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

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 4/12/2011

In this last article of a four-part series, David continues the study of his favorite books on United States coinage that were published more than 10 years ago and may not be known to the current generation of collectors.

Oftentimes books on a particular numismatic subject appear whenever that series is enjoying a burst of popularity with collectors. When interest wanes and prices recede a bit, so too does the activity of authors and publishers. One series that has seen little published in recent years is the classic USA commemoratives issued 1892–1954. The only recent reference is Q. David Bowers’ nifty book issued as part of Whitman’s Red Book series.

For the person who chooses to be a contrarian and study this series, there are several truly excellent books from past years that are worthy of acquisition or which may be borrowed from the ANA’s Dwight Manley Library. While there were a number of monographs published by coin dealers during the heyday of this series in the 1920s and ‘30s, these are seen today more as curiosities or collectibles and not as useful references. The first book on the subject which still holds up today is Arlie R. Slabaugh’s United States Commemorative Coinage: The Drama of America as Told by Our Coins. Originally published in 1962, the copy in my library is his revised edition from 1975, which was issued to coincide with the USA Bicentennial coinage.

Slabaugh was a talented and prolific author whose byline was seen frequently during the 1960s and ‘70s, and he also wrote under pseudonyms whenever editors needed his talent but required a seemingly greater diversity of contributors. His commemorative book relates some technical and market information, but the main theme is the story behind the coin. By this I’m not referring so much to the creation of the coin itself, but rather the historical person or event being commemorated. There are a number of books which provide dates, mintages and prices for the Oregon Trail half dollar series, but if you want to learn about the Oregon Trail itself or about pioneer Ezra Meeker, to whom this coin meant so much, then Slabaugh is your author. This same depth of research and storytelling is repeated for all of the classic commemoratives and makes for a true appreciation of America’s rich history. This book is long out of print, but I found used copies of either edition on the internet. Prices started at less than five dollars, though the 1962 edition is more readily available than the second edition. There’s little difference in the content, and either edition is highly recommended.

In 1967 Don Taxay raised the bar in commemorative literature with his superb book titled An Illustrated History of U.S. Commemorative Coinage. In many respects this book may be thought of as Volume Two of his monumental work The U.S. Mint and Coinage, published the previous year. His research for that landmark reference undoubtedly led him to the rich correspondence which is reproduced in his commemorative book. Unlike Slabaugh, who focuses on the themes being commemorated, Taxay delves into the stories behind each coin’s conception, design and minting. He relates how the sponsoring commissions and coin legislation came to be, how the designers and sculptors were selected and, finally, how the coins were actually struck and the problems encountered with certain issues. He reproduces many original drawings and plasters from public and private archives, some of which are not traceable today. Taxay also relates all the petty drama that arose from conflicts between various parties associated with each coin issue. Used copies may be found on the internet at prices ranging from $5 to $50, though all seem to be well worn from the descriptions.

Co-authored by Anthony Swiatek and Walter Breen, The Encyclopedia of United States Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins 1892–1954 was widely publicized and distributed when it appeared in 1981. Its timing was fortuitous, as the U. S. Mint was just about to revive its commemorative series with the coining of a half dollar for the 250th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. This book provides a wealth of information and is richly illustrated with both coins and related memorabilia. Walter Breen contributed the historical background and wrote in his most acerbic style, seeing conspiracy and greed behind nearly every coin issue. This has turned off some readers, but that’s just the way Walter was in his later years. Anthony Swiatek was then and remains today an expert in the commemorative coin market, and he provides his insight into collecting the commemorative series and its related tie-in items, such as postage stamps, original mailing envelopes, brochures, etc. As noted above, the Swiatek/Breen book was printed in large numbers. Used copies appear on the internet starting around $15, while a few new copies may be had at prices ranging from $90 to $140.

The final classic work on classic commemoratives is Q. David Bowers’ immense Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia. Published in 1991, this book has more than 700 pages and covers all USA commemoratives through that year. Bowers summarizes much of what is found in the books listed above and adds to it additional market information (now somewhat obsolete) and previously unpublished correspondence (which remains fresh and intriguing today). Used copies of the paperback edition may be found for as little as $22, but the hardcover edition is rare, a lightly used copy being the only entry found at $78.

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