CoinWeek Podcast #150: How R.S. Yeoman Changed the Coin Collecting Hobby Forever
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In this week’s episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, editor Charles Morgan talks to longtime Red Book editor Kenneth Bressett on the career and legacy of Red Book creator and coin board innovator R.S. Yeoman.
Yeoman’s ideas transformed the hobby from an academic pursuit to one with broad mainstream appeal. Whereas most numismatic books published before 1950 were printed in limited numbers, Yeoman’s Red Book was an instant success and has gone on to sell tens of millions of copies and is updated annually. This year, we will see the publication of its 75th edition.
Bressett worked with R.S. Yeoman and probably knew him better than anyone in the industry and Charles asks him to share his insights into Yeoman’s vision for the hobby and where Yeoman fits amongst the giants of 20-century numismatics.
Also in this episode, Charles and CoinWeek staff writer Chris Bullfinch discuss this week’s new United States Mint product offerings and take a quick look at the rise and fall of the Redditors’ silver bullion play.
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The following is a transcript of Charles’ conversation with Ken Bressett, plus some news and analysis with Chris Bulfinch
Charles Morgan: Hey everybody, and welcome to the CoinWeek Podcast. This week we have a very interesting interview segment that will come later where I talk to Ken Bressett about the career of R.S. Yeoman and his impact on 20th-century numismatics. It’s not a dry topic at all, you’ll definitely want to check it out. I think if you’re into coins at all, you definitely are familiar with the Red Book. Yeoman was responsible for so much more than the Red Book and the Red Book itself is responsible for so much more about where the hobby went in the latter half of the 20th century than you can realize. I’m excited to talk about that, but before we get into that, Chris and I have a few stories that are touching the numismatic world this week. We’ll start with this week’s US Mint issues. What have we got, Chris?
Chris Bulfinch: We’re recording this on February 2nd. Yesterday, Martin Van Buren’s Presidential Silver Medal was released by the US Mint, the Reverse Proof American Innovation dollar for South Carolina, which featured Septima Clark, the civil rights leader and educator that was released yesterday as well. The Law Enforcement Museum & Memorial coinage–the clad half dollar, silver dollar, and gold $5–those were released January 28th, individually and as a three-coin set in uncirculated and Proof. On January 28th, the Proof and uncirculated versions of the Christa McAuliffe commemorative silver dollar were released. In the last few days, there have been a whole bunch of different things released. Anyone looking to keep up with current US Mint products has more than a few items to buy.
Charles: Of course, later this week, you have the First Amendment to the United States Constitution 2021 Platinum Proof Eagle, which is due out, which– I call this the “Tree Series” because it looks like a bunch of trees. You also have the final America the Beautiful quarter bags and rolls of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and that’s going to be on the eighth. That’s going to wrap you up in going out a little further. You’re going to have the 2021 Silver Eagle Proof on February 11th. There’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand for that. The coin is 73 bucks, it seems like a little high.
Chris: Yeah, they raised prices, as you know Charles, I’m looking into this. They raise prices for a whole bunch of products back in October of 2020, I believe. They raised prices for a whole bunch of silver products, including– they actually raised prices for some things that had already been released, but were still on sale, like the 2019 Congratulation Set. They bumped prices for a whole bunch of things. I don’t know why they bumped the– I know they change the prices of the bullion strike silver and gold to reflect the changing metals market, but in the case of the numismatic products, I’m not sure what the impetus for the increase in price was but yeah, so it’s now selling for 73 bucks, which as you said is not cheap.
Charles: Well, something I woke up Monday to cover, which I didn’t expect to, especially since we’re numismatic website, was the WallStreetBets play on the silver market. I wrote a piece about it after it really conceptualizing it. Obviously, I’m not a financial planner or even a silver market analyst. I did reach out to a few people in the industry, including Kitco’s Peter Hug about the issue, but I just felt the short-term wiping out of the available on-hand silver was something that’s probably not all that difficult to do with enough widespread interest. But raising silver to some sort of astronomical high, I think WallStreetBets’ post, original poster thought he could get it to $1,000 an ounce, which is just absolutely ludicrous. However, some Wall Street investment banks, including Goldman Sachs, do see silver going up to around $33 an ounce, and silver is regularly trading on online platforms, including eBay for around $40 for individual pieces.
Chris: You mean $40 an ounce, just to be clear.
Charles: Yeah, like a Silver Eagle, a typical price for silver round or Silver Eagle, if it’s pure silver on a trading platform like eBay is usually higher than spot price because usually paying a premium–
Chris: Well, $40 is a good bit higher than spot price.
Charles: Yeah, it’s a good bit higher, but it’s not unusual at all for it to have that kind of spread. That’s what it’s trading for. The Silver Eagle Proof is going to be about $73. It’s certainly not a play you’re buying for the silver. You have to really, really put the feet on the gas to get that high. Anyway, that’s kind of what’s going on there. Like I said, I thought with that whole thing that and you’re seeing it now, it was on an unsustainable push on the GameStop stock. Here you have a company that basically nobody shops at anymore, that hasn’t turned a profit in years. It’s basically a buggy whip seller at this point, since most people are downloading interactive video game content online and the major consoles have robust portfolios of online games. In fact, you can probably buy more games online through Steam or PlayStation Live or Xbox Live, whatever PlayStation calls your thing, than you can buy at a brick-and-mortar retailer because there’s a lot of indie games that just don’t get retail release. I don’t know, I just saw that as one set of intellectual elites going after financial elites and a bunch of people who didn’t know what side of the coin was up getting involved in. I hope they got out when it was like $400 a share and aren’t stuck with it now.
Chris: Yeah, there was definitely some anger at Wall Streeters that was, I think, pushing a lot of people to invest in GameStop. I’ll say this, not that this has anything to do with the financial aspect of it, I have a lot of fond memories of GameStop. Honestly, I don’t know, I would consider going in there to buy a physical copy, but that also shows you that I haven’t been playing video games in a long time that I would think about going into a GameStop. Yeah, I found all of my friends followed that whole kerfuffle because it broke into mainstream news, it’s probably one of the only times you’re ever going to see GameStop get covered in the so-called mainstream media. I got a kick out of talking about it with a few of my buddies. It’s definitely an interesting story, and that they’re now targeting silver is, I thought that was really interesting. I saw a bunch of coin collector and dealer Facebook groups going crazy, with people going, “Oh, silver’s next, that’s going to be the next big thing that the Redditors and the internet is going to try to blow up the value for.” It’s an interesting story. I couldn’t see silver spiking to 1980 levels, but did you see it going up significantly at all? Or, do you think it’s just going to be maybe a few bucks for a few days, and then it’ll cool?
Charles: Well, first of all, I do want to make it clear that, even that thread, that short squeeze on silver thread, was locked down by the moderators at a certain point. I think after it had over a thousand comments, and there were a lot of detractors in that forum saying that it was just a sort of a distraction, that they needed to keep doing what they were doing. I don’t know. As far as the precious metals markets are concerned, I find that the fundamentals of them going up gradually over time, is very much still there. I find with the Democratic administration in power right now, a lot of political advertising for precious metals is going to percolate in the ether. You’re going to see the same sort of cudgel about the national debt and fiat currencies and hyperinflation, yadda yadda. That’s going to be stuff that’s going to definitely play to a certain sector.
I do see a lot of people diversifying in precious metals and collectibles. Time will tell whether or not that pays off. Gold’s at $1,830, silver’s at $2,656. I mean, it was like $29, $30 over the weekend. That’s a sign that precious metals are certainly more viable right now than they’ve been at any time since the first term of the Obama administration. We’ll see where that goes. Anyway, that’s for people much more savvy about the market than me to really comment on.
Chris: Yeah, I don’t follow precious metals markets or any financial markets really closely. I should probably invest a little bit of money I have socked away in an IRA at some point. Yeah, I can’t comment intelligently on that. I’m just focused on coins, that’s all I know to talk about.
Charles: All right, so let’s get into my interview with Ken Bressett about R. S. Yeoman’s impact on the hobby, and then we’ll double back, and Chris and I will have our closing thoughts.
Charles: Hi, Ken, thank you for joining me on the CoinWeek Podcast.
Ken Bressett: Well, thank you, Charles, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Charles: In sleuthing around the history of the hobby, I often find myself traveling down interesting side streets, and finding little details about things that I didn’t expect to find. Some of the side streets dramatically change the way I understand the hobbyists that exist today. One of the periods that I have recently been digging into is the early 1930s, when the penny board came into being, and one of the figures central to the popularization of the penny board, and therefore the popularization of the coin collecting hobby, is a man who most collectors active today, did not get a chance to meet in person, but know as the originator of the Red Book, the guidebook of United States coins. That person is R. S. Yeoman, better known to his friends and family as Dick Yeo. A man that you worked with for many years, and after his retirement, worked to keep his legacy alive by your excellent editorship of his landmark book. I wanted to touch base with you and ask you to tell me and the CoinWeek audience a little bit about what Dick Yeo was like, and how important he was to the exploding popularity of the coin collecting hobby in the middle of the 20th century and beyond.
Ken: Well, I think that the advent of the penny board, as they called it then, was one of the turning points in our hobby. Prior to that, there were a number of collectors, of course, they’re very sophisticated collectors, usually. They didn’t think much about current coins, it didn’t mean much to them. When this penny board came on the market and was popularized and sold in quick quantities through all kinds of stores. It just turned the hobby into a new phase, instead of just being academic, it was a popular collector pursuit. That was something that I think, came about through the efforts of Dick Yeoman. Let’s call him Dick Yeoman here. I knew him very, very well, back then as Dick Yeo, which was, of course, the family name. I’m afraid most collectors today are not aware of that. Let’s call him Dick Yeoman through this. He had, in my opinion, three different personalities. He was Dick Yeo to all of his family and friends and lived a perfectly normal life as Dick Yeo. But then to the people that work with him and in his professional life, he was known as Dick Yeoman.
Charles: Well, let’s set it up by talking a little bit about the hobby in this period of time. I don’t want to get too lost in the weeds here but bear with me. When you get to the mid-1930s, the country is experiencing terrible depression. At the same time, the coin collecting hobby is growing. Some are saving their pennies for a brighter day in these penny boards that are showing up in stores across America. Collectors who can afford to buy coins at a premium are enraptured with the commemorative coin boom that’s going on. This series brings the ANA an influx of new members, and the pages of The Numismatist become a monthly accounting of all the new legislation and issues that are on the horizon. At the same time, you see the popularization of collecting modern issues by mintmark. Thank you very much, Augustus Goodyear Heaton. Thank you very much 1909-S VDB cent and 1916-D Mercury dime. You have a growing public interest and coins taking hold, Dick Yeo working on what becomes the Blue Book. He publishes that and then is putting the finishing touches on the Red Book, a retail guide for US coins, but has to put the project on pause because of the outbreak of World War II. He was essentially tapping into a hobby that was primed to explode. It was a hobby changing from an academic pursuit to something that nearly everyone could participate in. He recognized this right away by witnessing the enthusiasm people had in putting aside modern issue coins and buying modern commemoratives.
Ken: Well, that’s exactly right. I was actually a collector, and kind of a serious collector back in that era, so I know. What it was like to find what we today call rare coins in circulation, we recognized that they were scarce, it was kind of fun to live through that era, when there were actually gold coins still floating around. Dick Yeoman recognized that this was something that could be a popular hobby, and that’s why he got started on making what was then known as the Blue Book or the Handbook of US Coins. That was his first venture out to try and educate these new collectors into a better understanding of what coin collecting was all about, and what actually existed for coins. There were very few other references that a normal man-on-the-street collector could use to get any information about this as a hobby. Dick recognized that, and his great power was to not only analyze and know what the market was like and formulate a plan for pursuing this, but he knew enough to call on people who were then, let’s say, experts in this or well-acquainted with American and with a hobby, and he drew upon their background and their information. He was not afraid to ask questions and to rely on qualified people. I think that was one of his great strengths was that he knew where to find information and how to market that in the form of books and albums and other supplies.
Charles: One of the things that you think about when you think about numismatic literature, and I know you and I both have a deep appreciation of numismatic books and the value they provide us as numismatists. But when you go back and look at the print runs of these types of books in the pre-World War II period, most of them were written and published by serious amateurs, and in very limited numbers. I’m astonished by the way R.S. Yeoman, Dick Yeo’s pen name, was able to create a book that was so successful, that after 74 editions, it has sold over 25 million copies. What did he do that was so radically different that led to such an unprecedented success for this book about coins?
Ken: It really, I think, is because he drew upon experts to get information, drew upon experienced people that he could trust, and he was impartial. As you just described the marketing of books way back then in the 30s, these were mostly priceless by dealers, who were not unbiased in their opinions about what coins should be bought and sold for. They were fleecing the market and Dick didn’t want that to happen. So, he was very impartial. He reported on the coin market in a fashion that has become traditional for the Red Book and the Blue Book. He was impartial and accurate as possibly could be. The philosophy is that we had to report and be as unbiased as we could, by using information that we had ascertained was accurate.
Charles: Well, he didn’t stop with US coins. After the Red Book was published, he turned his attention to US paper money publishing the Green Book. From there, world coins, publishing the Brown Book. On top of that, he was an executive at the company. He was a very busy man and a businessman at that.
Ken: Yes, he had a very important position there, but he originally was hired as a commercial artist. His background was as a commercial artist. He was given this job of upselling the coin folders– not coin boards at that time, and he was just innovative. He was a very clever person. He could solve any kind of a problem. Part of his duties in trying to just market these coin boards, he knew it was going to be a bigger market than that, and that’s why he jumped right into publishing and sometimes writing these other books about world coins and so many other topics.
Charles: You get involved with Whitman in what, the early 1960s?
Ken: I started there in 1958.
Charles: Okay, 1958. At Whitman early on, you were responsible for the publication of one of my favorite numismatic periodicals and that was the Whitman Numismatic Journal. Was Yeoman involved with that as well?
Ken: Well, he wrote some articles for us. It was his idea, his concept. He just said, “Ken, this is what I want, do it.” He contributed, as I say, some articles and put a little message in each month. But it was basically my baby, and I’m very proud of it.
Charles: I would love to see that updated. I’ve told Dennis Tucker about this. I’d love to see it updated with the original articles, but annotated to show how the story has progressed or how things have changed, and put it in print again, in some sort of collected volume. I have my copy hardbound of the originals, but I think it’s such an important piece, I’d love to see it come back in some form.
Ken: Good for you. Well, at the time, it was really quite advanced. Today, of course, it’s been superseded by a lot of other kinds of publications, but we had a lot of fun doing that. I’ll tell you secretly, we had a very small staff doing it. We used all kinds of different names. We’d write under our wife’s names or make up some names. We want it to look like a big staff but really, there were just a few of us doing it and we just had a ball.
Charles: Well, I hope anybody listening to this takes a chance to seek this out, seriously. You may find some copies on eBay or ask Charlie Davis or Kolbe & Fannings if they can source some copies for you. It’s worth paying whatever the price. As Ken was saying, these had very advanced articles in them. Numismatic periodicals at the time were typically written at the basic collector level. The Whitman Numismatic Journal was much more advanced in its approach, is groundbreaking. How do you think Dick would see the current state of the hobby? He probably would be thrilled to see that his book is still around, and it’s evolved into something even bigger with the Mega Red edition. How would he see the hobbyists that exist today?
Ken: I think he would want to continue to try to ever go along on a stable course. I think he would resent the problems we have today with grading and people not relying on any kind of standards, but making up their own standards, or relying, say, on third-party grading when as a serious collector, they should know how to grade on their own and not rely on others. It’s something that I don’t think he would like because he was a champion of trying to standardize grading. One of the few of us that jumped right in and said, “Okay, we’re going to do something about it.” That’s when we came out with the ANA grading standards. Today, that would be one of the pressing problems.
Charles: Do you ever feel at the time working with him that he had ever had a concern about the cost of coins, the rising cost of coins, and that possibly these rising coin prices might someday lead us to a point where most people, most working people couldn’t afford to collect coins?
Ken: Well, as I said, I go back to the 1930s, and we were saying that very same thing back then. “The prices are too high, they’re going out of sight, it’s just terrible.” We had to pay, I remember at the time, a $5 gold piece, you could get for $8, and it had gone up to $9 as a standard. God, we were appalled. [laughs]
Charles: Yeah, but those 1935– 1934 small Dan Boone half dollars will still cost you 30 or 40 bucks back then.
Ken: Well, there was always a concern that coins were too expensive. I feel that way today too, but it’s not going to change.
Charles: One of the things about my coin collecting story, I got into coins by chance. My grandmother collected coins and one day I happened upon her safe which she kept in her walking closet. I was like on all fours, walking around, following her Lhasa apsos around the house. Lying right there on the floor was the 1984 Olympic dollar with this fabulous design. It was improved with the cameo frosting. It’s really like the most amazing, beautiful thing I’d ever seen up to that point. After I saw that coin, I was just begging her for coins, old coins, silver coins, any instance, anything I could get. On my birthday, she bought me a copy of the 1987 edition of the Red Book, the 40th edition. It had a sticker, that little gold sticker in the bottom right corner, the front cover, I can still remember it. I still have the book actually.
A few things stood out to me. Flipping through the pages, you come across first the Spanish dollar at the beginning. Then there’s a series on colonial coins, and the bar copper always stood out as being an especially beautiful and meaningful coin to me. Then, you have all these federal serious coin designs, and all these denominations. The 1794 cent, being one of my favorites, with the pileus cap on the pole and the flowing hair of Liberty. And date-by-date messages and denominations and prices… and all these coins that I never could have conceived before I got the Red Book that would have ever existed were all out there for me to study and learn about and hopefully find, and of course, now I’m a kid. I go out into the wild hoping that when my parents get change, and that I’ll find some of these coins in circulation. Of course, none of that’s possible. But even at that time, I never felt that the Red Book was over my head. I was a fairly advanced third grader, but I was by no means a prodigy. I never felt that what was written in the Red Book was basically talking over my head or talking to somebody else. I feel that anybody who reads that book cover to cover, and really takes in what it’s saying, will leave having a very sophisticated understanding of collecting US coins.
Ken: Well, I’m glad to hear you say that, because our philosophy was to write at a high school level. Dick Yeoman used to say, “Never use the word ‘numismatic’ or ‘numismatist,’ unless you have to. Call it coin collecting.” We tried to follow that philosophy and keep everything in basic terms.
Charles: I feel we use terms like “numismatist” or “sophisticated numismatists” as euphemisms for “rich guy”. You’re right, I think “coin collector” is the better term. It’s what we do, that’s what we’re about. It’s such a powerful testament to how much a visionary Dick Yeo was that you can go back and pick up a 1970s or 1960s Red Book, and he had pretty much figured the formula out. He was talking to people about the joy of collecting coins.
Ken: Yes, I think that’s true, and we try to preserve it that way.
Charles: What was it like having to fill his shoes and continue Dick’s legacy with your work as the editor of the Red Book after his retirement? Of course, you’re retired now, but you still work on it.
Ken: Yes. Although I’m still quite actively involved, but somebody else is in charge, but I am involved. Well, I always thought it was a lot of fun because I love numismatics, I love the science in a very serious way. Of course, the upside of that is coin collecting and so it all blends together into one happy job when that’s what you play with all day long. Discovering something new, wondering if we should go in the book, how to evaluate things. I just have to say it was a wonderful life because Dick was a perfect gentleman, and always considerate of everyone. Working with him, and for him has always been a great pleasure.
Charles: Can you remember what the last edition that Dick was actively involved in producing?
Ken: When he retired in 1970, he was still acting sort of as a consultant, and would make recommendations and some thoughts of things. But from that point on, he moved to Arizona, and really went into retirement after 1970. I would say he probably only was really actively involved, up until about 1972.
Charles: I guess he got to miss all the excitement surrounding the American Bicentennial, huh?
Ken: Yeah. Well, he remained interested in his retirement. We used to correspond very, very frequently or talk on the telephone or whatever. He was always concerned and interested, and he did a lot of public relations work. He would give talks and travels to coin shows, right up until probably around 1980.
Charles: I was talking amongst the writers at CoinWeek as we were preparing to talk with you today, and I posited an opinion to my colleagues that having considered the legacies and impact of the 20th-century’s leading figures: Ford, Breen, Bowers, Harvey Stack, Wayte Raymond, B. Max Mehl, David Hall, and others, and I don’t know if I can think of someone who had quite the same impact of popularizing the coin collecting hobby as Dick Yeo did. Do you agree with my assessment?
Ken: Yes, absolutely. And you named the others, and these are people who all cared about the hobby, and all did what they could to advance interest in it as a hobby and as a true scientific project, or discipline, I should say.
Charles: Thanks for joining us, Ken. Take care.
Ken: Well, very good. Thank you.
[CoinWeek theme music]
Charles Morgan: Chris, what do you think? Did you find anything on Ken’s commentary about Yeoman to be surprising or new to you?
Chris Bulfinch: No, I enjoyed that greatly. Obviously, I knew the name, R. S. Yeoman or Dick Yeoman, as you guys were referring to him in the interview. I’ve owned Red Books for almost as long as I’ve been collecting. They were pretty common stocking stuffer for me when I was growing up, because parents and family and friends knew that I was interested in coins, going back to when I was fairly young. So, I’ve had a relationship with the Red Book for a long time, I guess. The Red Book has been a part of my life and my collecting life for a long time. I thought the point that you made, and I think Bressett agreed with, at least there’s a point that you both seem to think was right, about if someone goes through a Red Book and reads it cover to cover, they become, I think, I forget the exact word you used, but it was like a competent numismatist. Or, you at least get the basics of numismatics.
The other thing I found really interesting about Bressett’s comments was he mentioned that they intentionally wrote the book at a high school reading level, which I thought was interesting. It had never occurred to me to look at the text of the Red Book that way. So, hearing him say that and also elaborating on how small the staff was, and then they were writing under their wives’ names, I think he said, I got a real kick out of that. I thought that was interesting. I was curious. I wanted to hear your thoughts something that I kind of want to hear you elaborate on a little bit. Do you think there’s a person who resembles Dick Yeoman in the 21st century or even a group of people whose actions or beliefs about the hobby echo what he was doing in the mid-20th century? Do you think there’s any sort of corollary today?
Charles: I would say if I was to really pin it down, I think– and there are certainly different people and have certainly approached the thesis in a different way, and I would say the closest corollary I have is Dave Bowers. Dave is certainly a prolific writer and has covered practically every aspect of American numismatics one can even tackle. He’s got an immense catalog of notes and original research documents, he’s collaborated with a lot of people. I mean, Yeoman collaborated with a lot of people to make the Red Book possible. Whereas Yeoman was really concerned about a cataloging organizational structure for coins and paper money and world coins. Bowers has organized a lot of thoughts around the narratives of these series. It’s funny to me because early on in my research of the past of the hobby, the history of the hobby, that’s the thing about coins, I think I’m almost at this point most fascinated about is just how that hobby develops over time.
Pretty much before World War II, when you go look at all the ANA events. You see the group photos, these people are dressed to the nines, and they reflect a certain segment of the society. When a famous collector goes on a vacation, that was deemed worthy for publication in The Numismatist. By the time you get to the post-war period after the penny boards are popular, and after the Red Book becomes popular, and after just regular people from all walks of life start to be fascinated with coin collecting, then the texture of the hobby changes from an elite academic pursuit, to a mainstream everybody can do it pursuit. That comes at a cost. Part of that cost is, I think, that the hobby becomes less organized, and that club mentality maybe that the ANA would have had at that point become something else. People with not necessarily the same interest level or the same academic background or even the same azimuth for being involved in the hobby become members. So, it’s hard to sort of feed that beast and keep it one working organism. I think that Yeoman basically saw numismatics and realized he could turn it into coin collecting.
Bowers, I think recognized coin collecting and sort of realizes that he can provide numismatics to make coin collecting more impactful. I think they’re approaching the same issue from different angles, but the closest thing we have to a guy like Yeoman is Bowers. I would say if you probably count dollars to donuts on the number of books that have been in publication like Dick Yeoman’s, clearly the Mount Everest, but I don’t think that there’s anybody in the industry today, tomorrow, 100 years from now, who will have as much of an impact on as broad of a range of numismatics as Bowers. But I would say – and for me, I would put Yeoman as probably the most important numismatic figure in the 20th century, not because of the giant nature of his superior intellect or his research into one particular area or another, but just for his vision of what he could do with the hobby.
Chris: Yeah, I think that’s a word that describes his impact, his vision. It’s not even necessarily that– like you said, he was essentially accumulating knowledge. He was seeking out knowledgeable people, dealers whose area of expertise, who dealt with different types of material. He martialed a lot of the research that other people were doing or the research that all these different people were embarking on. But like you said, it took vision to think to pull all of that together into one sort of centralized area. I’m curious, the process that you described, that unfolded in the mid-20th century where Yeoman brought the hobby to middle America or brought the hobby to the middle class and made it not exclusively a pursuit of the elites, I wonder, do you think that democratization is running in reverse now? Because it seems to me that, particularly as the middle class erodes further and further, there are fewer and fewer people who can afford to collect coins at any level, and many of them don’t have time. If someone’s working two full-time jobs just to keep a roof over their head, it’s not as though they can take time to read articles on CoinWeek or go pick up a Red Book and they don’t really have discretionary income to buy a Morgan dollar or a Civil War token or something. Do you think that numismatics might recede back into what it once was, kind of this boutique interest of a handful of sort of well-heeled people?
Charles: I think that’s a concern some people have voiced, but to me, I think not. The beauty is that, at least in the terms of the Red Book, the Red Book’s cheap. It’s always maintained a low price point. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s sold so well over the years. The other thing is that the Red Book focuses on collector grades that are not necessarily the “Richie Rich” guy grades. So, you’re getting good and very good and fine, and all those kinds of grades. I think the other thing is, once you have the collector bug, I think you have the collector bug. I think that it doesn’t matter to somebody who loves coins, whether or not they personally can afford an AU 58 wreath cent or you could just get one with a hole in it that you can see the wreath in the back and the date of what’s left of it on the front, I think that collectors have that bug and they go after it.
Again with the Yeoman book, I was from a working-class family and I get this book when I’m in elementary school, I certainly like the kind of money I have is the money I can scrounge together off of my parent’s dresser, the quarters or nickels or whatever they empty their pockets at the end of the workday. When I was making trips to the coin and loan pawn shop in my town, and buying Indian head cents and Liberty nickels from the junk boxes, that was my entry into the hobby. Of course, the Red Book was there to tell me what the mintage was of the 1904 Liberty Head nickel or the 1938-D Buffalo nickel or the 1908 Indian cent that I bought for pennies. To me, that version of the hobby is always going to exist.
I think we do have a hobby that is split into parts. I think that the higher end of the hobby has become way more sophisticated due to encapsulation and online auctions. I feel the modern variant of the hobby with bullion coins, and commemorative coins and things like that, some of them very wild and exotic and postmodern in their construction, and hardly one would define as a coin if you go back 20, 30 years, that’s been a different direction and I think that that’s a viable and vibrant and important part of the entire landscape and study. Then, I think probably your final piece is what is left, the remnant fleet of that pull money out of change kind of collectible, the very worn circulated coins that we might think of as a flea market commodity or a local coin show or coin club kind of product. We have to understand that there are threads that tie all of it together.
I would love to be wealthy enough to have every coin I want in whatever grade I find is superior but I think the reality is that all collectors find whatever the avenue or niches that are within their means and they become devoted to that and they pursue that. To them, it’s not a limitation that deprives them of the joy of a hobby. It’s really just a way for them to express themselves through the collectible aspect of numismatics. I also agree with Yeoman in the other sense that dropping the word ‘numismatics’ as much as possible is probably for the best because coin collecting or collecting is really what it is. I don’t know if there’s a Latin-derived word for collecting GI Joe figures, but if their damn o-rings didn’t break so much due to dry rotting, I probably would have done that too, because that was a major thing I did when I was a kid. I just think that the bottom line is people like to collect for the history of it, or for the nostalgia of it or whatever that reason is, but I think a lot of people are just natural-born collectors and coins just happen to be the thing this group of people are into.
Chris: Yeah, I wasn’t trying to suggest that coin collecting, and coin collecting at the level that you’re talking about was necessarily going to go away. I’m just cognizant of how little time a lot of people seem to have and that people do need to have a certain amount of leisure time and extra money lying around to pursue a leisure activity, but I think you’re absolutely right. All different levels of collecting are, at least in my view, valid and should be celebrated. I do agree that the collecting bug often does– people will try to collect in one form or another if they are sort of– like you said, if they have that bug.
Charles: I think that’s a good discussion, Chris. Thank you for your comments on that. We’ll be back next week with another episode of the CoinWeek Podcast. We’ll have more news and article coverage for you online. For CoinWeek, I’m Charles Morgan.
Chris: I’m Chris Bulfinch.
Charles: We’ll see you soon. Happy collecting, guys.
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