
I was only able to write that book because the collection of obsolete currency here at the Smithsonian is superb. It’s the best one I’ve ever seen. When you are writing or doing research or whatever, you have to have the stuff, you have to have the material. And if you have enough material, you start seeing changes, oddball variations, and so forth, which tell you what was going on.
Before I came to Smithsonian I had been at the American Numismatic Society in New York. Toward the tail end of my time at the ANS, probably from beginning of the 1980s, I got into numismatic technology—how the actual coins and notes were made. That’s been a pretty consistent interest of mine ever since.
Two areas that I collect now are errors and oddball things. Mints are secretive affairs, and paper printers are even more secretive. They don’t like you looking at the machinery that produces the coins or currency because you might get inspired to go home do it yourself. So, if you are interested in technology in terms of how this stuff was made, the coins or notes are your best witnesses, and the ones that didn’t come out quite right are the best witnesses of all.
Collectors Weekly: Do you only collect U.S. errors?
Doty: No. As a matter of fact, I’ve only got a couple of errors from the United States, coins that were double struck on the obverse. That happens from time to time. But most of my stuff in errors is either ancient or oddball things from 19th-century Mexico and Latin America.
Collectors Weekly: When was the first gold Quarter Eagle minted?
Doty: That would be 1796. Robert Scot, the Philadelphia mint’s first engraver, designed the coin. He was designing virtually everything at that point—large cents, half dollars, silver dollars, and the Quarter Eagle.
Collectors Weekly: Who was the model for Lady Liberty?
Doty: Nobody in particular. There’s an idea that John Reich, who designed the Quarter Eagle in 1808, modeled his Liberty on his mistress, but there’s no independent proof of that one way or the other. Basically, the Mint Act of 1790 said that you’ve got to have an image emblematic of Liberty, and that you had to put the word Liberty on the coin just so everybody would know who she is. That’s actually part of the law. Beyond that, designers were free to pick and choose. Most tended to do bust, but not always. Large cents, for example, depicted the head of Liberty wearing a little cap, but it’s basically just a head.
The initial idea for stars was to put them on coins as states were added to the country. Coins got a new star when Vermont became a state in 1791 and another when Kentucky was added in 1792. By the time Tennessee became a state in 1796, people started saying, “Well, you’ve got too many stars on the thing. Go back to the original 13 and just be done with it.” And so they did. And those 13 stars, of course, represented the original 13 colonies.
The other thing that changed was the size of the coin. The coins minted from 1796 to 1828 are all about the same size. They shrink slightly in ’29, although the gold content is the same. And then in 1834, the size really shrank and remained that way for the next, well, nearly a hundred years.
Collectors Weekly: Why did they get smaller?
Doty: Because they removed some of the gold. That was the Coinage Act of 1834. The gold content of the coin was reduced slightly because gold coins had been undervalued against silver. Basically, they were being exported and then melted down. The Coinage Act of 1834 was intended to lower the content of gold coins (at that point, we were only minting Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles) to keep the coins in circulation.
It’s worth noting that in the first half of the 19th century we were still using other country’s coins—Mexican coins, Latin American coins, British coins, French coins; anything was fair game, provided you could determine its gold content to figure out what it would be worth in American money.
The Coinage Act of 1834 helped. Today, Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles from the 1820s are some of the rarest of all American gold coins because of the melting that went on. The mintage numbers were decent, in the thousands, but today only half a dozen from one year exist, maybe three in another, and so on, because they all got melted. And after the law of 1834 was passed, that didn’t happen anymore.
Collectors Weekly: Why were people melting these coins?
Doty: It’s a little bit convoluted to explain, but if you took an American gold coin in the 1820s and exported it someplace, you would wind up making a certain amount of money if you melted it down and then exported the gold back to the States because the ratio between gold and silver prices was a little bit skewed in favor of silver. You could do this indefinitely and make money off the difference between the value of the silver versus the value of the gold. It’s called bimetallism.
Collectors Weekly: What about the post-1834 Eagles?
Doty: William Kneass designed the first ones, followed by James B. Longacre, who designed the 1840 coin. It’s a fairly pedestrian design, in my humble opinion, but it fit nicely in the coin. That design lasted all the way until 1907. It had a very long and successful run.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us about the “CAL.” stamp on the 1848 Quarter Eagle.
Doty: If you think about it, that’s probably the first U.S. commemorative coin. The gold came from California. It was shipped by land to the secretary of war in Washington, D.C. There were 200 ounces, or something like that. They used some of the gold to strike humongous gold medals for Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, who were the heroes of the Mexican-American War. We’ve got the one given to Taylor. It’s an enormous thing and it’s on display downstairs right now.
The rest of the gold was used to strike 1,389 Quarter Eagles with a “CAL.” counter stamp on them. The counter stamp was probably put in with a one-piece punch. They were struck coin by coin, by hand, on the back. It’s the only coin that stamp was used on.
Collectors Weekly: The first U.S. gold dollar was around the same time, correct?
Doty: Well, the earliest one for circulation was 1849. That was a direct result of the California Gold Rush. They were mining so much gold that the government coined three new denominations—the gold dollar, the $20 gold double eagle, and, later, the three-dollar gold piece. The coins were struck in Philadelphia and at the Southern branch mints in Charlotte, North Carolina and Dahlonega, Georgia, which made gold dollars, Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles. They didn’t do anything higher than that, probably because the presses weren’t strong enough to strike larger coins.
There were also private mints. Until 1864, when a law went through which finally made it illegal to do private coinage, people used tokens. In the 1830s there were hard-times tokens. They mostly replaced cents, which had gone underground. We had a big depression at that time. People were scared so they tended to hoard real money. A cent from a private mint had probably half a cent’s worth of copper in it.
The other trend was private gold. That started in Georgia and North Carolina around 1830. They had a little gold rush going on in that neck of the woods beginning at the end of the 1790s. In 1799, a nugget weighing something like five pounds was discovered, I think in North Carolina. A family was using it as a doorstop for a number of years until somebody came by and said, “Don’t do that. It’s gold.” So there was a gold rush.
Private coiners set up shop because the gold was there. Templeton Reid, for example, had been a watchmaker and an engraver. He’d worked with machines and stuff. So he set up business in Georgia in 1830. A German family by the name of Bechtler started a little bit later in North Carolina. Reid went out of business after probably less than six months, but the Bechtlers continued to strike coins for about 20 years. They actually struck the first gold dollars. They weren’t Federal dollars, obviously, but they were the first people to strike a coin in that denomination.
Collectors Weekly: How could private mints exist at the same time as U.S. mints?
Doty: Well, there wasn’t any law against it at the time, not specifically. And because of the naivety of Alexander Hamilton and the other lawyers and businessmen who wrote the Constitution in 1787, we ended up with private currency, which no one had anticipated, foreign coinage in circulation for sixty-five years, and from 1830 until 1864 private American coinage, too.
“In the first half of the 19th century we were still using other country’s coins. Anything was fair game.”
When private coinage got going, the government complained a little bit, but they didn’t really have anything to say about it, not immediately. By 1835, the U.S. government finally got around to passing a law establishing some additional mints in the South to take advantage of the gold which is coming out of there. It took three more years, basically, before anybody came down to actually set up the mints in Dahlonega, which is in northwestern Georgia, Charlotte, and New Orleans.
The only one of these mints that actually got going and really made it big time was New Orleans. Common sense tells us there isn’t any gold within 500 miles of New Orleans, but that was where foreign coinage was coming into the country from Mexico and Spain. So these coins came in and they were re-struck in New Orleans as American coins.
The U.S. mints did not drive the private coiners out of business. Reid quit making coins for other reasons and the Bechtlers, as I said earlier, continued to chug things out for about 20 years. And when California happened, all hell broke loose, and you had dozens of people trying to start making coins. It was a free-for-all for private coiners, until finally the federal government got into the act to regulate coinage and, effectively, cut out the competition.
Here’s an example of how they did that. When gold was discovered in Colorado in the late 1850s, Clark, Gruber & Co. set up a shop in 1860. It was a very modern, up-to-date mint. They struck a lot of stuff, all very good quality. And then the federal government decided to buy them out with the law of eminent domain, which they did in 1863. The idea was that the government would establish a mint in Denver. Well, it took 43 years until they finally got around to it.
The Federal law banning private coinage was passed in 1864. By that point, the majority of the California coiners were out of business anyway because the San Francisco mint, which had opened at 1854, was a very active coiner. The privates weren’t needed in that part of the world. In the case of Colorado, things began settling down after about 1862, so there wasn’t a crying need for private money.
Several things were happening at the same time. There was a realization that the frontier was disappearing. Cities and towns were coming up and money was flowing in from the East. Most importantly, the transportation network in this country got a lot better toward the end of 1860s, early 1870s, with the Transcontinental Railroad, so monetary supplies could come into areas which had been previously isolated. But that didn’t mean that private coinage ended. It just changed its name.
Even after 1864, in Oregon and throughout the West, particularly in Utah, Nevada, and Montana, a tremendous number of people used tokens. They were usually good for five cents in trade, or perhaps a token would get you a cigar in a general store. They were sometimes pegged to values and sometimes tied to certain goods. They were struck back East in Chicago, or wherever, and then used in towns and cities all over the West. The use of tokens continued until the early 20th century because in certain isolated areas like Idaho or Montana, there still wasn’t much Federal currency or coins of any kind, really.
Collectors Weekly: Did each private minter create their own designs?
Doty: Yes, but the coins were meant to look like American coinage. So you’d have a Liberty Head on one side and then an American eagle on the other side. If you’re a new coiner starting out, you tend to want to adopt a design that everybody’s comfortable with so they’ll accept your new coin. The easiest way to do that is to basically take old designs and replicate them.
Collectors Weekly: Do people collect these privately minted coins?
Doty: Yes, but you have to be extremely wealthy to do so. A lot of them were melted down shortly after they were made. In California, there were several scares that the private coiners were not putting full value of gold into their products. Consequently the coins were recalled and panic ensued. They were all melted down, or most of them. Beyond that, basically when you got an established mint in San Francisco, for example, people would bring their old coins in to be remade into Federal ones.
There was also melting that went on after President Roosevelt called in the gold in 1933 and ’34. We have no idea how many coins disappeared at that point, but a lot did. They were simply melted down, and now they are part of bars in Fort Knox.
Most of the coiners weren’t striking in tremendously large numbers anyway. There were exceptions: Moffat & Co. in San Francisco was a big-time operation and so was Clark, Gruber in Colorado. But most of these guys were fairly small, and in a lot of cases they were striking coins by hand using a sledgehammer. You’re not going to produce zillions of coins that way. So, basically, the population on any given private gold coin ranges probably from the low hundreds down to two or three, or even one. People have been collecting them for a very long time.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have many examples at the Smithsonian?
Doty: We probably have the best collection of the stuff in the world. I’ve worked with both of the major collections, the one at the ANS and here. I think ours is bigger.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite private coins?
Doty: Well, there’s a coin with a cowboy on it. It’s a 10-dollar gold piece by Baldwin & Co., and it’s called the Vaquero design because vaquero is Spanish for cowboy, which is where the word buckaroo came from. This is an instance where people decided, “The heck with the Eagle and Lady Liberty. We’re going to do our own thing here.” In Colorado, Clark, Gruber & Co. struck coins with a representation of Pikes Peak on them. Those are neat.
In my own area, Oregon, we had a private-coinage coin in Oregon City made by hand. I’ve seen the press, so to speak. Basically you’d have to work it with a sledgehammer. The coin had a beaver on the obverse because people originally came out to Oregon to collect furs for beaver hats and things like that. They made five-dollar pieces and 10-dollar pieces, and a lot of those got melted down, too.
Collectors Weekly: Were gold dollars struck during the Civil War?
Doty: Yes, but not many. In the beginning of the Civil War, the Confederacy took over the mints in the South, in New Orleans, Charlotte, and Dahlonega. There were a few coins struck under the Confederacy using Federal dies and leftover gold, and then that was it.
In the North, some gold dollars were struck during the Civil War, but not very many because of the fact that people in the North were so worried about the outcome of the war. As a result, basically all of the coins that were struck in Philadelphia were hoarded. And so you wind up with very low mintages throughout most of the Civil War.
Interestingly, the Federal government’s gold dollar coins minted after about 1855 were never particularly popular with the public. People did use them to a degree, but a lot of them wound up as pieces in jewelry, or somebody would carve his girlfriend’s initials in the back as a love token, that sort of thing.
It’s easy to see why they were never very popular. These gold dollars were incredibly small, so they got lost easily. They were about a half an inch across. There’s not much room to do anything on them, and it’s also not much gold. But I’ve seen some nice dangle-type earrings made out of these things. And I’ve got one, an 1856 with a hole in it. I picked up in England in 1975. I think I paid three pounds for it. Some Brit probably brought it back from America for his girlfriend.
Collectors Weekly: So paper money filled the void?
Doty: Well, yes. When the Civil War broke out in both sides, the Federal government had this thing against issuing paper currency. We’d been burned badly by what was called Continental currency back during the American Revolution, so while the Federal government was not flat-out prohibited from printing paper currency, it was really frowned upon in the Constitution.
So here comes the Civil War, and all of a sudden Abraham Lincoln’s government up North and Jefferson Davis’s government down South realize that there is no way on earth they are going to be able to fight this thing using coins. For one thing, everybody’s hoarding coins, and for another, this war is going to be absolutely humongous. So each side had to make paper money. There was no choice.
The Federal government started doing just that in 1861 with a very guilty conscience. It created demand notes—they borrowed money and then issued notes against them. Beginning in 1862, the government issued what were known as legal tender notes, which were not backed by anything but were designated as legal tender for all public and private transactions.
Collectors Weekly: At the time of the Civil War, were there still private minters?
Doty: For all intents and purposes, no, but the last of them would’ve been in Colorado. Conway and Parsons were still striking coins—briefly—in the summer of 1861. Another group of people continued to mint coins in 1862 but dated them as 1861 because the Federal government was beginning to take this stuff seriously. After that, nothing.
Even the seized Southern mints ceased operations. In New Orleans, the Confederacy struck some half dollars and 20-dollar gold pieces. Charlotte got out of the business, I think, in 1860, but they struck gold dollars in Dahlonega. Basically what they did was they struck coins until they ran out of gold or silver, in the case of New Orleans, and then just closed down for the duration of the war. That’s the way the war was. Basically, on both sides, it was fought entirely with paper.
Collectors Weekly: Is it still possible to collect 19th-century U.S. coins without spending tons of money?
Doty: I think so. Gold would not be one area, but in silver you have half dollars, which are still reasonable to collect. The Bust types before 1838 are good examples, as well as the Liberty types from the 1840s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, all the way to 1891. Indian Head pennies are fun to collect and two-cent pieces are neat because what on earth are we doing with a two-cent piece, anyway? The early ones at least are fairly reasonably priced.
Whenever a coin was introduced in this country, they were usually made by the ton the first year because the public would be jazzed and the Mint wanted to have enough coins available. If the thing bounces, if it doesn’t go over well, all of a sudden the mintage goes from zillions to zilch, but you’ve still got lots of coins on hand, like the two-cent pieces from ’64, ’65, ’66, and ’67. Same with Shield nickels, which I don’t see going anywhere right now. They’re overlooked. And you have a lot of silver dollars like Morgan dollars.
Nothing is as reasonable as it was, that’s the first law of numismatics. But in the case of silver and gold, you have an additional factor, the value of the metal, which is rising. Gold is around $1,000 an ounce now, and silver is, I think, hovering a little bit under $20, $16, $17 an ounce. So the baseline on even a cheap or very common silver coin is going to be higher than it was before, simply because the value of the metal is higher. But all that being said, there are still things that are overlooked. Three-cent pieces, for example, both copper-nickel and silver.
Collectors Weekly: Other than your books, can you suggest some resources or organizations for coin collectors?
Doty: Well, the American Numismatic Association has a library that actually circulates books, and they have a librarian, which we don’t. I’m the acting librarian around here. Our stuff doesn’t circulate, but theirs does. I would encourage anybody who’s interested in coinage to get involved with the ANA. It would be worth it in a sense just to get one year’s membership to see what the library is like in order to see what you were interested in. And then if you want to continue to be a member, and you probably will, you can do so.
If you have a coin dealer in your town, chances are that he or she will carry “Coin World” or “Numismatic News.” Either one of those publications will have information on coin shows in your area, probably a month or two ahead. Coin shows are a tremendously good way not only to buy coins but also to learn stuff—to find dealers who are patient and who will take you under their wing and give you a bit of their expertise. Some people bitch and moan about coin dealers, but I have found that most of them are far more civil than the horror stories that you often hear.
If you think about it, there are three ways of learning about coins. One, you can be a collector, have all the money in the world, and buy whatever you want. Two, you can basically work for a museum the way I do. And three, you can be a dealer and have lots and lots of coins passing through your hands.
I’ve learned a tremendous amount from dealers over the years. When I was 15 years old I worked for a dealer in Portland, Oregon. And I’ve done appraisal work—I don’t do it now because as a government employee, I can’t. But when I was working with the ANS, I did appraising on a regular basis and worked with lots of dealers. So, basically, if there is going to be a coin show nearby, find out about it and go. You’ll learn stuff.
Collectors Weekly: Is there anything else that you want to mention about coins?
Doty: Well, I don’t recommend anybody getting into coins in order to make money. Get into coins if you like the historical content, if you like the coins, if you’re having fun swapping stuff and talking with your friends. You’re almost bound to make money with that approach without trying. I’ve seen dealers whose sole focus was to make money, and they don’t last because it’s damn hard work.
The dealers who last—I know someone who’s been in business for 40, 50 years—are the ones who are laidback, taking things as they come. They’re interested in coins. They make the sale fun. They last because they’re looking at it from the right perspective. That’s all I advise. I could retire, but I’m having too much fun.
(All images in this article courtesy the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)