The Aero Club of America

The Aero Club of America (ACA) was a social club formed in 1905 by Charles Jasper Glidden and Augustus Post to promote aviation in America. It was the parent organization of numerous state chapters, the first being the Aero Club of New England. In 1905, few people believed powered aircraft would be feasible in the future. At the beginning, the ACA’s goal was to promote aviation in any way possible, as both a sport and a commercial endeavor. ACA’s early work helped advance aviation in its early years faster than it might have developed otherwise.

Although the ACA officially began in 1905, there are photos of high society and adventurers printed in 1902 with the stamp, “Aero Club”. Charles Glidden, Homer Hedge, Dave Morris, John F. O’Rourke, and Augustus Post, members of the Automobile Club of America, in the summer of 1905 founded the Aero Club of America. They were avid balloonists but found little support in America for the sport of aviation. With determination they established a new club with an organization similar to the Automobile Club but whose purpose was to promote aviation, much like the Aero Club of France. Homer Hedge became the first President and Augustus Post the first secretary.

Three different conventions were held in New York among aeronautical clubs and societies in 1910. The National Council of Affiliated Clubs of the Aero Club of America, was formed. Thirty-nine delegates, representing constituencies from Pasadena, California, to Boston, met at the Aero Club and formed the parent organization of various state chapters.


1910 Belmont Park Air Show

At the Belmont Air Show in October 1910, a considerable controversy arose between the Englishman Claude Graham-White and the American J. B. Moisant. In one race around the Statue of Liberty, Graham-White won by several minutes, but due to a technicality, the race and considerable prize money was awarded to Moisant. John Armstrong Drexel made public statements accusing the organization of favoritism toward its own members, and Drexel held a competing dinner banquet at the same time as the awards banquet of the organization. The schism among the membership threatened the integrity of the organization, but was ultimately resolved with Drexel’s resignation.

In 1911, the Aero Club of New York put on the First Industrial Airplane Show that was held in conjunction with the 11th U.S. International Auto Show at Manhattan’s Grand Central Palace, in New York City. It was a spectacular event with prominent speakers, and an enthusiastic large crowd that would gaze upon a full-size airplane for the first time. It started December 31, 1910, until mid-January 1911.

In 1919, the rules for a transatlantic flight competition between New York and Paris were written by the secretary of the club, Augustus Post. He worked with wealthy hotel owner Raymond Orteig in securing the $25,000 for the Orteig Prize. The $25,000 prize was to be awarded “to the first aviator of any Allied Country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris”. After five years of failing to attract competitors, the award was then put under the control of a seven-member Bryant Bank board of trustees, which awarded it to Charles Lindbergh for his successful 1927 flight in the Spirit of St. Louis.


Glenn H. Curtiss’ Pilot License

The Club issued the first pilot’s licenses in the United States, and successful completion of its licensing process was required by the United States Army for its pilots until 1914. Some of the later licenses issued by the ACA even bore the printed signature of Orville Wright; Wright served for a time as Chairman of the Aero Club of America’s Contest Committee.

Pilot’s licenses were not required by law (except by some states) until well after World War I. AMA licenses were required for participation in sporting events and demonstrations sanctioned by the ACA and FAI, and they gave credibility to pilots seeking to perform demonstration flights for hire, but many American pilots never applied for a license, which required a demonstration of flight proficiency. The ACA was also notorious for the inflexibility of its licensing process, which required,  a letter of application, a photograph of a candidate, appointment of an ACA examiner, and his report of examination, all of which had to be submitted in the correct form and sequence for a license to be issued, whether the candidate passed the flight test or not.

In present day the Aero Club of America is now the National Aeronautic Association (NAA). The primary mission of NAA closely aligns with the original Club’s mission; the advancement of the art, sport, and science of aviation and space flight by fostering opportunities to participate fully in aviation activities and by promoting public understanding of the importance of aviation and space flight to the United States. On their website the Association states that in carrying out this mission, National Aero Club of the United States, will:

“Develop opportunities to strengthen the mutual objectives of NAA and its corporate members, air sport organizations, chapters and affiliates, including the formation of affiliated aero clubs in U.S. cities where such organizations do not now exist; Represent U.S. aviation throughout the world as a member of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale; Encourage, coordinate, document, and promote competition and record-making aviation and space events in accordance with the rules prescribed by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, of which NAA is the official U.S. representative; Recognize and reward those who make outstanding contributions to the advancement of aviation and space flight through presentations of awards and other honors; Endorse sound national programs and other efforts designed to help the United States remain a leader in aviation and space flight; Support and encourage aviation and space education programs; Promote and encourage public participation in, and appreciation of, U.S. aviation and space activities.”

Whether your into  history, aviation, or apart of the current National Aeronautic Association; this Aero Club of America envelope addressed to the 1911 president of the club is a an artifact to treasure. It is available now in our Ebay store. 

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The Liberty on the Draped Bust: Ann Willing Bingham



Bust_dollar_obverseThe Draped Bust coin obverse design, in use from 1795 to 1807, was designed by Mint engraver Robert Scot to replace the Flowing Hair design, which was almost unanimously disliked. Though it cannot be conclusively proved, it is likely that Ann Willing Bingham, a socialite and considered one of the most lovely women of her day, was the inspiration for the Liberty on this coin. She was the subject of many portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart, who created the image that Scot used for his engraving of Liberty on the Draped Bust coins.


Stuart_annewillingbinghamAnn Bingham was a regular correspondent of Thomas Jefferson, as well as other luminaries of the American Revolution. Her letters were influential in convincing Jefferson of the need for the Bill of Rights, which would offer much greater protection to the citizens of the newly formed country than just the Constitution alone. Jefferson proposed the Bill of Rights to Madison, likely leaving her name out, and Madison drew up the document which was adopted by Congress.


bingham_anne_smOn a personal level, she often matched wits with Jefferson. Consider this passage from a letter from Bingham to Jefferson, dated June 1, 1787: “I agree with you that many of the fashionable pursuits of the Parisian Ladies are rather frivolous, and become uninteresting to a reflective Mind; but the Picture you have exhibited, is rather overcharged. You have thrown a strong light upon all that is ridiculous in their Characters, and you have buried their good Qualities in the Shade. It shall be my Task to bring them forward, or at least to attempt it…The Women of France interfere in the politics of the Country, and often give a decided Turn to the Fate of Empires. Either by the gentle Arts of persuasion, or by the commanding force of superior Attractions and Address, they have obtained that Rank and Consideration in society, which the Sex are intitled to, and which they in vain contend for in other Countries.”


She loved the intellectual life of the European continent, and tried to recreate it in her Philadelphia social circles. Members of the Federalist party, like Alexander Hamilton, and other founding fathers, including George Washington, were regular visitors for friendly debates and discussions.


Abigail Adams wrote about her, “[Mrs. Bingham is] the finest lady I ever saw. The intelligence of her countenance, or rather, I ought to say, its animation, the elegance of her form, and the affability of her manners, convert you into admiration.”


After the birth of her third child, Ann fell very ill (probably with tuberculosis), and set sail with her family for the more favorable climate of Madeira. She never reached it: she died en route in Bermuda, at the age of 37.

Little Coins on the Prairie



laura_ingalls_wilder_cropped_sepia2One of the most formative book series for American children has been the Little House books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Published in the 1930’s and 40’s, these books chronicle Laura’s childhood and teenage years as her family traveled across the midwest during the 1870’s and 1880’s. Laura Ingalls was born in 1867, near Pepin, Wisconsin. Though Laura made significant changes to her story at the urging of her publisher, the books are predominantly autobiographical. (Those wishing to know the story as it was originally written should read the recently-released book, Pioneer Girl.) Between the ages of 2 and 9, Laura and her family had lived in 5 locations: Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin again, and Minnesota. (The second stint in Wisconsin was the inspiration for Little House in the Big Woods, though it is the first in the series. According to Wilder biographer William Anderson, her publisher did not believe that she could have such vivid memories of her life at age 3, and insisted the timeline be changed and Laura’s age increased. The fictional and historical timelines merge at By the Shores of Silver Lake.)


Caroline_and_Charles_Ingalls_sepia_cropped.jpgCharles Ingalls, Laura’s father, was a restless man who moved the family often, usually to areas on the edge of a frontier, before finally settling in De Smet, South Dakota. Laura’s parents and blind sister Mary remained there for the rest of their lives, and it was in De Smet that Laura Ingalls met and married Almanzo Wilder, the farmer boy from her book of the same title. The couple spent their early married years in De Smet before moving to Minnesota and then Florida, eventually settling in Mansfield, Missouri, at Rocky Ridge Farm. It was at Rocky Ridge, in a house built for them by their daughter Rose (a popular author in her own right), that Laura finally sat down and wrote her story.


With the stability of coin denominations and designs in the 20th and 21st centuries, it’s easy to forget how different the coinage of the 19th century was. (President Theodore Roosevelt was a notorious critic of contemporary American coinage, writing in 1904 that “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.”



Carson City Mint

The coins that Laura Ingalls would have seen during her childhood are very different from the coins we use today. Most of the coins Laura saw were likely created at the Philadelphia Mint (1792-present), though the Denver and San Francisco Mints also produced coinage. Though Mint facilities at Charlotte, NC, and Dahlonega, GA, were in operation shortly before Laura’s childhood, both only minted gold coins and were unlikely to produce anything the hardscrabble family would have owned, and both were shut down in 1861 after the Civil War. The New Orleans Mint (1838-1961, 1879-1909) would not come back into operations until Laura was twelve years old; when she was 3, the new Mint in Carson City began operations, producing predominantly silver coins from the rich local mines.


By the time she was 7, in 1874, Laura and her family were living on the banks of Plum Creek just outside Walnut Grove, Minnesota; Charles Ingalls was the town butcher and served as the Justice of the Peace. With the family living closer to an established town, it is likely that Laura, Mary, and the other children would have seen more contemporary coins than they had grown up with.

Lower-denomination coins would have been the most common; these included the Indian Head cent, the shield 2-cent and star 3-cent (both discontinued in 1873), bust 3-cent, and shield 5-cent coins. The two-cent shield design coin was the first to bear the motto, “In God We Trust,” but was only produced for ten years.



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One of the more common designs of the time, the Seated Liberty, appeared on half-dimes, quarters, half-dollars, and dollar coins. More valuable coins would have included the coronet head gold coins in $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 denominations, as well as the gold dollar coins. The silver trade dollar came into use in 1873, but as those were minted in the western mints and almost all of the coins used for overseas trade, it is unlikely that any of them would have been in circulation in a small Minnesota town.



NationalCashRegister.jpgIn 1870’s Minnesota, even a small coin had substantial buying power. The book Minnesota As It Is In 1870 records some of the costs of basic items: “Beef, by the quarter, costs 7 and 8 cts.; steaks and roasts, 15 to 18; pork, 81/2 to 10; steaks, 18 to 20; mutton, 15 to 20; hams, 20 to 25; venison, 8 cts., by the quantity; steaks, 18; chickens, 121/2 to 15; turkeys, 15 to 18; fish, 5 to 15; lard, 20 to 25; flour, $5 per parrel (sic); meal, 4 cts; buckwheat flour, $1.50 per sack; butter, 25 to 30 cts.; cheese, 20; eggs, 35 per dozen; potatoes, $1 per bushel; ruta bagas, 35 cts.; onions, 75 cts.; beans, $1.45 to $2.50; cranberries, $1.75 to $2.50; sugar, 14 to 16 cts. per lb.; coffee, 22 to 28; tea, 90 cts. to $1.80; woo, $6 to $7.50 per cord. Rents, $3 to $15 per month for cottages; $15 to $50 for larger houses. Board, $1 to $3 per day; $4 to $6 per week, day board; $4 to $10, board and lodging; lower in smaller towns […] Wages.–Carpenters, $2 to $3; masons, $3.50 to $4.50; painters, $2 to $3; laborers, $1.50 to $2; and by the month, $20 to $25, on farms; $35 to $60, on boats and in the pineries; servants, $8 to $15; clerks, $500 to $1800; teachers, $300 to $1500.” [Note: the last two salaries appear to be listed by year rather than day or hour.] These numbers are for St. Paul, and items were probably slightly cheaper in Walnut Grove.


1933-littlehouseontheprairieNot many purchases are recorded in Laura’s books, but she does mention a few significant ones. On the Straight Dope forum, user Choie offers a list of purchase amounts mentioned in the Little House books:

“A meal in a railroad hotel costs $0.25 (On the Shores of Silver Lake.) Also in LTotP [Little Town on the Prairie], Laura later earns $1.50 a week as a seamstress, with hours from 7AM – 6PM, and a half-hour for mealtime. Pa says of this workday, ‘That’s fair. You get off an hour early but have to bring your own meal.’ (User Lissla Lissar corrects this in a subsequent post: “In LTotP, Laura makes ‘$.25 a day plus dinner’, which is $1.25 a week.”) For her first teaching stint, Laura earns $25 (+ bed/board) for two months’ work. Later, as a more experienced teacher, she earns about $75 for teaching school for 3 months (These Happy Golden Years). In THGY, a parlour organ costs the Ingalls $100, $40 of which is Laura’s.”


Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books have defined an optimistic vision of America for generations of children and adults. Her experiences with life on the frontier, from coins to bears to one-room schoolhouses, are a reminder of our history and our commitment to progress.


7 Mistakes To Avoid When Collecting Coins



s-l16001: Old equals valuable. Many beginning collectors opt for the oldest coins they can find, assuming that the age of the coin contributes significantly to the value. This is not the case; for one thing, fakes and replicas of ancient coins have flooded the market, and it is often difficult if not impossible to be sure which ones are real. The coins often have little to no provenance, and some have been collected illegally. If you want to collect ancient coins, by all means, go ahead! There are many beautiful and worthwhile coins in this category. Just be aware that these coins are not inherently valuable due to age.



2: Early 20th century is old. If you participate in any coin collecting groups on Facebook or other social media, you know that it’s not uncommon for a stranger to post in a group, asking for help getting a value for an “old” coin, that turns out to be from the 1940’s, or a similar date. Twentieth century coins can be valuable, but they are not considered particularly old (nor would being “old” necessarily add much value.) The penny has only changed reverse design a few times since 1909, and the obverse is almost unchanged. Many of our other coins are similarly static.



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3: Errors are easy to spot. Many errors on coins are very difficult to see, and frequently only visible to a very practiced eye (armed with a good magnifying glass!) Some errors, like offset coins or other mint errors, are obvious, but usually less valuable than the more subtle errors.



4: Fakes are easy to spot. As with error coins, some fakes are obvious, but others are very difficult to detect. More and more mints around the world are using new technologies to prevent fakes from being passed off as real coins; as technology improves, so do the quality of fake coins.



s-l1600 (2).jpg5: “Very good” is an excellent grade of coin. Not necessarily. The Sheldon grading scale, the most common one in use today, ranks coins from good to worse as follows: Mint State (MS-66-70), Mint State (MS-60 to 65), About Uncirculated, Extra Fine, Very Fine, Fine, Very Good, Good. Coins in “Very Good” condition are often more affordable than others, but may not have the value of higher grade coins. However, if the main interest is the design of the coin rather than the condition, these can be excellent options for a collector.



6: Grading is objective. Not as much as we wish! It would make collecting and selling/buying coins much simpler if grading were perfectly objective. While there are some objective markers (damage to a coin’s surface, etc) that can affect quality, many coins may be graded differently by different people. Even experts don’t always agree. Most collectors are content with gradings done by professional grading services, but this is often cost-effective only for coins of higher value.



coin-graph7: Collecting coins is a good way to make money. Have people made money from coin collections? Absolutely. Is it a reliable gold mine? Absolutely not. A coin collection can be a decent investment, but is best enjoyed as a pursuit in its own right. (Those seeking investment opportunities might find that bullion meets their needs better than coins.) Why bother to collect coins if you don’t enjoy them? Collect what you like without worrying too much about investment.

Coin collecting for beginners: resources


We’ve written a lot of information about coin collecting over the years, and now it’s all in one handy place.




The Basics of Collecting



The Language of the Coin Collector: Obverse? Reeding? Strike? What’s up with all the technical talk? Get a quick overview here.



How To Know What Your Coin Is Worth: This is one of the most common questions in coin collecting circles online. It’s difficult to give a precise estimate without seeing a coin in person, but here are some ways to improve your chances of getting accurate information.




5 Crucial Things to Do If You Think You’ve Found A Valuable Coin: You’ve found something unusual in your change, or in a box of coins, or while out metal detecting. It might be worth something. Make sure your find keeps as much of its value as possible. Here’s what to do.



Coin Storage for Beginners: As you’re putting your collection together, you will need to think about how to store your coins. Some methods are better than others, and some can actually damage your coins. Read this to learn how to decide which storage system is best for you.


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Everything You Didn’t Know About Coin Design: American coins have gone through many designs over the centuries, and all are of some interest to collectors. Read up about coin design here.



Who Designed the Faces on Your Pocket Change: Have you ever thought about the tiny portraits on your coins? An artist had to design each one, working from older portraits, sculptures, and photographs. Here are the stories of the designers of currently-circulating coins.




What Were the First Coins: Coins have been used for millennia to increase trade and make commerce easier. Read about the history of coins here.



The Top 5 Most Expensive Coins in the World: While many coins are affordable to the majority of collectors, a few go for truly astronomical prices. Here are the top five.



Exonumia: It looks like a coin, but it isn’t a coin–what is it? It’s called “exonumia.” This can include tokens, medal, pressed coins, and more. Read about some of the more popular kinds of exonumia here. 





Specific Coins


The Lincoln Wheat Cent: One of the most collected coins in the world, the Lincoln Wheat Cent was first issued in 1909 to mass appeal. Get the history of the coin here.




The 1943 Steel Cent: due to copper shortages during World War II, the Mint issued a steel cent in 1943. Found out how the new penny was received here. 



All About Buffalo Nickels: Buffalo nickels were the five-cent coin issued from 1913 to 1938, and got their nickname from the buffalo design on the reverse of the coin. Read the history of one of America’s most iconic coins here.




The Design of Morgan Silver Dollars: Morgan dollars are one of the most-collected American coins. Learn how the coin was designed and why it is prized by collectors.



The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle: Considered one of the most beautiful coins in the world, the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle is a highly collectible coin. Find out why.




Barber Coinage, or the Coin Contest Fail: The country’s first coin design contest was widely considered a massive failure, though it did result in one of the most collected coins in the country. Read about the contest and the coin here.



Collecting Pressed Coins: Though pressed coins do not carry the prestige of regular coinage, they are an inexpensive way to begin coin collecting for many people (as well as a valid object of collection in their own right), and an excellent way to interest children in collecting, as well. Get the basics of pressed coin collecting here.




Unusual Coins




All About Half Dimes: Before the creation of the nickel, five-cent coins were half dimes. Read up about this obsolete denomination here. 




The 1913 V Nickel: One of the rarest coins in the world, it’s also an oddity since the wording on the coin itself left some doubt as to how much it was worth. Get the full story here. 




The 1787 Brasher Doubloon: Have you ever wanted to strike your own coins? Here’s the story of one man who did



All About the 1804 Silver Dollar: For one thing, it was never minted in 1804; for another, only 15 of them are known to exist. To get the rest, read about it here.




The Sacajawea Mule Error: This coin was struck with the obverse design of a Washington quarter, and the reverse from a Sacajawea dollar. So, is it worth $0.25, or $1? Find out here. 

One Small Step: When the Moon Landing Changed the World



47 years ago today, 2 men set foot on the moon for the first time in human history. This event captured the attention of the entire world; it is estimated that 500 million people (about 14% of total world population in 1969) watched the moon landing coverage live on television; it was the largest audience for a live broadcast at the time.  It’s no surprise that an event of that magnitude has been commemorated on coins and stamps as well.




As with many historic events, the space program was celebrated with commemorative tokens. These were struck for all the missions, from the initial Mercury project up through the Apollo program. NASA and its astronauts were national heroes, and many space-themed collectibles were created during the 1960’s.





The Apollo 11 mission, naturally, received special focus. By the time of the Apollo missions, the United States had pulled ahead in the space race, after coming in second to the USSR in nearly every milestone until the Gemini 3 mission. For Gemini 3, Gus Grissom (who died in the Apollo 1 disaster) and John Young (who went on to several Apollo missions as well as the Shuttle program) demonstrated the ability to change the orbit of their craft. Each Gemini mission had a special focus in order to build the knowledge and experience that was needed to safely reach the moon. The Apollo program took the information from the Gemini missions and set forth a daring but achievable plan to reach the lunar surface.



On January 27, 1967, a fire broke out in the Apollo 1 capsule during a routine test. The combination of an oxygen-rich environment and the design of the escape hatch resulted in the death of the Apollo 1 crew: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. NASA took time after the accident to reassess the module design and the cost of the space program. Flight Director Gene Kranz (most famous for his leadership during the Apollo 13 crisis) told the Mission Control team, “We were too ‘gung-ho’ about the schedule and we blocked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work.” New safety measures and procedures were put into place, and the Apollo missions continued. The Apollo 1 mission name was retired in honor of the lost astronauts, and Apollos 2 and 3 never flew. Apollo 4 lifted off in November of 1967, and the race for the moon continued.




Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin


After successful trips around the moon with Apollos 8 and 10 (Apollo 9 was a test of all modules in low earth orbit), Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins were aboard; only Armstrong and Aldrin would land on the lunar surface, as Collins stayed behind with the spacecraft.





On July 20, 1969, after a harrowing descent in which the “Eagle” lander ended up short on fuel and kilometers off course, Armstrong and Aldrin landed safely on the surface. Several hours later, the two astronauts descended onto the lunar surface, making history for their nation and for all of humanity.





Apollo 11 mission emblem

Since the first moment when Armstrong’s boots touched the surface of the moon, the image of the first moon landing have become iconic. They have been featured in movies, videos, songs, and on everything from t-shirts to jewelry. The eagle and moon motif on the reverse of the Eisenhower and Susan B. Anthony dollars was based on the emblem for Apollo 11, since NASA was established during Eisenhower’s administration (the design was re-used for the Anthony dollar, though she had no connection to the program.)



On the 47th anniversary of the first moon landing, we remember the sacrifices made to further the cause of peaceful exploration and scientific inquiry, and look hopefully to the future.

The Eagles on Our Coins


Happy 4th of July from the Stamp and Coin Place! In honor of the holiday, here’s a quick look at some of the different forms the bald eagle, our country’s national symbol, has taken on our coins over the years.




The eagle on the reverse of an 1877 trade dollar. (Have you read our story about the silver trade dollars?)







Very large eagle design on the reverse of a 1925 silver Peace Dollar.






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Reverse of an 1835 silver Capped Bust half-dollar







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Most eagle designs are on the reverse of our coins, but this 1858 Flying Eagle cent features the eagle on the obverse.







This 1946 Walking Liberty half-dollar features a very large and dynamic eagle on the reverse.






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This very stylized eagle is on the reverse of a 2011 Walking Liberty silver dollar bullion coin.





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This 1889 Morgan Dollar features one of the best known eagle designs in American coins.










While the eagle is usually shown in a static position, this 1927 Standing Liberty quarter shows a flying eagle on the reverse.






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The eagle on the reverse of this 1935 silver Washington quarter is probably the most familiar to the vast majority of Americans.


What Happened When Hamilton Lost the Mint


A unique painting hangs in the US Mint in Philadelphia; an intimate group scene, painted by John Dunsmore, shows several Founding Fathers and other figures gathered around a seated Martha Washington. Mrs. Washington is examining the first coins minted by the new United States, made with silver from her own personal housewares (about 1,200 half dismes and a smaller number of dismes, the predecessor of the modern dime. One such disme coin sold for $998,750 in May 2016, while a half disme sold for $176,250, according to Heritage Auctions). In the group behind her, you can see Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, while Thomas Jefferson stands on Washington’s other side, waiting to inspect the new coins.


If you’re familiar with the “Hamilton” musical, or just know your American history, you know that Jefferson and Hamilton butted heads during their time on Washington’s Cabinet, and the founding of the Mint became another source of conflict.


After having a great deal of difficulty producing money that held its value during the war, America was slow to adopt new currency. Many areas relied on stable foreign currency, like the Spanish silver peso, for trade; in some places, businessmen valued foreign coins differently than in others. Many gold and silver coins had been mixed with base metals, causing merchants to fear using them lest they be cheated. In fact, though the dollar had been established by Congress as the standard currency unit, President Washington’s daily expense reports still used British denominations.


Naturally, Hamilton approached this issue in his usual manner: reading everything he could on the subject of coinage and minting. He studied the notes that Sir Isaac Newton had created during his post as master of the mint; these notes included details on the exact value of specific coins. Hamilton insisted on special assays of coins from other nations, trying to determine the metals used in each.




In the interest of improving the economy, as well as making common necessities more available to those with lower income, Hamilton recommended the creation of a range of coins, from dollars minted with precious metals down to half-cents made from copper. He believed this would help the less fortunate “by enabling them to purchase in small portions and at a more reasonable rate the necessaries of which they stand in need.” He also championed the use of beautifully-crafted and intricate designs on the coins, both to inspire patriotism and to deter counterfeiters: “It is a just observation that ‘The perfection of the coins is a great safeguard against counterfeits.’”


When Hamilton first began studying and reporting on the need for a mint, he and Jefferson were still civil, if not close friends. Politics and rivalry soon divided them, which was only made worse when Washington decided that his Secretary of the Treasury was too busy for another undertaking, and put the US Mint under Jefferson’s much-smaller State department.


Ron Chernow, Hamilton biographer, writes, “Hamilton long regretted that when the U.S. Mint was finally established by Congress in spring 1792 and began to produce the first federal coins, Washington lodged it under Jefferson’s jurisdiction at State. […] Unfortunately, Jefferson ran the mint poorly. Hamilton later tried, in vain, to arrange a swap whereby the post office would go to State in exchange for the mint coming under Treasury control, where it belonged.”


Hamilton stepped down from the Treasury in 1795, but kept in contact with President Washington (later writing the bulk of Washington’s farewell address) and gave advice to Oliver Wolcott, who succeeded Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. The Mint became an independent agency in 1799, and turned precious metals into coins for anyone, without charging for seigniorage. It finally joined the Treasury department with the Coinage Act of 1873, nearly 70 years after Hamilton’s death.


(Unless otherwise stated and linked, the information in this story is sourced from Ron Chernow’s excellent book Alexander Hamilton, pages 354-356 of the Kindle edition.)

Unparalleled Exploration: How New World Treasure Fueled Spain’s Empire

Exploration and currency are inextricably linked; as explorers moved around the globe, they took their coins and other wealth with them. As trade was established, these coins began to move along the trade routes.


1024px-Map_of_HispaniolaAlthough the Vikings (and possibly other Western civilizations) had visited the New World, formal discovery with the addition of trade was not established until the late 15th century. The Spanish Empire’s influence on the Americas began in 1492 with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus; Spain would eventually control most of North, Central, and South America. Regardless of danger and a high death rate, by 1500AD, there were nearly a thousand Spanish settlers in the Hispaniola region (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic.)


Expeditions quickly moved inwards as more ships arrived from the European mainland. Nueva Cádiz was founded in 1500 in Venezula, followed by Alonso de Ojeda in Colombia. Cumaná, in modern-day Venezuela, was the first permanent European settlement, though  it was destroyed by the indigenous peoples several times before its final re-building in 1569.



One of the most famous—and ruthless—of the Spanish explorers was Hernán Cortés. His forces, with help from the Tlaxcala and other indigenous allies, overthrew the Aztec Empire in just a few years, between 1519 and 1521. The Viceroyalty of New Spain was created in 1535 by Charles V, who appointed Don Antonio de Mendoza as viceroy.



In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and his troops, including indigenous warriors, took the Incan Emperor Atahualpa prisoner, beginning a war that raged for years. It took four decades for Spanish forces to conquer the strongest empire in the Americas. The Spanish encountered the Inca during a time of unrest and civil war, and were able to use the political situation to their advantage, despite smaller numbers of armed soldiers.


In the 16th century, over 200,000 Spaniards had made their home in the Americas, with the number swelling to 500,000 in the 17th century. Even after the American Revolution, Spain controlled California through the missions until 1833, when Mexico passed the Secularization Act.


While exact numbers are not available, sources indicate that the indigenous population of Caribbean prior to the arrival of Columbus was about 6 million, with several million more in Mexico and South America. These populations declined by up to 90% in many areas by the early 17th century. In addition to coins and trade, the Spanish explorers brought diseases against which the native peoples had no natural resistance. The hard labor and other punishments of the Encomienda system also had an effect.


Some of the gold, silver, and other precious items valued by the explorers originally took the form of religious items, which were melted down prior to the voyage to Catholic Spain. It is unknown how many archeological treasures were destroyed in this process.


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While Columbia and Brazil produced gold, the main metal coming out of the New World was silver. During the 300 years of Spanish dominance in the Americas, a peso had approximately 25 grams of silver. A Spanish treasure ship could carry as many as two million such coins. According to Timothy R. Walton, “The modern approximate value of the estimated 4 billion pesos produced during the period would come to $527,270,000,000 or €469,839,661,964 (based on silver bullion prices of May 2015).” These coins did not stay predominantly in Spain, but were sent to their allies and trading partners for imports, military supplies and expenses, and other trade expenses. The wealth of the Americas was the foundation for the might of the Spanish Empire.




As the Spanish crown insisted on receiving ⅕ of the wealth collected, more and more ships and crews began smuggling unregistered coins and other goods. This makes it difficult to know the exact contents of shipwrecks and other lost treasures, as official records may not show all goods on board.




The Spanish Empire eventually began to decline, and their presence in the New World weakened. But the coins and other goods still circulated the globe, following the trade routes of the legendary sea-faring nation.

The Treasure Fleet That Ruled the World


Locations like the Caribbean and the Spanish Main can bring to mind romantic images of clear blue waters, chests of gold, and massive ships loaded with treasure. These waters were once part of some of the busiest trade routes in the world.


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From the 1500s through to the early 1800s, fabulous amounts of wealth passed through the Spanish Main on its way to Spain: gems, precious metals, spices, hides, and other items were loaded onto the ships from all over Mexico, and Central and South America. Trade ships from the Far East delivered their goods to Acapulco, which were then brought across the mainland to the Pacific ports.


The Silver Fleet

The Spanish empire established the silver fleet (a common nickname for the Spanish treasure fleet) to act as a convoy between Spain and the New World from 1566 to 1790. Despite the romantic name, the fleet carried an assortment of goods, including precious metals, but also lumber, pearls, sugar, tobacco, and other goods the Empire needed. People and goods went the other way, too; by 1500, there were up to 1000 Spanish settlers in Hispaniola, and the numbers continued to grow as trade increased.


1280px-16th_century_Portuguese_Spanish_trade_routesWhile many ships and explorers had ventured to and from the New World, the Spanish fleet maintained the first permanent trade route across the Atlantic.The convoy system was established in response to French privateers sacking the city of Havana in the 1560’s. The route over the Atlantic, sailed by the Caribbean Spanish West Indies Fleet (Flota de Indias), departed from Seville and stopped at ports like Veracruz, Cartagena, and others, before rendezvousing in Havana to make the journey back to Spain. The Pacific route, sailed by the Manilla Galleons (Galeón de Manila), joined the Philippine Islands to Acapulco. From there, the goods were loaded onto mules and taken overland to the Atlantic ports to be shipped to Spain.


Pirates and Privateers

Naturally, these prolific trade routes, full of ships heavy with goods and gold, were a tempting target for pirates and privateers. Many countries participated in privateering. One of Canada’s most popular modern folk songs, “Barrett’s Privateers,” recounts the story of a young Canadian man whose privateering in the Caribbean goes badly awry. Only marginally more legal than outright piracy, privateers (sometimes called buccaneers or corsairs) were private individuals commissioned by a government to attack and raid ships from foreign governments, and bring those ships in as prizes. These battles rarely resulted in sunken ships or lost treasure, since the goal was to capture a ship and cargo intact; most such losses occurred during harsh weather rather than battles at sea.  


In the two hundred and fifty years that the flota operated, it was only captured once; Piet Hein successfully captured the ships in 1628, bringing the cargo and ships to the Dutch Republic. The crews of the ships were deposited on the Cuban cost with enough supplies to march back to Havana; Hein collected 11,509,524 guilders of loot from the fleet.



Robert Blake attacked the flota in 1656 and 1657, but only made off with a single galleon; the Spanish officers preserved most of the silver on board the other ships. The Atlantic fleet was destroyed in 1702 in Cadiz, Spain, during the War of the Spanish Succession, but little cargo was lost; most of it had already been unloaded. While losses did have a heavy impact on the Spanish economy, the fleet was one of the most successful and lucrative maritime operations of all time.