USA Coin Album: Some Older Numismatic Books of Interest, Part One

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 1/18/2011

Hobby periodicals frequently publish announcements and reader reviews of newly published numismatic works. But what of books published 10 years ago or more, still of value but now out of print and largely unknown to current hobbyists?

Readers of the Numismatist sometimes ask me where I come up with some of the trivia and anecdotes I use in my columns. Much of this material comes from a series of scrapbooks I’ve been assembling for many years. These feature articles from both the numismatic scene and the general press, which touch on numismatic factoids not found in books. Occasionally I browse through my scrapbooks looking for topics about which to write or for little bits of numismatic trivia to insert into columns already begun. While this is one source of little-known information, a much more important one is my overall numismatic library, which I’ve been building for about 35 years. This is the keystone to any success in numismatic cataloging or writing.

Hobby periodicals frequently publish announcements and reader reviews of newly published numismatic works. This is a great way of spreading the word about books which may be of interest to collectors. It’s especially helpful for specialized and limited market references that may not offer enough potential profit for the author or publisher to advertise them extensively. But what of books published 10 years ago or more that are still of value but are now out of print and largely unknown to current hobbyists? These important but forgotten works are the subject of this month’s column.

In my first few years as a coin collector, I managed well enough with just a couple popular and general guides to United States coins. I supplemented this reading material with the monthly coin magazines found in my school’s library. By my late teens, however, I hungered for more detailed information that could be found only in specialized reference books. It was my good fortune to have as a friend in one of the local coin clubs an actual dealer in numismatic literature. He made me aware of which books were considered the standard references in each coin series. Most of these had been published decades earlier, and some were then out of print and quite scarce.

In the Internet age, it has become fairly easy to track down out-of-print books. If someone does have a copy for sale anywhere in the world, there’s a good chance that it can be found with some time spent searching online. In the mid-1970s, when I first became serious about building my library, the field of numismatic literature dealing was still new and had just a few participants. Getting to know them was about the only way to locate out of print numismatic works. As noted above, one of these dealers was someone I saw frequently, and that helped fill a number of gaps in my library. Of even greater fortune was that some of these seminal and standard references were just then being reprinted. Quarterman Publications put out high quality reprints of D. W. Valentine’s book on half dimes, William Sheldon’s study of 1793-1814 cents, Sylvester Crosby’s classic work on early American coins and tokens, Frank Stewart’s history of the first US Mint and other great books which I purchased as soon as I learned of them. These reprints are now themselves of varying scarcity, having been out of print for 25 years or more. Some lesser quality reprints by other publishers are available, but they don’t measure up to the Quarterman quality.

In recent years there have been so many new books on United States numismatics published that some of the classic works are no longer needed. I still have one or more copies of Valentine and Sheldon, but I never open them anymore. They have been succeeded by better works that are now likewise out of print but of much greater utility to the numismatist. The study of numismatics is inseparable from knowledge of history, and there have been several good books on the history of the United States Mint and its products. Recent books by myself and also by Richard Doty of the Smithsonian Institution remain in print and are quite popular, yet some earlier works feature greater detail in specific areas and are not to be overlooked. A book that belongs in every numismatic library is the US Mint and Coinage by Don Taxay (the author, who disappeared about 30 years ago to explore his spirituality in Asia, is an interesting enough individual to have a book written about him, but I digress). Published in 1966, Taxay’s reference sold well enough that used copies are readily available today and still make for great reading. A reprint is also available, but the original 1966 printing is superior and not expensive at all.

Shortly after reading Taxay, I learned of the 1974 Quarterman reprint of Frank Stewart’s 1924 work History of the First United States Mint. Stewart actually owned the 1792 mint structure and attempted valiantly to have it preserved on another site when he needed the original lot to expand his electrical business. No takers were found, and the building was demolished in 1911. Numerous artifacts, including coins and planchets, were found during the demolition, and these discoveries were incorporated into his book. Original copies are rare, much of the print run reportedly having been lost in a fire. In addition the author maintained a policy of selling his book solely to institutions and not to individuals. Nevertheless, the reprint may be found with some searching and is not expensive.

Next month I’ll describe some more books on United States coinage that would make great additions to your library.

David W. Lange's column, "USA Coin Album," appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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