by David T. Alexander for CoinWeek.com….
The years 1935 to 1976 saw the dramatic emergence of the booming numismatic world that many take for granted today. During those years, one of the most influential voices was that of Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, launched in January 1935 by printer and collector Lee F. Hewitt of Chicago.
Hewitt was a middle westerner, born in Keokuk, Iowa, on Jan. 1, 1911. He died in retirement after a distinguished career in Boynton Beach, Florida, on April 15, 1987. He was twice married, and as a young man pursued a brief career in show business, including a stint traveling with a circus band.
He joined his brother Clifford (1905-1978) in the printing business in Chicago and became deeply interested in coin collecting as the nation was laboring through the depths of the Great Depression. Many present-day collectors are astonished to learn that numismatics flourished on a very basic level during these difficult years.
The Depression spurred interest in all kinds of inexpensive hobbies among working and middle class Americans. A major Chicago-based magazine called Hobbies was published by Otto Lightner, offering features on every imaginable interest from porcelain dolls to books, toys to collectible stamps.
Coin collecting became accessible to the masses when Wisconsin engineer and collector Joseph Kent Post invented the inexpensive “Penny Board” in the early 1930’s. This was a stiff cardboard sheet to which was affixed a second imprinted sheet with die-cut holes to house one of each Lincoln Cent date and mintmark issued thus far.
Even the most cash-strapped Americans found it possible to save the humble “penny.” No Depression-era citizens threw “pennies” away as so many people do today. After Post conveyed his invention to Whitman Publishing of Racine, Wisconsin, boards were made for other denominations and the new owner’s nationwide distribution network (think Little Golden Books and Woolworth’s 5 & 10 Cent stores) spread popular collecting across the continent.
Inevitably, many of these board-fillers grew into serious collectors, and began seeking numismatic information that was not readily available. Dealer premium lists could be hunted down and the 1934 edition of Wayte Raymond’s Standard Catalogue of United States Coins was a treasure if it could be found.
When Lee Hewitt planned his new magazine, it was going to be literally a “scrap book” offering excerpts from books published years before that were now long out of print and inaccessible to collectors of 1935. Then monthly news and notices were added to the mix when they could be obtained.
Volume 1, Number 1 appeared dated January 1935. It was a small (4 3/16 x 3 1/3 inches” eight-page publication boasting a bright yellow cover with bold scarlet sunburst enclosing NUMISMATIC/ SCRAPBOOK/ JANUARY 1935. Precisely 200 copies were printed, but by 1938 the year’s run totaled 524 pages. The first year saw new issues every two months but monthly appearance was soon the rule.
Subscriptions were $1 per year. The only serious competitor then existing was The Numismatist, journal of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), a kind of cross between an overgrown club publication and a learned journal.
Lee F. Hewitt recalled in June 1969 that in his magazine’s first year the ANA was 47 years old and had only 1,200 members. There were only 35 functioning coin clubs in the U.S. and perhaps a dozen significant, full-time coin dealers. He became an active member in the Chicago Coin Club and in 1939 helped found the Central States Numismatic Society (CSNS), first major regional coin organization.
A huge boost to Numismatic Scrapbook was the U.S. commemorative coin boom that came to a boil in 1935. American commemorative half dollars had first been issued in 1892, and continued to appear intermittently through 1934, when 50 cents was a still a respectable amount of money.
In 1935-1936 a commemorative madness erupted with dozens of subjects proposed and many actually getting through Congress on subjects ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Any modern collector has but to look in the Guidebook of United States Coins (the “Red Book”) to see how many 1936-dated commemoratives were actually issued.
Going monthly, Hewitt’s magazine grew to 5 x 7½ inch format. Its beige and light red cover now bore a fixed design with red script Numismatic Scrapbook MAGAZINE, America’s Authority on Coin Collecting over a large Morgan dollar obverse. The coin’s date 19—was blocked by a tablet announcing A monthly magazine for the Collector of Coins, Tokens, Medals and Paper Money. The issue date appeared at the bottom. This basic design was retained until 1969.
Internally, Hewitt separated editorial (written materials, articles and news) from the fat body of advertising that made the magazine marvelously profitable for decades. Each issue included a “Beginner’s Primer,” and each January boasted a “Crystal Ball” of predictions by dealers and a few collectors.
Critics sometimes sneered that the predictions were merely disguised advertising for what this or that dealer happened to have in stock. This overlooked such contributions as Miami dealer William Fox Steinberg’s mid-1950’s urging just after the 1950-D Jefferson nickel boom, “Don’t worry about how many nickels the Mint is going to make, just enjoy your coins and good health!”
Another Hewitt secret weapon was a brilliant young linotype operator named Arlie Slabaugh (born 1926) a deaf-mute whose unerring eye could tell him what space would be left blank by a story he was typesetting. His fast-moving mind and fingers would compose a short to fill the space before his type-setting reached the bottom of the column.
The ANA was not happy with Scrapbook when it first appeared and no notice of the upstart was taken in The Numismatist. Hewitt was large-hearted enough to volunteer to serve as temporary editor of the ANA publication when Editor Frank G. Duffield suddenly resigned in September 1942 after 27 years in the editor’s chair.
The nation was now at war and finding skilled workers for any job was a vast challenge. Without conflict of interest, Hewitt served both magazines with equal devotion through December 1942. He found time to contribute heavily to Whitman’s new Handbook of United States Coins the next year, the new “Blue Book” that was giving independent values for most U.S. coins.
Several major contributors to numismatic progress graced the pages of Scrapbook, including Crown and Taler guru Dr. John S. Davenport.
After the war, Hewitt Publications included the “Information Series” that introduced in-depth monographs including the work of a young numismatic genius, Walter Breen. Breen’s titles included “The Secret History of the Gobrecht Coinages, Dies and Coinage, Major Varieties of U.S. Gold Dollars, Varieties of U.S. Quarter Eagles; New Varieties of $1, $2,50 and $5 U.S. Gold; Major Varieties of U.S. Three Dollar Gold Pieces, Early U.S. Half Eagles, Varieties of U.S. Half Eagles 1839-1929; and United States Eagles.”
With Ted Weissbuch Hewitt wrote the United States Numismatic Dictionary that appeared in 1967; later he co-authored the Hewitt-Donlon Catalog of United States Small Size Paper Money; and released his Nevada Gaming Tokens in 1970 (retail $.75).
The birth of the tabloid newspaper Numismatic News in Iola, Wis., in 1952 had little effect on Scrapbook, but the birth in Sidney, Ohio of Amos Press’ weekly Coin World in 1960 brought dramatic change. An efficiently published and distributed weekly news source seriously damaged Scrapbook’s profitability. The appearance of the wonderfully successful Amos monthly magazine World Coins was another portentous step forward.
Still bearing the familiar beige cover, the January 1968 Numismatic Scrapbook bore the usual Chicago address. In the April issue page 521 was devoted to a change of address for subscriptions and advertising to Sidney, Ohio. Page 555 introduced Russell Rulau and Courtney L. Coffing, “meet your new Scrapbook editors.”
May 1968 was proclaimed “the Lee F. Hewitt Issue” honoring the publisher of 33 years and 4 months. The beige covers continued through Jan. 1969, to be replaced by new beige, green or blue covers and wholly revamped interiors.
Reader commentary was varied, many deploring the loss of what had long been an independent voice in the hobby and a giant step toward virtual monopoly in coin publishing. It was not understood by the readers or by J. Oliver Amos of Amos Press that Scrapbook simply was not the robust publication it appeared to be.
One can only imagine the two canny mid-western publishers circling and sniffing, each determined to best the other. Only after buying Scrapbook, it seems, did Amos find that he had purchased a seriously run-down property whose true condition had not been revealed. His own Coin World had reduced his new purchase to its deteriorated situation. Perhaps his main idea had been to get a competitor off the market.
Hewitt continued as a major figure in numismatics, serving as president of the Chicago Coin Club in 1971. He had received the ANA Medal of Merit as far back as 1950 and received the ANA top honor, the Farran Zerbe Award in 1962. In a remarkable honor he and R.S. Yeoman of Whitman Publishing were announced as the first living numismatists elected to the ANA Hall of Fame in 1978.
From 1968 until the beginning of 1976, Scrapbook suffered from steady neglect and ever-dwindling circulation. Coin World seized leadership in news while Scrapbook Editor Rulau actively disliked U.S. coins and collectors. He was deeply involved with the successful sister publication World Coins until he left Amos Press in early 1974. Coffing was unenthusiastic about Scrapbook and its pace steadily slowed.
Amos Press advertising Vice President Wayne Lawrence expressed his feelings on the matter by pointing with glee to addressograph labels from a noted Austrian auction firm, addressed to “Numismatic Crapbook.”
In May 1975 I was appointed executive editor with instructions to bring the publication back from the edge. From June 1975 through February 1976 Scrapbook received an exciting new look with vibrant cover art, significantly improved layout and artistic composition.
Circulation actually increased though I was ordered to continue full-time as a writer for Coin World with essentially no time for Scrapbook. I was deleted from the list of those attending the 1975 Los Angeles ANA convention after meetings with several key contributors had been scheduled.
In January 1976, days before the Amos Press Centennial, I was summoned to the head office and given four minutes more notice than the rest of the unsuspecting staff that both Numismatic Scrapbook and World Coins were being discontinued, NOW. The somewhat unsteady light of Scrapbook and the more brilliant beam of World Coins were both extinguished forever.