Sunday, October 16, 2011

Amazing coins from centuries ago found while cleaning my home office

From past blogs, I'm sure that you know that Ann and I both lost parents and acquired inherited possessions back in 2009. One of those items was an old Tetley Tea tin that had a copper bracelet with some copper coins that had been holes drilled for attachment. This had been in the category of "things I need to sort through and check at some point"; I knew that there were some old coins, but I just filed it away for a rainy day.

Claire was helping to unpack some stuff in my office this weekend and found the tin. Since anything is more fun than unpacking, she sorted through the coins in the tin. We found amazing things. One was a silver three cent US coin from 1853, at which point we knew we were onto some interesting finds. Note that these images are from high quality web sources: our coins were a bit more worn, but you can certainly can get the idea of the coins.

We had a few coins that dated back to the late 1700s, but the single most intriguing one was a bit of unofficial English coin from 1794. Below are a few paragraphs of history, first of these unofficial coins and then of the particular English half-penny from 1794 designed by William Mainwaring. I just never thought that one could need such a lengthy description of the message of a coin.

At various points in British history the supply of official money issued by the state has become sufficiently scant that unofficial coinage has entered circulation. This has applied especially to small-value coins, in whose manufacture there is little profit for the state and which the government does not need for its own expenditure. For the common working man, however, the absence of lesser denominations made simple transactions very difficult. For example, if he was paid fifteen silver shillings a week, but wished to buy bread worth three halfpence, his coins were each worth much more, and the shopkeeper would not easily be able to refund the difference as change. Particular periods of such change shortage were the years around the English Civil War and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and both generated a substantial 'token' coinage of lesser denominations to supply the want, which are now highly collectable and of great historical interest.

Taking as the basic theme a conceptual map of France, the obverse depicts HONOR trodden underfoot, the THRONE overturned, GLORY obliterated with cross-hatching and RELIGION shattered into pieces, while FIRE burns at every corner and the whole design is surrounded with daggers and runs with wavy lines intended to represent flowing blood. The sententious legend of the other side, "May Great Britain ever remain the reverse", puns on the medium of issue in a different way. Although the allusions may seem over-clever to us, William Mainwaring had struck metaphorical gold with this design of his, which is known in twenty different issues and three different metals (though gold is not one of them). Its popularity can be explained by English horror at the new developments in France as the Revolution there reached its final and bloodiest stages.

It's just unclear what's more amazing in this story. First, that such a coin from England during the French revolution was in our possession. Second, that the messages on old coins could be so complex: we tend to thing that we're the brightest and most complex people ever on this planet. And finally, that a Google search for the coin found all of this information in one search.

Note that we can trace some of these coins back through Ann's family. Her father was raised by two aunts in Wisconsin in the early 1900s. A few of the coins had "Racine" stamped on them, which makes the association pretty clear. It's unclear what the story may be before that, though.

Postscript: We did a bit of family history conjecture and may have come up with the path of these coins. The Holmes, on Ann's side, came over from England sometime in the early 1800s; that "Holmes" was Ann's father's middle name. They settled in Wyoming and these coins most likely came over with them on their voyage. I'd expect that jewelry stores were hard to find in Wyoming in the 1800s and that money to buy jewelry was even tougher to find, so coins were used as charms on a bracelet. The only US coin, that three cent piece, is as close to a time snapshot as we have. I'm pretty sure that we skip a generation or two before we get to Ann's grandfather. Ann's father's mother died in childbirth and his father (Ann's grandfather) could not care for Ann's father and his brother. He gave them up to his mother's father, Luke Paul Holmes, who raised him until he was seven, along with his brother. At that point, Henry's grandfather gave them up to the aunts in Burlington, WI. And that Tetley tea tin with the bracelet and coins is what we have left from all this.


Post a Comment

<< Home