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Scott Grieb's "Of Coin Stories – Three Cent Shops and Double Eagle Prizes"

Originally published from July 13 2020 thru July 17 2020



Scott Grieb's "Of Coin Stories – Three Cent Shops and Double Eagle Prizes"

Welcome to a new Featured Article by Scott Grieb that will be presented in a four part series. Scott spent considerable time rewriting his "Of Coin Stories - Three Cent Shops and Double Eagle Prizes" article that was previously published in the Gobrecht Journal Issues #69 and #70. This is a historically entertaining and insightful 22 page offering that will be continuously published through Thursday of this week.


Of Coin Stories – Three Cent Shops and Double Eagle Prizes, Part One

By Scott Grieb

Note to the Reader:This article was originally written in the mid-1990’s and appeared in the Liberty Seated Collectors Club publication, the Gobrecht Journal, in issues #69 and #70 (July and November 1997). I updated it in June – July 2020 and it was featured in Gerry Fortin’s Blog in early July 2020. This August 2020 version has been further edited for clarity and I have also added some stories found in the interim.

Any errors with respect to history or of a typographical nature are purely unintentional but my own. I have attempted to create an error-free document and acknowledge my sources so that the reader can also research this most fascinating era on his or her own.

Please enjoy...

One sideline of my numismatic pursuits is collecting anecdotes that describe how people in the 19th century used coins, including their attitude toward them. It is inexpensive and adds enjoyment to the old hobby. I scour books, magazines, newspapers, and even photographs to uncover some tidbit of information that will shed light on the local availability of coins as well as any related practices or customs. I also like to share what I have found and these “coin stories” always seem to be popular with other collectors. People enjoy hearing about the boy who used two dimes to weasel his way into a game of monte and nearly broke the bank, or the frustrated woman in Virginia City, Nevada who finally mailed 25 cents of scrip back east where “paper money was appreciated”, or how a “rusty copper” - the only coin either of its two founders had that day, Pettigrew from Portland, and Lovejoy from Boston - was tossed into the air and we now have Portland, Oregon and not Boston, Oregon. Hundreds, if not thousands, of these stories exist and I must admit that finding a good one is very satisfying, almost as good as finding another coin for the old collection.

The aggravating thing about coin stories is that they tend to be short. If only I could find pages and pages of information about how people used to throw away their small change, would not accept certain coins, or would shuffle coins back and forth in their hands while playing cards, etc., etc.! Sadly, the vast majority of the stories consist of only a few words or sentences. They rarely last a paragraph or a page. This is because people in those days did not think anything special about how they handled their money. They were just like us and simply did what they did and had to do. For example, you will not easily find write ups about how modern merchants often have “penny trays” by their cash registers so that customers can add some to their payment and thus avoid cents in their change, or that many people still believe we have pure copper cents. It was only when coins were somehow significant or unusual that people mentioned them at all. This makes it difficult to determine just how people used their coins or what they thought of them. However, each story is like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle. If enough stories are assembled the pieces begin to fall into place and a clearer picture emerges.

This article can broadly be thought of as consisting of two parts. Part One presents a method to categorize coin stores and will present some examples. Part Two presents several stories about how people interacted with coins, and other forms of money, as they shed light on the customs of the day. In addition some will demonstrate one particular trait people of the 19th

century had concerning coins and their denominations – the trait concerning “three cent shops” and “double eagle prizes” listed in the title


Types of Coin Stories

There are many ways to categorize coin stories.  One method is to list each story by topic.  Topics such as “coins and gamblers”, and “coins in Texas” to name are few, are possible.  A second method is to categorize them depending upon how they were mentioned.  In other words, was a specific denomination mentioned or did the author simply list a price? 

Listed below are six types of stories that depend upon how the coins were mentioned.  I have labeled them here as Types 1 through 6 and have included examples of each.  Note that some can fit into more than one category, it is simply a matter of personal taste.


Type 1: Stories that discuss a particular coin or group of coins as opposed to merely being mentioned. In 1866 the motto “In God We Trust” was added to our nation’s coins from quarters up to gold double eagles. The following is from San Francisco:

“The first double-eagle with this legend upon its reverse face, which will hereafter be borne upon all American coins, was coined at the Branch Mint in this city and exhibited by Mr. Francis Bret Harte to us yesterday.

It was struck off, by hand, at twenty minutes past 11 o’clock yesterday morning, April 20. It differs from the old $20 gold piece only in the legend which is placed within the oval ring of stars over the eagle’s head and within the arc of rays that stretches from wing to wing of the National Bird. In order to make room for the legend the circle of stars has been enlarged and a portion of the lower ends of the rays cut off. The lettering is not very perfectly executed, as far as we can judge, some of the letters indeed, appearing to crowd the others. But the idea itself is a good one...”

A 20 dollar gold piece with the motto “In God We Trust” within the oval ring of stars. 
Courtesy of Gerry Fortin Rare Coins

What distinguished this story is its examination and discussion of a particular coin.  It is also significant because it mentions Bret Harte who worked as Secretary of the San Francisco Branch Mint.  Bret later became famous as a writer of short western stories and in 1866 he was just beginning to gain familiarity.  He wrote many of his earliest stories in what was described as his “gloomy” office at the mint and he often needed to get out to just clear his head.  I wonder which story he was working on in April of 1866?  And I really have to wonder if any descendant of his ever inherited a “With Motto” 1866 $20 gold piece?  If so, circumstantial evidence would point to it being the first With Motto double eagle coined in San Francisco.

Another story about a particular coin is well known in numismatic circles.  While some details technically remain unproven the circumstantial evidence is strong.  Confederate First Lieutenant George E. Dixon fought at Shiloh with the 21st Alabama Infantry Regiment.  It is said that his alleged sweetheart, Queenie Bennett, gave him an 1860 Philadelphia $20 gold piece as a memento of her affection.  At Shiloh, George had the gold piece in his trouser pocket when he was struck by a mini-ball, essentially a pointed spin-stabilized bullet for rifled guns, a relatively new technology at the time.  The gold piece deflected the bullet and is credited with saving George’s life.  George had the now bent gold piece sanded down on its left reverse and inscribed with:

April 6th 1862
My life Preserver
G. E. D.

Fortuitously, a contemporary letter was written just one day after the battle of Shiloh concluded.  It was published in 1981, long before the Hunley was raised.  It mentions the gold piece and what it did:

“Corinth - April 8th, 1862
Dear Lizzie
I telegraphed you today that I am well and safely through the two days of battle... The wounded are being brought into camp... George Dixon, shot in the hip, the ball striking a gold piece ranged upwards and came out of his side; will probably recover if he can be well cared for...”   

This letter was written by James M. Williams, also a member of the 21st Alabama and a close friend of George.  This letter was published in From That Terrible Field - Civil War letters of James M. Williams, Twenty-First Alabama Infantry Volunteers.  

In 1864 George was Captain of the Confederate submarine, H. L. Hunley, that sank a Union vessel but which action also, somehow, resulted in the Hunley sinking with all hands on board.  For 131 years the exact location of the Hunley was unknown though it was presumed to be in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast near Charleston, South Carolina.  Then either in 1974 or 1995, some controversy there, it was found.  In 2000 it was raised.  Examination found a bent and inscribed $20 gold piece laying on a hip bone, presumed to be Georges.  Traces of lead as from a mini-ball were found on both the gold piece and an old wound on the hip bone.


“A watch, Dixon’s lucky gold coin, and a suspender clasp that have all been conserved.” 
Photo copyrighted and
used with permission, courtesy of “Friends of the Hunley”.

The $20 gold piece shown above and the H. L. Hunley are currently on display at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center of the Clemson University Restoration Institute in North Charleston, South Carolina.  See www.hunley.org for more information and articles.  The photo was specially taken to capture the inscription and so the damage sustained by the gold piece is not very evident.  

These “Type 1” stories that discuss a particular coin are very rare.  It would be nice if they were more common as they always generate interest.  Fortunately, the other types have much to offer.


Type 2:  Stories that mention coins of a specific denomination.  These are much more common than the Type 1 and a rich variety is available.  I believe the following quotation from the book Sixty Years In Southern California, 1853 - 1913 by Harris Newmark provides an excellent overview of how the country, particularly the western states, viewed coinage and its use.  The reader might recognize that I have also previously quoted part of this narrative elsewhere; it is presented here in full: 

“Considering the present popularity of the silver dollar along the entire Western Coast, it may be interesting to recall the stamping of these coins, for the first time in California, at the San Francisco mint.  This was in the spring of 1859, soon after which they began to appear in Los Angeles.  A few years later, in 1863, and for ten or fifteen years thereafter, silver half-dimes, coined in San Francisco, were to be seen here occasionally; but they were never popular.  The larger silver piece, the dime, was more common, although for a while it had little purchasing power.  As late as the early seventies it was not welcome, and many a time I have seen dimes thrown into the street as if they were worthless.  This prejudice against the smaller silver coins was much the same as the feeling which even to-day (sic) obtains with many people on the Coast on the copper cent.  When the nickel, in the eighties, came into use, the old Californian tradition as to coinage began to disappear; and this opened the way for the introduction of the one-cent piece, which is more and more coming into popular favor.”

I recently found one interesting story about how rain affected play and the coins used at gambling house gaming tables in the 1850’s and 60’s. Though rain was often a challenge and source of woe, miners depended heavily upon the rain falling on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada for their sluice boxes and larger scale hydraulic mining methods:

“…Before water was supplied artificially, the miner was often obliged to suspend operations for want of it. Frequently, a days rain would have been cheaply bought at the price of a million dollars; and even a good shower gave an impetus to business which was felt by the merchants and gamblers of San Francisco and Sacramento. It was observed that after a long drought dimes took the place of gold slugs upon the roulette and faro tables. Thus, even the weather was a speculation in Pioneer times.”

An interrelated and interesting pair of stories can be found in Albert D. Richardson’s book Beyond the Mississippi.  Albert was a traveling newspaper reporter who toured the western frontier.  In 1859 he was close to the border between Colorado and Kansas:

“Dined at Station Sixteen, kept by a Vermont boy who has roamed over twenty-seven states of the Union.  Near it was encamped a party of Arapahos, with thirty or forty children playing on the grass.  The boys of this company were very expert with the bow, easily hitting a silver half-dollar at sixty or seventy yards.”

At first I thought Albert meant the boys were merely capable of hitting a half-dollar sized target, but his specific use of the word “silver” struck me.  Perhaps the boys really had set up a half-dollar as a target!  That theory was supported when, a few pages later, he wrote of discussions he had with “Little Raven” the Arapaho chief.  Through years of dealing with the local white people Little Raven had become wealthy.  He had many wives, children and ponies.  Albert described him as being “the nearest approximation I ever met to the Ideal Indian” and, because he himself was a bachelor, Albert felt he was losing the conversation when:

“I produced Colt’s new patent which he examines with great curiosity and admiration; handling it cautiously, as it if were an infernal machine, and showing a childish satisfaction not unmingled with terror, as I discharge the five barrels in rapid succession.

How much he ventures to ask, did it cost?

I mention an almost fabulous sum and his respect for me is visibly augmented.  Even the Indian is moved by the almighty dollar – or rather the almighty half-dollar; for that is the only denomination of specie in which he will receive payments.  I follow up on my advantage:

How many locomotives has he?”

So it is plausible that the children were using silver half-dollars as targets.  One, they were not a poor tribe, and two, those were the only coins their chief would accept as monetary payment.  Perhaps some of those children were his.

Little Raven, from Beyond the Mississippi by Albert D. Richardson, 1867.

These two stories are typical of many coin stories I have found.  Coins are mentioned only matter-of-factly and as part of a longer narrative.  When alone they do not tell us much, but they do when put together.


Type 3:  Stories that mention “coins” but are not more specific.  These stories can be frustrating because we numismatists would prefer more details!  Don’t just tell me “coins” but tell me if they are half-dimes, or dimes, or quarters, or whatever!  Still they lend insight into the people of the day.  These first two examples come from the early days of the California gold rush.  In the first an argonaut named William M’Collum was stranded in Panama.  Between attempts to book passage to San Francisco he had spent his time exploring the area and enjoying the occasional fandango.  Things got a little hectic at one fandango because:

“Some Americans patronizingly tossed coins on the floor and disrupted the dancing.  Pistols and knives were drawn but no one was killed.”  

The second discusses Theodore T. Johnson who made a quick round trip to the gold fields and is credited as being the first forty-niner make the trip and write a book about his adventures.  He caught a berth on the steamship Oregon that sailed from Panama for San Francisco on March 13, 1849.  Seats were sold by scalpers at a premium and Theodore did not have much of anything left when the Oregon sailed into San Francisco Bay on April 1:

“Johnson let his gaze sweep over a town of some three hundred unpainted houses plus an uncounted number of tents.  Dozens of abandoned ships lay creaking in the cove.  Calico, silk, and furniture were piled on the beach in neglected heaps.  Quart bottles of gold dust perched on the tables at gambling houses.  Johnson plucked some small change out of the mud where high rollers had scattered it and bought himself a three dollar breakfast”

The tossing of coins by people on the frontier was a common event.  They tossed coins to show off wealth, to help bring good luck and to show appreciation of stage performers.  Some people even saw small change as a nuisance and therefore an unacceptable medium of exchange.  It was often just tossed it into the street without caring what happened to it.  Every morning, one 1850’s San Francisco gambling house owner, Bill Briggs, was known for tossing out the small change taken in over his tables the previous night.  Bill laughed as he watched the small boys, “gamins”, who assembled for this event, scramble for it.  He also knew the money was going where it was needed most.  One source notes that Bill tossed between twenty-five to fifty dollars daily, and that he tossed it into the vegetable market.  Eventually, wherever it was, small change that had been tossed was eventually picked up.  Theodore Johnson found his because of that trait.  So consider the surprised argonaut who displayed a half dollar to a man standing on the shoreline rocks and asked him to carry his valise to a hotel.  The San Franciscan took two half dollars out of this pocket, tossed them at the feet of the newcomer and exclaimed, “carry it yourself.”

San Francisco, September 1869:  The city had recently suffered its share of unfortunate events, an earthquake in 1868, many recent failed financial speculations – even the US branch mint on Commercial Street was temporarily closed.  There was a scarcity of gold coin due to large shipments going out from California to New York where railroad magnate Jay Gould was attempting to corner the gold market, and a refusal by then President Ulysses S. Grant to allow the San Francisco US Sub-Treasury to exchange some of approximately $16 million in gold coin held in its vaults for gold bullion held in the vaults of the Bank of California.  This bank, under William Ralston, was the leading financial institution of the western United States.  As the coin shortage became acute, rumors of pending bank failure were rampant and everybody who knew anything at all knew that if the Bank of California went under then so would most other banks in the western United States, and they would take San Francisco with them.

As described in the book, The Man Who Built San Francisco, by Julian Dana, Ralston explained what he was about to choreograph: “Not one of us can stand a half-days run – we’d go down in a heap.  Then we could look for all hell to break loose...meet me here at one o’clock tonight”.  His associates were two trusted friends, Maurice Dore and Ashbury Harpending, also present was Bank of California treasurer Stephen Franklin, and at least one man in the subtreasury, possibly none other than General O. H. LaGrange, superintendent of both the US Mint and the US Sub-Treasury.  But just who all exactly was involved was a secret Ralston took to his grave.

At one o’clock that night, the men met at the entrance to the Sub-Treasury.  Ralston was at the door interacting with persons unknown within the Sub-Treasury.  He gave each courier a heavy sack.  “Let’s see what an early morning walk will do for us, take these to the bank.  The gentleman at the door will give you something to bring back.” 

All was quiet that night, no one was out.  Observed Maurice, “somebody could put this town in a hack and cart it off!  What a police force!”  Ralston quietly replied, “they have their instructions tonight, Morry.”

After several trips between the Sub-Treasury and bank their backs were aching and for years the “couriers” often discussed that one aspect of the entire foray.  In the early morning they limped off to the Old Owl Café for breakfast and then into hacks to ride home – all paid for by Ralston.  The gold coin from the Sub-Treasury had been successfully exchanged for gold bullion from the bank, pound for pound, at least one million dollars’ worth.  Some sources say five tons, some both.  All in one night.

At nine o’clock, the street outside the Bank of California was a “solid block” of men expecting the bank to fail.  The bank opened at 10 o’clock, quietly and methodically.  The mob rushed in and there in front of them were bank tellers with Ralston ordering, “put more tellers on duty and have coin in hand!”

Someone ran in and shouted, “there’s a run across the street!”  Ralston went out, got up onto a drygoods box and declared, “this bank is sound, gentlemen!  If you doubt its ability to pay bring your books across to the Bank of California and I will pay you off there!”  The crowd melted away.  Before long the Bank of California had settled down to a normal business day.

No one ever learned from Ralston’s lips who made the night foray possible, the first (and last?) ever into a US Sub-Treasury.  In her book, My San Francisco, Gertrude Atherton (1857 – 1948), had to declare, “when I read this story many years later…I was horrified!  My grandfather!”  Her grandfather, Stephen Franklin, had participated and she knew nothing about it!  

“But horror passed as my long understanding of him enabled me to follow his mental processes when Ralston asked him to do his part in as illegal an act as ever was perpetuated in San Francisco.  It was not for love of Ralston alone, but for San Francisco.”

The Bank of California Building, circa 1868.  The bank, at right, is at the northwest corner of California and Sansome. 
A bank still stands on this corner.  From The Natural Wealth of California, by Titus Cronise, 1868. 

Gold coin has always had a special place in the annals of commerce.  This example hails from Geary, central Oklahoma, about 1896.  Martha Smith and her husband, “H. H.,” moved into the area and filed for land, including one tract of 80 acres:

“We paid the man three hundred dollars for his claim.  I had the money in gold.  We had sold part of our cattle for twenty dollars a head and I had made a little sack and fastened it to my under skirt band.  When I gave him the three hundred dollars in gold the mans eyes got as big as a hen egg.  He was so scared that he jumped on his horse and started to El Reno.  We told him that it was thirty miles and the bank would be closed.  But he said that if he couldn’t get to the bank he would hide out until morning.  If people knew he had that much money he would be robbed before morning.”    

This last example of coins merely being mentioned comes from New York City’s Fifth Avenue Theatre.  The play Pique reached its one hundredth performance during the week of March 13, 1876.  That was very successful for those days and to celebrate that week:

“Ticket buyers got their change in silver every night except Friday, when gold coins were used.  Since the smallest gold coin was a dollar, some of the audience came out ahead.”

This was in the days when circulating coin was still scarce in the eastern United States; the Specie Resumption Act had been passed in 1875 but it had constricting exchange requirements until corrected by the Act of July 22, 1876.  So, not only was the theater giving out something special, but it was helping coin circulation in the country return to normal.

Stories that mention coins in a general way are fairly common.  However, they must be carefully interpreted.  In the 1849 story, Theodore Johnson’s coins could have been American, Mexican, Spanish, French or from any of about a dozen other countries because it took place before the Law of February 21, 1857 that eventually removed foreign coin from circulation in the United States.  In 1849 Panama the Americans could have been carrying coin from any of them.  The coins handed out at the Fifth Avenue Theater in 1876, long after foreign coins were to have been removed from circulation, were most assuredly of United States mintage.


Type 4:  Stories that mention prices and wages but are not always more specific:  These stories are extremely common and, as a result, it is relatively easy to track prices and wages throughout the history of the United States.  Many times the author listed only numbers – bartering tended to make prices little more than numbers by which to keep score.

Fortunately, phrasing is sometimes such that the author seemed to have a specific form of money in mind.  The tricky part is knowing which one.  “Greenbacks”, silver coin, gold coin, and gold dust, to name a few, were all used at one time or another.  Varying exchange rates between these forms of money, just as we have today between foreign currencies, can make this information vital to a full understanding:

A good pricing example comes from Denison, Texas in 1872:

“The cotton produced within a radius of 100 miles of the freak town was wagoned in and sold for 17 cents a pound in gold, gold being worth 10 cents more on the dollar than greenbacks.”

Denison was an unusual mix of northern town layout and southern architecture, hence the use of the term “freak”.  Also, Denison was a trading and farming center.  With no source of raw gold in the area the gold noted above had to be gold coin.

Wages varied greatly throughout the 19th century.  But, in general, a wage of $2 to $5 per day , or a bit less if room and board was thrown in, was good.  At the bottom the rung were menial jobs that paid less than a dollar up to about two dollars per day.  Immigrants usually started out looking for work in the cities and formed a large labor force.  Ole Anderson was a Danish immigrant in Omaha in 1890.  He wrote home:

“I’m working at a slaughterhouse where pigs and cattle are butchered.  I get paid $1.50 a day, and room and board costs $3.75 a week.”

Farm workers were another large group, the work was outside but the wages were about the same.  One farm worker in 1872 Wisconsin reported that “wages are a dollar or a dollar and a half per day during the harvest season, but usually sixteen to twenty dollars a month.”

If farming did not suit the laborer then other possibilities, such as herding cattle, were possible.  Wages were often slightly higher, probably because this was skilled labor and after the Civil War a wage of $30 a month for experienced hands was common.  Many successful cattle ranchers reported that they got into the cattle business because they did not like being behind a plow.  Isaac Pryor, a successful Texas rancher got into the business that way as a young man in 1870 – but only after he had consulted a phrenologist:

“I asked what I owed him.
‘Ten dollars’
I paid it – two thirds of a month’s salary.  Then I rode back to the farm.
While we were eating breakfast before daylight the next morning I pulled out the sheet of paper I had paid ten dollars for and put it on the table.  Then I thumped my head and said, ‘Mr. Cain, everything in this head is in this paper.  It don’t say a damned word about plowing.  I’m going to follow cows instead of mules.”

Working for yourself brought the best wages.  In the early 1870’s Frank H. Mayer was a buffalo “runner”, as buffalo hunters referred to themselves.  Years later he recalled:

“When I went into business, I sat down and figured that I was indeed one of fortunes children.  Just think!  There were 20,000,000 buffalo, each worth at least $3 - $60,000,000.  At the very outside cartridges cost 25 cents each, so every time I fired one I got my investment back twelve times over.  I could kill a hundred a day, $300 gross, or counting everything, $200 net profit a day.
…marketing was no problem.  Buyers at every frontier [post] offered cash for hides.”

Frank’s certainty about the value of buffalo hides and the cost of ammunition makes this a valuable statement for anyone interested in the motives and economics of buffalo hunting.  It would be nice to know the form of money the buyers used to pay for the buffalo hides.  I expect it was gold or silver coin, and maybe, the occasional quarter to help pay for bullets!

Speaking of quarters, twenty-five cents was a common admission price for simple amusements around the old west.  Here is an example from the California gold fields:

“A quartz boulder found at Forest Hill, Placer County, In May ’58, weighing forty-four pounds was over half gold and was valued at $5000.  It was placed on exhibition at the Forrest Theater in Sacramento at twenty-five cents a peep.”

The price might actually have been a quarter or perhaps a small pinch of gold.  Another from San Francisco:

“A whale drifted in south of the Cliff House and was “tented” by the first finder, who charged 25 cents to view the smelly visitor.”

During the Civil War at least four whales beached in the San Francisco area.  True to the gold rush spirit, whoever found the whale could claim it.  Eventually all were rendered, but first the “finders” made money by charging admission to see their whale.  Business was good.  The first remained on display so long its stench got its finder arrested!  The second whale, the one noted above, apparently also did well.  But public curiosity had faded by the time a fourth whale beached.  It’s finder quickly put out word that he wished to have it rendered, just apply for the job at his stables.

Sometimes twenty-five cents was too much.  People complained that the charge for the “wretched coffee” at the Vienna Bakery and Café, part of the 1876 Philadelphia Exhibition, was “a whole quarter of a dollar.”

Of course, just because something cost twenty-five cents does not mean that only quarters were accepted.  In the east and until the mid-1870’s, people were not so particular and circulating coinage included cents and five-cent pieces, as well as paper scrip and postage stamps.  Though as noted, coin was in short supply till then.  In the west, silver and gold coins were preferred but only if the coin had some heft.  Small change, coins less than a dime, was not popular in the old west and barely circulated there.

From its earliest days the west held that peculiar attitude towards small sums of money – a trait noted by many authors.  The following is from the Calaveras River region during the California gold rush, 1849:

“While waiting for breakfast, I saw a curious exemplification of the careless habits of miners, in regard to money.  One of the mule-drivers wanted to buy a pistol which belonged to an other, and as the article was in reality worth next to nothing, offered him three dollars for it.  “I will sell nothing for such as beggarly sum,” said the owner: “you are welcome to take the pistol.”  The other took it, but laid down the three dollars on a log, saying: “you must take it, for I shall never touch it again.”  “Well,” was the reply, “then I’ll do what I please with it;” and he flung the dollars into the road and walked away.  An Irishman who stood by, raked in the dust for some time, but only recovered about half the money.”

Only in the last sentence is it revealed that the author was not talking about silver or gold coin, but gold dust.  The astute history buff could guess as much.  But, contrary to popular belief, coin did circulate in the gold rush regions, though in limited supply.  It was only because gold dust was so common that it became a medium of exchange.  

Type 5:  Stories that are peripheral but still related to coins.  These stories do not directly discuss coins, prices, wages, or some form of money.  Yet numismatists find value in them.  This little chestnut, complete with double entendre and pun, comes from the “Nunda Weekly Advertiser” of Illinois, November 17, 1875:

“When your child puts a penny in its mouth instead of its pocket or the contribution box, give it castor oil at night and whites of eggs three times a day, avoiding all acids, until specie payments are resumed.”

Patience with the lack of circulating coin had worn thin by late 1875, as evidenced above.  The Specie Resumption Act had been passed on January 15 of that year but it took time and distribution adjustments to get coins circulating again throughout the eastern United States.  But do not worry about Nunda, now Crystal Lake, Illinois.  Increased production at the mints and American coins returning from overseas soon provided more than enough specie for the channels of commerce.  On May 29, 1880 this same paper reported that the United States contained “$125,000,000 more coin now that it did one year ago”.  That number was high but the sentiment was right.  Department of Commerce statistics indicate the amount of subsidiary silver in circulation in 1879 was closer to $61,000,000, still a large increase from the previous year – but $125 million made good reading.

The San Francisco Mint, circa 1865, provides an interesting little anecdote:

“For the excitement of strangers, the workmen pour a glowing, red-hot stream of melted gold into their hands for a moment, and then empty it out, without receiving a burn.  The perspiration protects them, as plumbers thrust their fingers, wet with cold water, into liquid lead, and smelters into molten iron.”

Pouring gold ingots at the San Francisco mint.  From Hutchings California Magazine, 1856

The last story for this section, below, is relatively recent in origin, but I knew I had to use it somewhere!  It concerns Oscar Levant, 20th century pianist and author:

“The model for the face on the Liberty Head dime was Mrs. Wallace Stevens,, wife of the famous poet.  Introduced once to Stevens, Oscar Levant’s first words were: “Why shouldn’t you be a great poet?  I’d be inspired too if my wife had little wings where her ears should be.”


Type 6:  Stories that are peripheral but help us understand people and their attitude towards coin and money.  I like to think of these stories as those that shed light on the reasons people in the nineteenth century sometimes thought more about their coinage than we do today.  For example, before the Civil War, people had to think about things such as which type of foreign coin to accept and at what rate.  During the war and afterward circulating coinage was scarce for much of the country and so it was a bit novel.  Without the distractions of television, internet, on-line games, etc. there was time to consider how to wring out its last bit of value.  Inhabitants of mining regions could often tell, just by looking, which ore or which dust came from which mine or which stream.  That information was important because there were often slight differences in value.  The following is from Virginia City, Montana in the 1860’s:

“Gold dust was not worth the same amount per ounce from one poke to the next, that from some local gulches assaying silver, while other gulches might produce a dust containing platinum, which shot its worth up considerably.  To the expert, the dust for each gulch had characteristics of its own – coloring varied from pale yellow to dark; the shape of the flakes varied also, some being flatly smooth, others rounded; while dust from a third gulch might be rough, not being worn down.  Gold out of Alder Gulch contained a lot of natural sand.  The experienced storekeeper and banker knew his gold or hired an expert who did.  He paid as little for his gold as he possibly could.  If the miner was not an expert, he had to take what he could get for it.  The merchant and banker also took advantage of the unwary and inexperienced by taking in high-grade dust but always giving out low-grade.”

Attention to detail was demanded and often required to get ahead.  Saunders Norvell was a “hardware man” who began his career in the early 1880’s with the Simmons Hardware Company of St. Louis:

“Mr. Simmons without any preliminaries told me if I would come down the following Monday at 7:30 I could go to work in stock and that my “compensation” would be $20 per month.  Even in the excitement of the moment I could not but think of the large size of the word “compensation” and the small size of my salary!

The number of pages of orders each clerk got out and the number of errors he made were posted on a blackboard.  In time our salaries were adjusted according to our records.  I was never a very swift clerk, but I was an accurate one.  I never stood out at the top in the number of pages got out, but I frequently headed the list on account of my lack of errors.  It was not long before I was receiving what seemed to me the princely salary of $60 per month.”

Saunders also writes about a 50 cent supper allowance for when he and his fellow workers stayed late.  Even then, “the boys tried to save out a dime of the 50 cents for a cigar!”

One last story.  Due to their weight, gold and silver coins, while popular, were not always favored.  This helped lead to the eventual acceptance of paper money but the debate lasted throughout the nineteenth century.  James Polk, eleventh President, preferred using gold and silver.  His wife, Sarah, could be more practically minded.  In 1834, before becoming President, he and his wife were traveling from home in Tennessee to Washington, D.C.  One morning he was short of pocket money so he asked Sarah for a bag of specie hidden away in their trunks.  A bit upset, she opened up one of their trunks and began searching.  “Don’t you see,” she said, “how troublesome it is to carry around gold and silver?”  Polk replied he just wanted the money.  Turning a trunk upside down, Sarah finally shook out a bag of coin.  “Why,” she said, “if we must use gold and silver all the time, a lady can scarcely carry enough money with her!”   


Part Two:  Of Coin Stories – Three Cent Shops and Double Eagle Prizes

Part One introduced six types of coin stories.  Part Two will present stories about how people interacted with coins and money that help shed light on the customs of the day.  In addition, some stories will demonstrate one particular trait people in the nineteenth century had regarding coinage.  That trait is a figure of speech: people often expressed their opinion by comparing other people or things to a coin denomination or type of money.  The higher or lower their opinion, the more or less valuable, popular or unpopular, the denomination or type of money.  Of course, we still do this today, such as a local radio personality remarking that a certain ballplayer would “cost some heavy coin”.  With so many more coin denominations and forms of money in those old days that trait was often colorfully employed.  

“Damn these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent – pass out a king!” wrote Mark Twain of one profane engineer on the train to Cairo, Egypt, 1867.  It was satirically reported to him that that train burned 3,000 year old mummies, purchased by the ton or graveyard, for fuel.  As Mr. Twain wrote in his book, The Innocents Abroad, it was “stated to me for a fact.  I only tell it as I got it.  I am willing to believe it.  I can believe anything.”

It is also an excellent example of equating people or things to coin denominations or types of money.  Mr. Twain was not alone in this.  “I don’t go a cent on that” was a common term of rejection in the Virginia City, Montana diggings of the 1860’s.

Because of the implied low values, sarcastic comments often involved “cents” or some other low valued denomination.  For example, one newspaper reporter wrote this about the panic that accompanied a run on the Bank of California, August 23, 1875:

“The men who had the largest interests as stake were the least flurried.  Those whose wealth could be counted in cents were by far the most demonstrative”.

Regarding one gentleman, “it was safe to predict that he could, without any personal inconvenience, walk off sedately with the weight of his entire deposit paid in silver.”  Note that silver coin alone could pay off this worthless individual.  Gold was not needed.

Gold was desired by one train robber in Cow Creek Canyon in 1895 Oregon, thirty miles south of Roseburg:

“The robber was somewhat disgusted at the poverty of the passengers, whom he said were ‘silver men’.  He told them he was a gold bug…”

This was the era of silver vs gold as a national monetary standard so the robber was likely alluding to that; nevertheless the thought remained – gold was needed to portray wealth.  Silver was heavy to carry in relation to its value and there are stories of silver coin being purposely left behind at robberies simply because of that.

One thing I have noticed after reading many nineteenth century writings: people occasionally use the word “penny” but most often used the word “cent”.  People in those days were more aware that the United States mints “cents”, not “pennies”.

Combining “cents” with a small coin denomination yielded a choice comment about bankers in Portland, Oregon.  In 1867, a Mr. N. P. Perrine attempted to gain financing for his Oregon Central Railway by visiting the Portland banking firm of Ladd and Tilton.  His visit did not go well and he left somewhat disappointed.  The next Christmas day he had better luck with financier William Ralston of San Francisco.  He immediately wrote his partner:

“Mr. Ralston of the Bank of California informs me today that if I, or we, get into a position where we need help, to call on him – it was his own offer – he says he feels a personal interest in every rail that is laid on the Pacific coast.  How unlike the narrow sentiments held by the proprietor of that three-cent shop in Portland!”

It is possible Mr. Perrine was alluding to the “three cent shops” that apparently existed mostly in the eastern states, and as described by Richard Erdoes in Saloons of the Old West:

“The joints of New York’s and Hell’s Kitchen were famous for the horrifying quality of their wet goods. In the seventies and eighties drinks were three cents in the lowest dives, whose squalor defied description. No glasses or mugs were in evidence. Tipplers sucked up their fiery refreshments through slender rubber hoses connected to barrels of vile stuff. Planting pennies down, the customer was allowed to take the end of the hose in his mouth and drink as much as he could without breathing. The moment he stopped for breath, the argus-eyed booze boss yanked the hose from his mouth and nothing but another payment would put it back again. Some tipplers got so adept at taking enormous swallows and holding their breath that they could get gloriously soused on three cents.

Most western drinking places were not so low as the New York and Chicago three-cent joints, but the basic problem was nationwide…”

It should be noted that three-cent pieces were noted as “standard coins” at Philadelphia in 1876 so even that coin had its uses besides for postage – as is the common story.

Small denominational coins, those worth ten cents or less, were unpopular in the old west.  Caustic comments concerning them are common in literature from that part of the world.

“The nickel was a nasty little coin, half dime and half brother to arsenic” wrote Richard G, Lillard in his 1942 history Desert Challenge, An Interpretation of Nevada.  However, use of the word “nickel” did not always specifically mean a five-cent piece was involved.  If often implied pettiness or asking for a small bothersome sum of money.  J. Frank Dobie, who compiled stories of early Texas ranching in his book Cow People, often heard and used the word “nickel” in this way.  One story was about Dan Waggoner, a rancher who had had some stray horses returned by cowboys from a nearby ranch.  They brought them in, staked them up and began to fix themselves lunch beside Dan’s water tank.  They asked if they might have a few of the shallots (green onions) growing in Dan’s garden:

“…to flavor their dried beef.  Mr. Waggoner hesitated a second, then said, “Pull up a few.’  They helped themselves, ate dinner and were saddling up to leave when Mr. Waggoner came out.  ‘I guess I’ll have to charge a nickel for the shallots,’ he said.  They paid it.  That was the last time they or any man to whose ears the story came picked up a stray horse for Dan Waggoner.” 

Another story from Mr. Dobie has one rancher ribbing another.  “Everybody knows you could throw a hundred dollars into a garbage can and not miss it more than a nickel dropped into a cow pen!”  Then there was the range cook who grew tired of continually paying our “another nickel” for milk from a nearby family.  One smart aleck cowboy kept drinking the milk just to annoy him.  He succeeded.  The cook shot him dead, saddled up and rode away!

We still use “nickel” this way.  Down at work the other day one guy ribbed another for being miserly.  He told him to “just pay your nickel and get on with it!”  Then there was the old ’65 Ford Mustang my father sold, cheap, literally because it was “nickel and diming” him to death!  It would be worth many of them now.

Folklore Proverbs, just too good to pass up:

“He seems to think he’s the frog’s tonsils but he looks to me like a plugged nickel.”
“Yesterday?  It’s a nickel thrown on the Salvation Army drum.”

A half-step up from the nickel was the half-dime.  Harris Newmark, a Los Angeles pioneer, wrote that half-dimes were never popular but he saw them occasionally in the 1860’s and 70’s.  During the 1880s’, Bill Nye, a popular humorist, wrote an essay titled The Silver Dollar.  It does not discuss the silver dollar very much but one portion in useful to us:

“…there are worse things than the silver dollar.  Other things may occur in our lives, which, in the way of sadness and three-cornered gloom, make the large robust dollar look like an old-fashioned half-dime.”

That was a relatively positive comment about the half-dime.  Bill simply used it to indicate something as being relatively small or slight.

In his book Roughing It, Mark Twain recounted a classic story concerning half-dimes.  While stagecoaching west to Carson City in 1861, he stopped off in Salt Lake City, to paraphrase: 

“A young half-breed with a complexion like a yellow-jacked asked me if I would have my boots blacked.  I said yes, and he blacked them.  Then I handed him a silver five-cent piece, with the benevolent air of a person who is conferring wealth and blessedness upon poverty and suffering.  The yellow-jacket took it with what I judged to be suppressed emotion, and laid it reverently down in the middle of this broad hand.  Then he began to contemplate it, much as a philosopher contemplates a gnat’s ear in the ample field of his microscope.  Several mountaineers, teamsters, stage-drivers, etc., drew near and dropped into the tableau and fell to surveying the money with that attractive indifference to formality which is noticeable in the hardy pioneer.  Presently, the yellow-jacket handed the half-dime back to me and told me I ought to keep my money in my pocket book instead of my soul, and then I wouldn’t get it cramped and shriveled up so!” 

So, Mark’s soul would shrink money and the half-dime was proof!  More likely his failure was that he had not paid the local “lowest common currency” (read: denomination).  In Salt Lake City, at that time, the lowest common currency was a quarter and that is most likely what was expected.  By coincidence, a book by George Devol, a Mississippi gambler, mentions blacking boots.  About 1840 when George was a young riverboat crew member, he “would get up early in the morning and make some ‘five-cent pieces” (there being no “nickels” in those days) by blacking boots.  So precedence was on Mark’s side.  Did he merely pay the price common to the riverboats he knew so well?

The concept of the lowest local common currency, or denomination, seems to have been largely forgotten today, though references to it are scattered throughout the literature of the day – sometimes bold and obvious, and other times only inferred, as in Mr. Twain’s story above.

I am deeply indebted to Mr. Twain for expounding on this concept, also from Roughing It:

“In the east, in those days, the smallest moneyed denomination was a penny and it represented the smallest purchasable quantity of any commodity.  West of Cincinnati the smallest coin in use was the silver five-cent piece and no smaller quantity of an article could be bought than “five-cents worth”.  In Overland City the lowest coin appeared to be the ten-cent piece; but in Salt Lake there did not seem to be any money in circulation smaller than a quarter, or any quantity purchasable of any commodity than twenty-five cents worth…After a month’s acquaintance with the twenty-five cent minimum, the average human being is ready to blush every time he thinks of his despicable five-cent days.”      

To reinforce this, in 1865 Samuel Bowles, a traveling reporter, discussed the coinage in San Francisco:

“…nothing is old for less than “two bits” (twenty-five cents); and a fifty-cent piece is the lowest coin that is respectable to carry, or throw to the man who waters your horse.  At the best hotels, the Occidental and Cosmopolitan, the price is three dollars a day in gold, which is cheaper than the four dollars and a half currency charged by the fashionable hotels of Boston and New York.  A “drink” at an aristocratic San Francisco bar is two bits (twenty-five cents); at a more democratic establishment one bit (ten cents).  There is no coin in use less than a dime (ten cents); one of these answers as a “bit;” two of them will pass for two bits, or twenty-five cents; but the man who often offers two dimes for a quarter of a dollar is voted a “bummer.”

The term “bummer” was common in the old gold rush west.  It originally meant someone who was cheap or always looking for a handout.  One popularized stray dog of 1860’s San Francisco was named Bummer by the San Francisco newspapers and there is even a monument to him near the TransAmerica Building – he was a keen “ratter” and so provided a valuable service to the city.  In later years “bummer” identified the lowest class of saloon regulars.  It eventually evolved into a sobriquet for forty-niners who sometimes referred to themselves as “I was a bummer” when feeling nostalgic.

An 1870’s druggist in southeastern Washington state was reminiscing and years later wrote:

“Oh, the halcyon days, there were none! And cut rates! Why, I grow generous when I think about it; the smallest change was a dime that passed as a “bit” or 12½ cents. No nickels; nothing sold for less than a “bit”. Everything was based on a gold standard and silver and currency were both taken at a discount, a roll of silver ($20) or a $20 bill passing at from $18 to $19 according to the premium on gold in the ‘states’”.

In Beyond the Mississippi, Albert D. Richardson wrote about Denver, Colorado of 1859. He observed:

“There was no paper money and the smallest coin in circulation was twenty-five cents. The people of the frontier have never taken kindly to coppers. In 1794, when the first barrel of them was introduced in Cincinnati by a merchant, the citizens were disgusted and his brother traders with difficulty restrained from mobbing him. In Kansas three-cent pieces passed for five cents, and in New Mexico eight dimes for one dollar. Says a European writer: ‘Money must be very plentiful and people very prosperous, where the smallest coin is five or ten cents’”.

In The Devils Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce, who also lived in San Francisco after the Civil War, cynically described “advice” as “the smallest current coin.”

As noted, dimes were accepted throughout the east before the Civil War and during that conflict began to be accepted in the west.  That two would serve as a quarter helped and that trait is mentioned in several narratives of the western states.  Post Civil-War dimes, alone, usually had some purchasing power – especially if two were allowed to pass as a quarter.  Fine cigars cost a dime.  However, commodities that cost one dime were often seen as substandard or low class.  Phrases such as “my last dime” are common in writings of the nineteenth century.

One story I recently found concerns prices along stagecoach lines in Oregon:

“Everywhere on this line “four bits” in coin is the customary price of a meal; “one bit” for a cigar or drink, and if you pass out twenty-five cents the dealer hands back a dime.  If you pay a dime it is all right.  The people are so accustomed of old to high prices that the difference of two-and-a-half cents between a dime and a “bit” is not taken account of.”

The story below is a gem I have encountered at least twice – I have combined them here to help clarify its narrative.  Details of the two agree very well except for how long the game in question went on and how much gold was eventually at stake.  To begin, during the gold rush, miner Charles B. Gillespie was wandering around Coloma, California on a Sunday, noting the casual Sunday dress of the locals and just taking in the air, when he wandered into a gambling hall.  He got to watching the action at a game of monte:

The dealer eyed the bearded men pressing close to the table.  “All down gents?”

Gillespie was startled to see a small hand clutching two coins shoot forward.  “Hold on!”

Gillespie glanced down and saw a curly-haired boy so short that his mouth was little above the level of the bank. He cautiously, coolly, and methodically thrust forth a small hand, and laid down two dimes – “two dimes on the ace.”   Everyone laughed except the banker.  “We don’t take dimes at this bank,” he said coolly and thrust back the dimes.  He further dampened the little boy’s ardor by quipping, “we don’t take dimes at this bank”.

The boy picked up the dimes, and produced a buckskin bag that he tossed onto the ace.  “I guess you’ll take that,” he said.  “Six ounces on the ace.”  The table suddenly fell quiet.  Then, the ace won.  The boy was $96 richer.

He bet again and again he won.  The banker grabbed a new deck and shuffled it, permitting the boy to cut.  The other players bet with him.  He raised the stakes to twenty-five ounces and won again.  The others nervously dropped out: now it was the kid against the house.

The dealer laid out an ace and a five.  “Fifty ounces on the five,” the boy said.  One by one the dealer flipped the cards: deuce, three, king, queen, seven – then a five.  The boy doubled his bet again and once more he won.  Miners crowded around the table as the word spread.  The boy was up at least 100 ounces, possibly much more.

“How much have you in the bank?” the boy asked.  “A hundred and fifty ounces” the dealer replied.  He dealt a queen and a three.  “I tap the bank upon the queen,” the youth said calmly; he was betting his winnings against the bank.  The crowd was silent.

Slowly the perspiring dealer turned the deck over – one card, then another, then three more.  No one breathed.  The next card was a three – the run was over.  The queen had thrown him!  The dealer “ruthlessly” swept away the gold.  The boy, Gillespie wrote, ”looked about with a stern defying air as if to chide us for our sympathy.”  Everything was gone now except his original buckskin of dust.  He bet the bag on the next layout and lost that too, this time a king had thrown him.  He then turned his back, began whistling “O Californy”, and walked outside through the crowd “with all the importance of a noted hero.”

Gillespie, feeling both pity and curiosity, followed the boy outside and offered him money.  The boy accepted a few dollars then put his index finger next to his lips. “You want to know how much was in that bag?” he whispered.  “Well, I’ll tell you – four pounds of duckshot mixed, and nothing more.”  Gillespie stared openmouthed.  The boy laughed. 

“What a swearin’ and cussin’ when they open it!”    

Quarters were accepted everywhere but comments about them could be either positive or negative.  They were sometimes referred to as two-bit pieces and the phrase “two-bit” was often invoked when something was seen as cheap.  Comments similar to “the two-bit privilege of sleeping on the beaten dirt” or “two-bit restaurants” where you could get “a sort of a lunch, not a square meal” were common.

One quarter story I encountered concerns William A. “Big Foot” Wallace, a native Virginian who about 1850 founded the “Buffalo-Bull Ranch”, near San Antonio, Texas.  Eventually, Big Foot decided he needed a holiday. He took $500, boarded a gulf steamer, and landed in New Orleans.  While in New Orleans he had several adventures – such as learning that when a lady, or even a man, invited him for a drink, he had to pay.  He was also approached by a young lady who pretended to know him, grabbed his hand, “we’ll have a jolly time of it”, forced him to jerk it away and then suggested he certainly would not refuse to “treat” a lady:

“Certainly not, “ said I.  What’’ll you take – a lemonade, or an ice-cream?”

“To the old boy,” said she, “with your lemonades and ice-cream!  I’ll take a glass of brandy with a little schnapps in it.”

“There”, said I and I threw her a slick quarter; “that‘ll buy you one,”  and I turned on my heel and made tracks for the tavern as fast as I could.

“Geminy!  What a cussin’ she gave me as I went!  I thought I had heard rangers on the frontiers of Texas make use of pretty hard language, but they couldn’t hold a candle to that young woman.  The farther I went the louder she ‘cussed’…”  

For the uninitiated, a “slick quarter” or any “slick” coin, was one so worn and featureless that its precious metal content was significantly reduced – banks deemed them useful only for melting and recoining.  They were candidates for removal from circulation and so not readily accepted.

Later, Big Foot went to a dance, and got to drinking with another new found friend.  He had to pay with coin for all the drinks when his new friend disappeared.  Big foot then discovered his coat pocket had been cut and a buckskin filled with bullets and percussion caps was missing:

“I suppose he thought he had got a purse full of California nuggets, from the weight of it; and I rather think he must have felt a little disappointed when he emptied it and found what it was filled with.  I would have given a ‘slick quarter’ just to have seen how he looked when the bullets and percussion caps rolled out.”   

On the other hand, I found one positive reference to a very early Los Angeles two-bit restaurant where a good substantial meal was reportedly served.  Then, there was the cattleman who described Dodge City, Kansas as “the grass is fine, the water plenty, drinks two for a quarter – and no grangers!”  What else could a cowboy ask for at the end of a long cattle drive? 

Then there is the story from Nome, Alaska, about 1900.  Wilson Mizner, noted author and wit, carried a message from gambler Frank McLeod to his ex-friend Tex Rickard, also a gambler.  The message was for Rickard to come out “with his gun smoking.” 

“He was there, weighing gold dust,” said Mizner.  “His hand did not tremble over the scale.  He grinned in his funny way, and said, without raising his voice, ‘I heard that bum McLeod was back here without a quarter to his name.  Now, I’m worth nearly half a million.  Tell him it ain’t an even gamble.  I ain’t laying no half million bucks against nothing for anyone.  But tell McLeod that the minute he gets himself a load of dough, I’ll gunfight him anywhere.

Fifty-cent pieces were working coins of the nineteenth century and matter-of-fact references to their being used singly and in bulk can be found.  One story concerns pre-Civil War New Orleans that had so much silver that an acquaintance of George Devol regularly bought $105 in silver half dollars for $100 in state bank notes.  He then used it dollar for dollar to pay off the local hucksters and steamboat men who, in turn, used it to pay their deck hands.

Another story regards four-bits – fifty cents.  J. Frank Dobie wrote about Shanghai Pierce, an early Texas cowman who in 1853 was hired by W. B. Grimes of Matagorda Bay at fifty cents a day.  One day Grimes ordered a prize slave to break a horse.  Things were going badly, the horse was a terror, and there was so much squallering and hollering that Grimes’ wife heard the commotion.  She stormed out of the house, called off the slave and ranted at Grimes:

“He’s worth a good eighteen hundred dollars!  What do you mean by letting him ride pitching horses when you got a Yankee here working for four bits a day that could take the risk and do just as well!”

Grimes reconsidered and from then on Shanghai broke the horses and took the risks.

Sleeping quarters, only 4 bits!  From Saloons of the Old West by Richard Erdos, 1979

The dollar is the basis for our currency and it should not be surprising that the word, dollar, was used as frequently in the nineteenth century as it is now.  Even then, when there were many coins valued at a dollar or more, “dollar” was mostly used figuratively and not in reference to a specific coin.  Phrases such as “risked the whole value of a dollar”, “bottom dollar” or “earned his dollar” are found in many narratives.  The notorious miser, Hetty Green, mother of Colonel E. H. R. Green of 1913 Liberty nickel fame, wrote this pointed note to her daughter:

“I’ve found out something about the young man who has been waiting on you in Newport, Sylvia.  I find that your young man is very nice and proper, but if it weren’t for his father, the world wouldn’t know a thing about him.  He has never earned a dollar and doesn’t know the value of money…I want to say right here and now that you will never marry a society man with my consent.”

Reference to a dollar could be positive, too.  The Girl in the Dollar Store was a popular song in post Civil War San Francisco and there was and still is, the “dollar side of Broadway” – or, as recently written in a magazine, even the “dollar side of Wall Street”.  

“Now take some men, everything they touch turns into money: they know how the land lays:  they can smell where the dollars grow.”

One story I recently found has to do with a tin peddler and a “Dr. Carrington” – a country store proprietor.  The doctor swore he had been “shaved” by tin peddlers too often and he would never do business with them again.  Even so, one peddler did get the doctor to barter.  The deal the peddler proposed was to give the doctor anything off his wagon at wholesale while buying an equal amount of the doctor’s goods at retail.  The offer seemed fair to the doctor but checking the wagon the only useful thing he found were some whetstones.  How much?  “$3 per dozen” was the reply. “Well, I will take a gross of them”.  The whetstones were counted and placed on a shelf behind the sales counter. 

“Now,” said the peddler, you owe me $36 for which I am to take goods as you please at the retail price.  Come doctor, what are you going to pay me in?” 

“In whetstones at fifty cents each, which will take just six dozen,” replied the doctor gravely, at the same time commencing to count back one half of his purchase.

“The peddler looked astonished for a moment, and then bursting into what is termed “a horse laugh,” he exclaimed, “Took in by hokey!  Here doctor, take this dollar for your trouble (handing him the money); give me back my truck, and I’ll acknowledge for ever that you are too sharp for a tin peddler!”

The doctor accepted the proposed compromise, and was never troubled by that peddler again.”   


Folklore Proverb:  “So dumb he spent his last dollar buying a pocketbook to put it in.”

Reference to quantities greater than one dollar were often used to impress people or to make a point.  Examples include John Dougherty, a gambler who “looked with disdain upon any coin or bill of less than five dollars and paid for a drink, a cigar, or a shave with a five dollar bill, refusing change”; and Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, who is reported to have complained of the “Whiskey Street” lawyers who for “five dollars would attempt to make a lie into a truth.”

Specific references to gold coinage denominations can be found.  In 1886, Harris Newmark of Los Angeles was acting as executor of a will when the dead man’s brother arrived:

“I found him to be an uncouth, ignorant fellow and a man who had probably never handled a ten-dollar gold piece or its equivalent in his life.”

Ten-dollar not to mention twenty-dollar, gold pieces were beyond this fellow!  An early twentieth century comment parallels the above quote.  In her 1946 memoir, My San Francisco, Gertrude Atherton noted that after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire that:

“Hundreds of men who had never caressed a twenty-dollar bill, when the insurance companies (some of them) met their obligations, were so excited at finding themselves possessed of anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 in hard cash that they indulged in every kind of extravagance the conditions permitted and soon got rid of their sudden wealth.”

The twenty-dollar gold piece was king.  One gambler, a lover of Eleanor Dumont, herself a prominent gambler, was described to be as “handsome as a twenty-dollar gold piece.”  If you dreamed of wealth or wanted to make a point then these large valuable coins were just the thing because for most people they were equal to anywhere from four to ten days pay. 

One story from 1863 set in Walla Walla, Washington is a good example of the prominence of gold coin, especially $20 gold pieces. Some mules used for exploring the Idaho region were sold by a newly arrived settler, Miles C. Moore, who later became Washington’s last territorial governor, to James Truitt - “old timer”:

“‘Being good republicans, I suppose you boys would just as soon have greenbacks as gold in payment”. But we replied, “If we were in a civilized country that might be all right, but we’ve been told that greenbacks are worth only about sixty cents on the dollar and we would like to have gold’. He laughed and handed us 15 twenty dollar gold pieces which certainly looked good to us.”

Miles and his companions had learned quickly. Just earlier in town Miles tried to pay for a loaf of bread at a bakery run by a Mr. Brechtel. He laid a twenty-five cent “shin plaster” on the counter, as fractional currency was then called:

“’What’s that?’

I said that was government money and passed current in the country I come from. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t go here’. Fortunately, I had a little gold dust and was able to pay for the loaf of bread. Mr. Brechtel was a very good man and I came to know him quite well, but never quite forgave him for the contempt he showed for my money.

“Double-eagle prizes” were offered at greased pig races in late 1860’s San Francisco (“slugs by the cartload” had been bet on early day San Francisco horse races).  A few years later $100,000 In Gold! was advertised as the Capital Prize in the great Mercantile Library Enterprise of San Francisco.  News reporter Benny Taylor got excited and immediately paid out $5.65 in silver for a ticket (the cost was five dollars in gold and gold was 113 that day).  Benny carefully laid the ticket away in a box that contained a gold half dollar, a broken ring, and other treasures.  He then told Lucy, his wife, about the ticket:

“Along in the evening Lucy and I had a little discussion as to whether we should not take the prize in gold, say double eagles, and put them all to roost on the dining room table, and call in a few friends to see the golden aviary with its blessed birds of paradise…”

Of course, Benny did not win the prize, but it made a good column!

A few dollars given as a condolence was common among gamblers.  The winner would often provide a meal, train fare or cover for something else immediately needed by the loser.  An example comes from 1898 Alaska where Sam Bonnifield, a Yukon gambler, was challenged by a Montana gambler named Al Mitchell:

“After several inconsequential hands, Mitchell suddenly tried to throw his opponent off balance with a massive raise.  Bonnifield murmured that it was getting a little chilly in the room and unconcernedly turned and asked the porter to stoke the fire in the stove.  Then directing his attention once more to the game, he called the raise without a word.  Two and a half hours later Mitchell called a last bet and was down to the cloth.  Bonnifield flipped him a twenty-dollar gold piece to buy his breakfast.”

A generous gift to cover breakfast!  Perhaps Bonnifield was acknowledging Mitchell’s sportsmanship, but then he could have been showing off.  Such behavior was not unknown to him.  For another time when Bonnifield had lost five thousand dollars to Goldie Golden, a friendly rival, he called to his cashier, “if Goldie is quitting pay him off.  Five thousand dollars comes to a little over nineteen pounds and a half in dust.  Oh, hell, give him an even twenty!”

Because of its high value, a twenty-dollar gold piece could convey status or…be special enough to convey a signal?  Ever since I read this next story I have been mystified – probably just as much as the man who recounted it to J. Frank Dobie.

Earle Butler was a rancher’s son in the Oklahoma Territory.  His father had been gone for a few days when two men on splendid bay horses, with saddles and clothes to match, rode up to the house.  They apologized for the intrusion, said that they knew that father was away shipping cattle, and politely asked for something to eat.  Earle’s mother fed them.  Afterwards, one man laid a twenty dollar gold piece on the table.  Earle’s mother returned it saying “we don’t take money for food.  My husband would not like for me to take it.  Any rider who stops at our house is always welcome.”  The man bowed gravely and repocketed the coin.  Then they rode off.

The next day a sheriff with five deputies arrived.  Earle’s mother fed them, too.  The two men were described and the sheriff asked if they had been seen…  “We have not seen anyone” was her matter of fact reply.  Confused, Earle later asked his mother about the two men just the day before.  “Yes, I know son, but I am your father’s wife.  I do not have time to be sheriff also.”

What mystifies me is how did Earle’s mother know to deny she had seen the men?  Her words imply earlier discussions with her husband.  Did he explain that two outlaws would stop in while he was away, and she was to help them?  That does not seem plausible.  Was there an understanding that when he sent someone in need then that someone would prove himself by showing a token?  A twenty-dollar gold piece was not likely to be offered by just anyone.  Also, there was probably some other action by the men which proved that the gold piece was not just a serendipitous offer.  Her refusal may have verified her help.

Proof that Earle’s father knew the men was given that next spring when they helped with round-up.  They remained aloof, camped alone, refused pay (“we do not want a dime”) and rode away forever.  Earle never learned who they were.

Newspaperman Edward P. McGowen was the public scourge of the Vigilance Committees of early San Francisco.  He severely criticized the committee through a variety of publications and the committee, in turn, occasionally had him running for his life.  William T. Coleman was a figurehead in those Vigilance Committees.  The two men were bitter enemies – but the years passed, the men grew old and times changed.  In 1889 they chanced to meet on the street:

“The two men, now elderly, shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, then went their separate ways.  Coleman, upon investigation, learned that McGowan was near penniless.  He sought out McGowen’s hotel and left an envelope containing a $20 gold piece with the clerk, asking that he not mention the source, only that it had been left by an old friend.”

A sincere and valuable gesture.

Distinctive double eagles were not always helpful.  On September 19, 1877 the Joel Collins gang, six strong, robbed a train near Big Springs Station, Nebraska.  One, Sam Bass, discovered three wax sealed wooden boxes that were enroute from the San Francisco mint to a New York bank.  Each box was found to hold $20,000 of freshly minted double eagles.  Each of the six members received $10,000 before riding off in different directions.  One member, Jim Berry, headed for his home in Mexico, Missouri.  At home, being suddenly rich, he spent freely.  The locals thought it odd that Jim paid for everything using nice new 1877-S double eagles.  Eventually Jim realized he had been brash and decided he needed to allay their suspicions.  Taking $3,000 in double eagles to each of three banks he exchanged them for greenbacks.  To further ensure evasion Jim decided to sleep outside, but still close to his house.  Of course, the law found him.  He decided to fight and got shot in his right leg.  It didn’t look bad but gangrene set in.  Two days later he was dead.            

“I must not forget to mention the reckless use of money and the custom, at first quite astounding to me, of throwing coins – often large, shining slugs – upon the stage or floor, if an actor or actress particularly pleased the spendthrift patron,” wrote Harris Newmark of Los Angeles.  References to throwing coins, gold or even silver bricks (as in Virginia City) to admonish stage performers are very common in nineteenth century writings.  Lotta Crabtree, who grew up with the California rush and later became America’s top comedienne, made her stage debut in 1855 at the age of eight in Rabbit Creek.  The stage was showered with dollars, Mexican pesos, gold nuggets, sacks of gold dust, and one octagonal $50 gold slug.

A young Lotta Crabtree (1847 – 1924) who began her entertaining career in the gold fields of California.  From humble beginnings, while on stage she had to endure showers of gold nuggets and the like, she became one of the wealthiest and most loved entertainers of the nineteenth century.  She was compelled to retire in 1891 after suffering injuries from a fall.  Several trusts she created before her passing in 1924 still exist.  They provide grants to actors, agricultural students, veterans, animal rights causes.

Photo by Mathew Brady, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

In Bob Potee’s Kansas City gambling house, it was common to increase your luck by caressing “your favorite” naked lady statue at the entrance, and even more by throwing a token, such as a $20 gold piece, at the lady’s feet.  Gamblers have always been a superstitious lot. 

One gambler, Colorado Charlie Utter, friend of Wild Bill Hickok, was a finicky dresser, who:

“always appeared in evening dress, with a silk hat, beneath which was coiled his long, yellow hair.  When dealing bank or sitting in the “lookout” chair, he permitted his blond tresses to lay loose over his shoulders.  A fortune in diamonds flamed his shirt front, the broad expanse of which was studded with other precious stones.  The buttons on his coat and cuffs were ten dollar gold pieces and on his vest five dollar gold pieces.  And all these were set with diamonds.’ 

It is said that whenever Charlie was broke, as gamblers often were, he used his outfit as collateral to raise cash and get a fresh start.

The first San Francisco Methodist sermon was held before the gold rush by a preacher named Roberts who was enroute for Oregon.  His ship, with his wife and daughter, anchored briefly in San Francisco about June of 1847.  Roberts asked if there was anywhere he could hold Sunday services.  A dining room was found and a good crowd assembled.  The crowd was not fashionable but they were attentive:

“One old sailor, who was deeply pleased with the sermon put a five dollar gold piece in his own hat and went around the room, and collected fifty dollars, which he gave to the minister; and with tears in his eyes, he tapped the minister on the shoulder in a sailor like way and exclaimed: ”That was a d—m good sermon!”

The sailor invited the preacher to dinner the following day in a hotel which had its dining table next to the billiard-room and saloon.  “Those who did not wish to attend the religious services had too much respect for the minister to make the least noise or disturbance.”  

Comments regarding paper money are common in the literature of the nineteenth century.  In some areas it was readily accepted.  This was due to necessity when coin was short, or due to its being light and convenient – provided the banks were solvent.  Among collectors it is the tradition that people in the eastern United States accepted paper money while those in the west abhorred it.  The truth lies between.  The following is from the Nunda Weekly Advertiser (now Crystal Lake, Illinois) of April 5, 1879:

“I printed 5 sets of election tickets, and only one set was this town, Mr. Peck paid $2 in greenbacks at Woodstock for as many tickets as $1½ in any good money would have bought in his own town.”

So people were doubtful about paper money even in small Illinois towns of 1879!  I have also found examples of paper money being accepted in the west, but usually in cities and then at a discount.  One sentence from a letter written in 1875 from the eastern part of the Washington Territory is curious.  “Here for the first time since I left Pittsburgh I found bank notes would not go except at a discount” wrote William H. Kennedy, an emigrant to the Pacific northwest.  Gold and silver were the currency of the Washington Territory.  What is curious is that he passed through many frontier territories, such as Montana, without being discounted.  In 1876, one military officers’ wife in Lapwai, Idaho noted that greenbacks were commonly discounted 10%.

J. Frank Dobie recounts one interesting trait from the rich Texas cattle country.  $100 checks signed by a cowman would pass at face value, “a cowman’s name on a check was considered as good as a bank note.”

Then there was Mary McNair Mathews.  In August of 1869 she left her home in New York and rode the new transcontinental railroad out to Reno, Nevada.  Upon arrival she was short of money for the stage to Virginia City and was trying to negotiate with the agent when:

“I gave him the last $1.25.  He threw back the 25 cents, saying he did not want such money as that.  It was 25 cents in scrip.”

Another passenger helped her pay the fare.  The post office in Virginia City also refused it.  This was the only money she had and Mary was not going to simply toss it out!  So, using her last two stamps she mailed the scrip back east to “where paper money is appreciated.”  Then she turned, without a cent, to find work to support herself and her young son.

Looking at a marker commemorating 10 miles of track laid in one day just west of Promontory Point, Utah.  Nearing completion both the Central Pacific, coming from the west, and the Union Pacific, coming from the east, were racing to lay as much track as possible.  Mary McNair Mathews passed along this very track on her way to Reno in 1869.  (photo by Scott Grieb)

With the above Mary McNair Mathews story as background, we can appreciate Mark Twain’s remarks of December 12, 1863 that mixed the topics of paper money, politicians, and a then rampant problem with dueling in the Nevada Territory.  It was the end of the 1863 Nevada Constitutional Convention and Mark had adolescently been elected Governor of the “Third House” for a final night of fun.  He opened the ceremonies by administering the following oath:

“We do solemnly swear,“ went the oath, “that we have never seen a duel, never been connected with a duel, never heard of a duel, never sent or received a challenge, never fought a duel and don’t want to.  Furthermore, we will support, protect and defend this constitution which we are about to frame until we can’t rest, and we will take our pay in scrip.”

If you believed the boys would stop dueling, or stoop to accepting paper money while living in the silver rich hills of Nevada, then you deserved the government you got! 

And now, finally, it is time to end this tirade.  For that I quote Mr. Twain’s advice to a “Professional Beggar”:

“No; you are not obliged to take greenbacks at par.”

Simple, elegant, and from the Master.    


Where to Find Coin Stories

Like gold, “coin stories are where you find them”.  My favorite sources are personal travelogues published in the nineteenth century.  Whenever anything unusual was encountered the authors would write about it.  Those unusual encounters often included mention of coins.  Original wording is also an advantage.  We do not have to fear that someone has reinterpreted what was written and exchanged modern terms for old, i.e. inserted “nickel” for “half dime”.  Personal memoirs written in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries are also good sources, especially those written by people who ran small businesses.  People from all over the country wrote memoirs and they often mention how coins played a part in transactions.

Old newspapers contain lists of prices, and occasionally mention coins, but they do not yield as many discussions about coins as might be expected.  That is probably due to their mostly being written by people who were already familiar with the local peculiarities regarding coins and money.  It was not new to them and so it was not news.

This is a good place to acknowledge the contributions of Jim Laughlin to various issues of the E-Gobrecht Journal of the Liberty Seated Collectors Club.  During 2016 – 2017, at least, he wrote several articles regarding coinage in the nineteenth century using original sources such as newspapers and mint correspondence of the day.  I did not refer Jim’s writings in this article but recommend anyone interested to search E-Gobrecht Journals for Jim’s first rate reference materials.  They are available on both the “Publications” tab on the Liberty Seated Collectors Club website, www.lsccweb.org, and within the Newman Numismatic Portal as archived issues of the E-Gobrecht Journal.

Modern college level history text books provide useful background information but rarely contain useful coin stories.  Money is money, prices and percentages to these authors and they rarely discuss coins.  Also, many college texts tend to follow the same track: begin with a few stories about the colorful characters and events of the “early days” and then degenerate into politicians and politics of the latter days.  As a result, they present relatively little that describes how people interacted and lived.  On the other hand, recent history texts that concentrate on one particular event or locality can be excellent sources of information.  These authors tend to quote original sources and as stated above, the original wording is what is needed.

So, where do you find all these books and newspapers?  Used book stores, the type that specialize in hardbacks – if you are lucky enough to have one nearby these days – and public libraries are excellent sources.  In Illinois, where I live, there is an interlibrary loan service that allows access to any library book in the state, including those in university rare book collections!  Libraries also have electronic copies of many books.  Large book stores, again if you are lucky, now, to be near one, often have specialty history book sections, or can order them.  Historical societies and university publishers are excellent sources as well; the University of Nebraska Press is a major source.  With the internet all that is needed is imagination to locate and order a book that discusses a subject you find interesting.

It helps to have some titles to look for.  Many titles may be found in the reference section listed at the back of historical texts.  One can lead to another and then to another, etc.  It is amazing how many books were written by people in the nineteenth century and how many coin stories exist!


List of Major References

Following are the major references used to write this article with those more commonly used listed closer to the top.  I have added comments to some to emphasize those I found most useful  Some page numbers are also listed.  Their availability and cost varies.

The Man Who Built San Francisco by Julian Dana.  The Macmillan Company, New York, 1936.  This is the story of William Ralston, an early western banker and investor, who helped make San Francisco a financial center.  Julian extensively quotes old newspapers and includes many interesting anecdotes.  It is extremely entertaining and has many coin stories.

From That Terrible Field - Civil War letters of James M. Williams, Twenty-First Alabama Infantry Volunteers, University of Alabama Press, 1981, John Kent Folmer editor.

Sixty Years in California, 1853 – 1913 by Harris Newmark.  Edited by Maurice H. and Marco R. Newmark.  Fourth edition revised and augmented by W. W. Robinson.  Zeitlin & Ver Brugge, Los Angeles, 1970. 

Beyond the Mississippi by Albert D. Richardson.  American Publishing Company, New York, 1867.  Page 172.  Albert toured the western United States and wrote about his experiences.  This book is especially rich in “first person” coin stories.

Gold Dust by Donald Dale Jackson.  University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1980.  Page 114.  This readily available book has many coin stories and is also one of the best I have ever read about the California gold rush.

Knights of the Green Cloth by Robert K. DeArment.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.  A history of the gamblers in the old west, Alaska and the Yukon.  It has many fascinating coin and gambling stories.  It even “ranks” the gamblers from “Aces” (the best and most famous among the gambling fraternity), to Kings, Queens (lady gamblers), and Knaves (the notorious).

Natural Wealth of California by Titus Fey Cronise, H. H. Bancroft & Company, New York, NY, 1868.  Primarily a good source of illustrations and statistics.

Centennial, American Life in 1876 by William Pierce Randel.  Chilton Book Company, Philadelphia, New York, London, 1969.  Page 335.  This book discusses everyday life in the United States in 1876.  It has many “first person” accounts by visitors to America.  It is mostly background information but also has a few good coin stories.

Entrepreneurs of the Old West by David Dary.  University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1986.  Page 272.  This history of American frontier businesses mainly discusses prices and wages.  It only mentions coins, per se, a few times.

Danes in North America edited by Frederick Hale.  University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1984.  Page 104.  Reprints of letters by Danish immigrants from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Most all areas of the United States are included.  Wages, beer, work, and religion are its major topics.  

Cow People by J. Frank Dobie.  Little Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1964.  Page 17.  Excellent overview of “Cow People” by an English professor who was raised in the ranching business.  Much of it was compiled during the 1920’s.  It has good coin stories from the Texas region and is also fascinating in its own right. 

A Treasury of American Folklore, edited by B. A. Botkin, 1944.  Crown Publishers, Inc., New York.  Has a few coin stories, usually told in the manner and phraseology of the day so it is sometimes difficult to grasp the exact context of a story.

The Autobiography of Charles Peters by Charles Peters.  The LaGrave Company, Sacramento, California, circa 1915.  Memories of the oldest living forty-niner in California.  Many interesting anecdotes and coin stories.

Eldorado or, Adventures in the Path of Empire by Bayard Taylor.  George P. Putnam & Company, 1856.  Pages 80 – 81.  George was a newspaper reporter who traveled to and from the California gold fields in 1849.  Many coin stories from both the United States and Mexico.

Little Brown Book of Anecdotes, Clifton Fadiman general editor.  Little, Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto, 1985.  Page 352.  Collection of short anecdotes about famous people.

Gold Camp, Alder Gulch and Virginia City, Montana by Larry Barsness.    Hastings House, New York, 1962.  Page 174.  History of this gold camp, a few good coin stories.

Forty Years of Hardware by Saunders Norvell.  Hardware Age, New York City, 1924.  Pages 27 – 32.  Saunders concentrated on the philosophy of how to run a business and mixed in a good selection of business style anecdotes, including a few brief coin stories.

Presidential Anecdotes by Paul F. Boller, Jr.  Penguin Books, New York, 1982.  This book has more coin stories than I expected.

Great Train Robberies of the Old West by R. Michael Wilson.  MJF Books, New York, 2007.  This book often mentions stolen gold and silver coin (of course!) and hiding it.

Forty Years A Gambler on The Mississippi by George Devol.  Devol and Haines, Cincinnati, 1887.  Reprinted by Applewood Books, Bedford, Massachusetts, 1995.  Many coin and gambling stories.

Our New West by Samuel Bowles.  Hartford Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut, 1869.  Surprisingly, this text hardly mentions coinage at all though it concentrates on the regions, people, and culture of the day.  It is what we would today call “a high elevation view”.

Ten Years in Nevada by Mary McNair Matthews.  Baker : Jones, Buffalo, NY 1880.  Reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press, 1985.  A fascinating personal memoir from Virginia City, Nevada from 1869  into the 1870’s.

Saloons of the Old West by Richard Erdos, 1979.  Alfred A. Knopf, New York.  Many coin stories.

Reminiscences and Incidents of Early Days of San Francisco (1845 – 1850) by John Henry Brown.  The Grabhorn Press, San Francisco, 1933. 

The Undeveloped West: or, Five Years in the Territories by John Hanson Beadle (1873).  1973 by Arno Press, New York