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First Read: Howland Wood’s The Commemorative Coinage of the United States

davidprovostFirst Read, a CoinWeek continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature…

Essay by David Provost for CoinWeek….

Numismatic Notes & Monographs, No. 16: The Commemorative Coinage of the United States, by Howland Wood

Every coin series has its “first” – the first published volume that catalogues each of the coins in the series. For the classic era US commemorative series (1892-1954), Howland Wood’s The Commemorative Coinage of the United States is that book.

Individual US commemorative coin issues had been reported in The Numismatist published by the American Numismatic Association (ANA) and/or the American Journal of Numismatics from the American Numismatic Society (ANS), but Wood’s monograph was the first to bring all of the coins together in a single reference work.

Commemorative Coinage was published by the ANS in 1922 as the 16th issue of its Numismatic Notes and Monographs series; the first NN&M release appeared in 1920. It was Wood’s third title for the ANS series, having previously authored The Mexican Revolutionary Coinage (published in 1921) and The Gold Dollars of 1858, with Notes of the Other Issues (1922). After his commemorative volume, Wood would go on to contribute three additional volumes to the series, The Tegucigalpa Coinage of 1823 (in 1923), The Coinage of the Mexican Revolutionists (1928) and The Gampola Larin Hoard (1934).

howlandwoodThe ANS described the NN&M series as one comprised of “essays and treatises on subjects relating to coins, paper money, medals and decorations.” From its inception, the strength of the series was the expertise of its authors and the diverse range of topics they covered – significant new information was presented to collectors with each release.

Wood was well-known within numismatic circles by the time his Commemorative Coinage volume was published, having served both the ANA and ANS in important leadership positions. He was the secretary of the ANA from 1905 to 1909 and served as the chairman of its Board of Governors from 1909 to 1912. Wood became the curator of the ANS collection in 1909, and continued in the role until his death in 1938. During his tenure, he was instrumental in growing the Society’s collection four-fold, from roughly 50,000 pieces to nearly 200,000.

The ANA celebrates Wood’s legacy of numismatic education each year through the presentation of the Howland Wood Memorial Award for the Best-in-Show exhibit at its annual convention.

The Commemorative Coinage of the United States is a physically small volume, measuring just 4-1/4 inches by 6-1/2 inches. It features 63 content pages and seven black-and-white plates.

Wood uses the book’s introduction to provide context for the US commemorative series, citing the use of commemorative coins in ancient times as well as in 15th Century Europe.

He also compares the US “souvenir coin” model for its commemoratives vs. the circulation coinage model used by other nations at the time, and calls attention to the critical reaction from collectors of the era regarding the greater-than-face-value prices being charged for the coins by their private sponsors. He concludes on a positive note, however, noting that without the revenue generation model used by the sponsors, “this country would not have had the number of special issues it now has. The variety of our coinage would not be what it is and the interest in collecting coins would not have been so great. It is noteworthy that every issue of commemorative coins has made a number of new collectors.”

The book features individual discussions of each commemorative program from the 1892-93 World’s Columbian Exposition half dollars through the 1922 gold and silver Ulysses S. Grant Memorial coins. For each coin, Wood offers the text of the legislation that authorized it, a description of its design and a brief narrative that covers the key elements of the coin’s story. Included are notes regarding the coin’s designer, the Mint facility used to strike it, overall mintage figures, its original selling price and commentary published in contemporary media. Wood’s simple yet engaging writing style makes Commemorative Coinage a volume that is effortless to read on the whole, and also supportive of quick inspection for needed facts and figures.

Photographs of the coins are presented via seven black-and-white photographic plates, one at the front of the book dedicated to the two Panama-Pacific International Exposition $50 gold coins and six at the rear covering all other issues. The coins are shown in their actual size vs. any degree of enlargement, and are of sufficient quality to reveal the primary design details of each piece.

jeffersonproofI “discovered” Wood’s classic work after spending considerable time with Q. David Bowers’ Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia. The comprehensive work, published in 1991, was the first book I owned that was devoted exclusively to the US commemorative coin series. While reviewing the book’s bibliography, I assembled a list of the early works cited by Bowers and soon began my pursuit of them.

Wood’s volume was one of the first I acquired, though admittedly it was more for its place in US commemorative coinage history rather than for the comprehensiveness of its content. While it certainly provides excellent information on each coin, its date of publication (1922) means it is incomplete within the context of the eventual scope of the series and would, in due course, become obsolete. In 1938, David M. Bullowa expanded and updated Wood’s monograph to include issues up through the Battle of Antietam half dollar; it is Number 83 within the ANS Notes and Monographs series.

Now out of copyright, Wood’s classic work is available as a free eBook via Google books. For those wishing to own an original copy, some patience is required, as copies of the volume are not generally an “in stock” item for most numismatic literature dealers. Regardless of format, Commemorative Coinage of the United States is an historic US coinage reference and is highly recommended to dedicated collectors of the classic series of US commemorative coins – especially to those who appreciate viewing the series through a contemporary lens.

Numismatic Notes and Monographs No. 16: The Commemorative Coinage of the United States
by Howland Wood
66 PP. American Numismatic Society. Published in 1922.


© Copyright D. Provost 2014. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

David Provost
David Provost
David Provost is a numismatic writer and commemorative coin specialist. Among other roles, Provost has served as President of the North Carolina Numismatic Association (NCNA) and Editor of the club's quarterly NCNA Journal.

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