By Austin Andrews for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……
The written word enables coins—otherwise silent objects—to speak out, declare, and demand, sometimes on their own behalf. Object-speak shows up in a range of different numismatic contexts, including in English-language examples. For instance, the 18th-century “Higley coppers” are a group of objects well-known among numismatic researchers and collectors of American colonial material. In addition to their rarity and significant modern value, these coppers are also notable for their curious use of object-speak: legends allowing the coins to speak directly to the reader as “I,” “me,” and “my”.
The Higley coppers were tokens minted in the British colony of Connecticut in North America between 1737 and 1739. Functionally, they were privately issued coins meant to circulate alongside government-issued paper currencies in a local economy that lacked small change. There are several extant die combinations of the coppers, many of which include the grammatical first person in some capacity. The American Numismatic Society’s collection has only two authentic examples; their legends are only partially legible. Some Higleys confidently declare I AM GOOD COPPER on the reverse with three crowned hammers arranged in heraldic style (ANS 1896.3.1, above). Here, the coins—and the copper content within them—charm the reader with their personability and advance an argument about their own metallic purity.
While we have no definite contemporary literary evidence for the Higley coppers from the 1730s, Sylvester S. Crosby’s The Early Coins of America (1875) relates a revealing oral tradition.
In this text, an old-timer goldsmith relays that during his apprenticeship years in the 1810s, certain Connecticut goldsmiths preferred Higley coppers for the technical processes involved in alloying gold, which requires pure copper. Modern metallurgical analyses of these coppers performed by Dr. Daniel Freidus, however, indicate that by the early 19th century, the Higleys were in fact no purer than other coppers in circulation in the region. If the story from the agèd goldsmith is accurate, it suggests that the first-person declaration on these coins may have been effectively working its marketing magic more than seven decades after they were minted. For better or for worse, people trust the written word—which feels true, permanent, and final.
Some Higley coppers have a standing deer encircled with the legend VALUE ME AS YOU PLEASE with the Roman numeral III in the exergue (obverse of ANS 1894.23.1, above). In addition to the first person “me”, the second-person pronoun “you” is also worth pointing out here. “You” brings you-the-reader into direct conversation with the speaking first person of the object, engaging more of a dialogue than the monologous declarations of the “I am” statements. This is true, in particular, when the reader is the recipient of the copper as payment, the intended primary audience for this message.
The numeral III relates to an earlier Higley copper with the same upright deer that read THE VALUE OF THREE PENCE. These two legends, together, showcase the fluidity of changing economic structures in the American colonies where they circulated, even though their value was much less than the amount they claimed to be worth (Daragan, 129–137). These phrases also led to a number of retroactive, speculative histories. The most widely repeated folktale is that their coiner had trouble getting a local pub’s bartender to accept the tokens and therefore changed the initial phrase in his coins to the jauntier, open-ended expression of VALUE ME AS YOU PLEASE, even with the notable insufficient weight of the copper.
On the reverse of some Higley types, a broadaxe is shown with a legend that reads I CUT MY WAY THROUGH (reverse of ANS 1894.23.1, above). It is possible that the “my” here may be the axe talking, a speech-bubble example of the first person. The statement could be referring to some local motto or conventional phrase of accomplishing a task with swiftness, as in to cut the proverbial Gordian knot. “I”, in context of the obverse legend VALUE ME AS YOU PLEASE, however, indicates that this statement is also from the coin’s perspective. Perhaps, even, the coin is wielding the depicted axe and claiming the clever ability to metaphorically cut through conventional monetary systems at play—a necessary feat when small change was needed around colonial Connecticut.
The Higley coppers have long inspired intrigue for several reasons. For one, they feature among the shining examples of privately-issued numismatic objects in American history, along with Brasher’s doubloons and Bechtler’s dollars. Beyond this, there is a sort of cutesy factor with the object-speak featuring prominently in their mythography. The first-person legends on the Higleys led to their description as “quaint” by Andrew Zabriskie, a 19th-century President of the American Numismatic Society, in his 1898 address at the Society’s Annual Meeting. They have also been variously described as “a whimsy for a few personal expenses” in the New York Times in the 1980s and as “wholesome” in media coverage of a specimen that went up for auction in 2017.
Comparable examples of such object-speak occur in other English language legends. In 1664, the Anthony Bouch Company in Britain issued tokens that read I AM FOR A PVBLIQVE GOOD on the obverse and IN COCKERMOVTH on the reverse (ANS 1967.159.124, above). These three-farthing tokens issued in Cockermouth in the far northern English county of Cumberland share a number of commonalities with the Higley coppers in addition to being privately issued. They supplied a local economy with small change in an area that lacked it otherwise—and told you as much, invoking the notion of goodness to prove their worth. And, of course, they speak in the first person.
There is a light-hearted element to these English-language examples of object-speak. They encouraged the reader to trust the object’s worth by pleading their own case for legitimacy. They direct you, the reader, to act and acknowledge. In ancient contexts, when objects claimed agency and spoke as the subject of a sentence, the framework elevated their authority—making them almost sacred in their materiality. These English language examples, however, are more humorous, presented as tongue-in-cheek jokes with the object-speak a noticeable deviation from an expected norm. Coins and tokens do not usually speak, yet these do. Their claim was trusted and achieved a lasting effect, which we are still engaged with today.
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