Archives and Research

Clio's Handmaiden: The Historian and the Coin Cabinet

John M. Kleeberg, January 1994

Every historian uses the ancillary sciences of history to get at the sources: A basic sense of bibliography is needed just to use a library; the biographer soon learns to use the tools of the genealogist; and chronology, historical cartography, even heraldry, will be called in when needed. The idea of the traditional ancillary sciences of history goes back to the eighteenth century: Johannes Ernst Fabri's encyclopedia of 1808 includes archaeology, chronology, diplomatics, epigraphy, genealogy, heraldry, mythology, numismatics, sigillography, and toponymy. New technologies now supplement the traditional ancillary sciences: oral history, film, demography, cliometric history. Many ancillary sciences of history, however, have become such advanced and complicated disciplines in themselves that historians do not know how to approach such sources. This is particularly true of numismatics. The two disciplines continue to develop without any dialogue between them: The numismatists bury themselves in the study of hoards and die links; the historians neglect numismatic evidence.

The modern interest in numismatics dates back to at least Petrarch. During the Renaissance and after, however, the interest was chiefly antiquarian, with coins looked at for their historical exempla: "Behold this coin of Nero: see how debauched he was." It was the nineteenth century that saw numismatics change from an antiquarian pursuit to an ancillary science of history. The cause was the crisis of ancient history when faced with a new critical attitude toward the traditional literary sources. The ancient historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr acknowledged that many of the tales of ancient Rome in Livy were suspect, but he argued that they had some validity, because historical facts had been passed down in the form of ballads. Leopold von Ranke, on the other hand, took Niebuhr's critical attitude to the sources to its logical conclusion and demanded that history be written "wie es eigentlich gewesen," "the way it really was." He urged his fellow medieval and modern historians to cease being practitioners of literature and to go into the archives. Sources must be contemporary. If this approach established the discipline of modern history as we know it today, ancient historians were confronted with a crisis: no archives. It was Theodor Mommsen who drew the full consequences of the Rankean revolution. He looked with suspicion on Niebuhr's ballad theory and sought new sources to elucidate the past. In his search for contemporary sources, Mommsen pioneered the science of epigraphy, the study of inscriptions, and edited the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. But he also turned to coins and published in 1860 his Geschichte des Römischen Münzwesens. The numismatist, wrote Mommsen, is content to elucidate the type and inscription of a coin, to determine the site and time of its striking; the metrologist is only interested in the weight system. But the historian must study coins as a means of exchange, the circumstances under which they circulate, and their final disappearance as well as their monetary regulation as part of the constitution of the state and the autonomy or dependency of a monetary authority. Mommsen proposed to study the monetary system of ancient Italy insofar as it was parallel and correlated to the general historical development of the Roman community, the federal Italian state, and the Roman world empire. Mommsen stressed the importance of coins because they met Ranke's requirement: They were contemporary sources.

The importance of numismatics which Mommsen had emphasized led to further monographs on various specialized topics, but sometimes more ingenuity than proper numismatic scholarship was applied. Ludvig Müller, the curator of the Copenhagen coin cabinet, published a study of the coinage of Alexander and his successors in 1855, and concluded that the various symbols on the reverse type must stand for certain cities—a wreath for Pharsalus, a helmet for Sicone, an amphora for Lamia. In a series of articles in 1912 entitled, "Reattribution of Certain Tetradrachms of Alexander the Great," E. T. Newell reexamined these coins and pointed out that the coins with the wreath, helmet, and amphora on the reverse shared the same obverse die. In other words, they must have been minted in the same place, and the symbols were some sort of control mark and did not indicate the mint.

Although some modern scientific techniques have been applied to numismatics, the essential tools remain die studies and hoards. Nearly all coins are struck from dies. Dies bear the image of the coin in intaglio, in reverse. Dies, however, wear at different rates: The upper die, which is held in the hand and struck by a mallet, wears out more quickly than the lower die, which is fixed in an anvil. Thus a mint will commence minting coins with obverse (that is, the lower die) die 1, and with reverse die A; then reverse die A breaks, and is replaced by reverse die B; then obverse die 1 breaks, and is replaced with obverse die 2; and so forth. Modern dies are reproduced mechanically, with the use of hubbing, and it is virtually impossible to do a die study of, say, Lincoln cents. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, however, dies were sunk by hand, and it is often quite easy to distinguish them: The duke's field marshal staff points at L of LU, or it points at the D of UND; the duke's elbow is near the inner circle of dots, or is distant from it; and so forth. Numismatists look at large numbers of coins, and if all goes well they should be able to distinguish various dies and then arrange the die links into a die link chart.

Not all coin series lend themselves to die studies. For medieval coins, we have too few examples to be able to do die studies, unless the numismatist is working through a hoard. For Roman coins, Roman mints produced huge numbers of coins, with huge numbers of dies, and the task is too large. Die studies have thus been performed most thoroughly on Greek coins and on coins of the North American colonies and United States coins through about 1850, partly because of the enthusiasm of collectors. Greek coins often bear symbols and monograms, which are assumed to relate to certain magistrates in charge of the mint, and specialists in the Greek series like to arrange plausible sequences of monograms; for this the die study is ideal. There are other series (German thalers) where die studies can also be usefully applied.

But the die study does not only tell us the order in which coins were struck. It also allows us to estimate the output of a mint. We do have estimates of the number of coins per die (twenty thousand is a rough and ready figure), although they are controversial. Dies wear at different rates: Dies used to strike large coins wear out quicker than those used to strike small ones. Among similar coins, however, we can do die studies and estimate the relative output. For example, if we find one series of thalers with few dies, and another with twice as many, we can argue that the mint produced twice as many coins for the second series. The die study can thus be used to see if various assertions we know of from historians or inscriptions (e.g., "Athena increased the tribute due from Potidaea to fifteen talents") are confirmed by the activity of the mint. Sometimes, of course, they are not confirmed, but that does not necessarily mean that Potidaea did not pay such a tribute: It could have paid it in other coins than its own.

The other technique is the study of hoards. In antiquity and the Middle Ages there were no banks, so when people wanted a safe place to keep their money, they buried it. Often they buried their money quickly and never returned to claim it, or could never find it again—many hoards are assumed to have been buried by soldiers going off to wars who were killed before they could reclaim their hoard. Hoards can give us a snapshot of coins in circulation in a particular area at a particular time. They also help us to date coins. For example, if we assume that an undated coin was minted in the fourth century B.C., but find when we examine the hoard evidence that it turns up with hoards of coins we can date to the second century B.C., then we may have to change its date by two centuries. Hoards can also be used to make estimates of mint output. They are almost always contaminated or subtracted from, as the finders pocket some coins for themselves and dealers either pick out the better pieces to sell individually or throw in a few junk coins to make up the lot. But even in the imperfect state in which most hoards come to us, they are still extremely valuable for giving us a picture of the coins in circulation at one time, for dating coins, and for estimating mint output.

Numismatic evidence will be vital for some fields of research, less essential for others. Historians who must deal with monetary affairs or local economics clearly cannot ignore it. What remains a problem, however, is that there are many numismatic objects which could prove very useful to historians, yet historians are just not aware of them. The English tradespeople's tokens of the seventeenth century are an example: They were issued in practically every tiny town, they are well cataloged, and a historian doing a study of social conditions in Colchester in the 1660s or the spread of coffeehouses or tobacco shops in England should certainly spend some time working with them. Likewise, someone studying labor conditions in West Virginia coal mines in the 1930s might overlook mining scrip—yet adequate catalogs exist.

There are other instances where the neglect of numismatic evidence has seriously harmed otherwise plausible studies. It has recently become trendy among some economists and economic historians to praise the heyday of "free banking" between 1800 and 1861 as a period of near perfect competition among various types of currency. A look into James Haxby's catalog of the bank notes of this period, however, shows nothing of the kind. Of the eighty banks cataloged by Haxby as operating from the District of Columbia, no fewer than fifty-two are described by him as "fraudulent, possibly nonexistent banks." So many bank notes were in circulation, that rather than counterfeit the notes of an existing bank, forgers just made some up. The chance of receiving a counterfeit must have been very high indeed. It is hard to have much faith left in free banking after some hours spent going through Haxby's catalogs.

I have chosen three numismatic objects to illustrate varied historical topics where coins and paper money are useful sources. One is a hard-times token (cataloged as Low.54) with an antislavery device and the inscription, "Am I not a woman and a sister?" Hard-times tokens were issued to make up for cash shortages following the Panic of 1837. Many tokens make fun of Andrew Jackson; others, like this one, were used by abolitionists to propagandize their cause.

The second is a token issued during the 1790s, depicting Lord George Gordon. In the 1790s, the lack of copper coins in Britain and the need for small change because of the Industrial Revolution led to numerous private token issues. Some praised the achievements of the Industrial Revolution; others made political propaganda, such as those issued by the left-wing publicist Thomas Spence. This is one of the tokens issued by Spence; it depicts the agitator Lord George Gordon, who led the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in 1780, but then converted to Judaism later in the decade. We know from historical sources that Gordon grew a beard and wore a hat, and refused to talk to any clean-shaven Jews; this token shows Gordon in his Jewish garb, and is cataloged as Dalton-Hamer.778.

Finally, the third example is a piece of satirical scrip (uncataloged) issued after the Panic of 1837, making fun of Andrew Jackson's banking problems. The antislavery token and the satirical scrip would be useful to any historian studying aspects of the age of Jackson; the Lord George Gordon token is part of a great political debate carried on in token form in the 1790s in England, and thus of interest to any historian working in that period.

How does a historian find these objects? Most numismatic objects have been cataloged; there are state-by-state catalogs for tokens, there are overall catalogs for coal-mining scrip. Most numismatic objects have a catalog number: For example, Haxby.DE-80.G2c is a one-dollar note issued by the Union Bank of Delaware in the 1850s; Gadoury-Elie.Algerie.Ouenza.1.1 is a fifty-centime token issued by the Economat des Mines of Ouenza, in Algeria. To get an overview of what exists, one should try to find an appropriate catalog, and see what else has been written. The literature can be approached through the general bibliography by Elvira Clain-Stefanelli, and through the periodical Numismatic Literature, published by the American Numismatic Society. The best numismatic library in the country is at the American Numismatic Society at Broadway and 155th Street in New York City.

There is no substitute for working with the coins, tokens, medals, and paper money themselves. There are two major numismatic cabinets in the United States: that of the American Numismatic Society and that of the Smithsonian Institution. If there is a series one is interested in, one can make an appointment with the appropriate curator. The American Numismatic Society also conducts a ten-week seminar every summer, where graduate students prepare a numismatic lecture and paper under the supervision of the curatorial staff. Applications must be in by March 1. For someone who wants to get a thorough training and a chance to work extensively with a superb collection, the American Numismatic Society summer seminar is unmatched.


American Numismatic Society. Numismatic Literature. New York, 1947–present. Appears in March and September of each year.

Clain-Stefanelli, Elvira Eliza. Numismatic Bibliography. Munich, 1984.

Grierson, Philip. Bibliographie Numismatique. Brussels, 1979.

Further Reading

Breen, Walter. Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. New York, 1988.

Carson, R. A. G. Coins: Ancient, Medieval, Modern. London, 1962.

Ebengreuth, A. Luschin von. Allgemeine Münzkunde und Geldgeschichte des Mittelalters und der neueren Zeit. Munich and Berlin, 1926.

Grierson, Philip. Numismatics. London, 1975.

Porteous, John. Coins in History. New York, 1969.

—John M. Kleeberg is the associate curator of modern coins and currency at the American Numismatic Society. He received his D.Phil. in modern history from Oxford University.