How and Why We Commemorate the Red Book’s 75 Years
By Dennis Tucker
A Penny Saved: R.S. Yeoman and His Remarkable Red Book, the latest Whitman Publishing book by Kenneth Bressett, debuts in summer 2021 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Yeoman’s Guide Book of United States Coins (the “Red Book”). The 352-page hardcover volume will be available from bookstores and hobby shops and online (including at Whitman.com), and in the meantime is available for preorder. Here, Whitman publisher Dennis Tucker describes the process of how A Penny Saved came to be, and why it was undertaken in the first place.
For more than 50 years, Kenneth Bressett skillfully shepherded the Guide Book of United States Coins—the hobby’s beloved “Red Book”—as its coordinating and senior editor. For generations of coin collectors he has been the face of the Red Book, much as R.S. Yeoman was to earlier hobbyists.
I never met Ken’s predecessor in person. Yeoman was winding down in the mid-1980s, when my own life as an active young collector was just gearing up. But working as Ken’s publisher and frequent collaborator for the past 16-plus years, I’ve come to know R.S. Yeoman quite well. I’ve learned from Ken the “Yeoman way” of thinking about and managing the Red Book and the Blue Book, and now Mega Red. His philosophy and approach have become second nature to me. Notice when I say “his philosophy and approach,” I don’t specify whose—because Yeoman’s and Bressett’s are one and the same. Not only did Ken learn his mentor’s style, but he has thoughtfully and steadfastly emulated it since the 1960s. That’s a remarkable demonstration of one professional’s respect for another.
Meanwhile, a defining part of Ken’s personality is constant humility in spite of his own brilliance and productive hard work. “If it takes a village to raise a child,” he’s told me, “then equally it takes a large, dedicated group of individuals to produce a formidable publication like the Red Book.” He quickly gives credit to the generations of coin collectors and dealers whose contributions have made the book a success. And of course he credits the vision and energy of Yeoman and others who founded the Blue Book and Red Book, as well as all the typesetters, assistant editors, graphic designers, factory workers, distributors, retailers, and others who have done their part. Ken’s modesty and courteous generosity only add to the kudos he himself so richly deserves.
Why Celebrate the Red Book?
Surely every book that’s seen 75 editions and sold in the tens of millions has a story to tell, and deserves to have it told. As Ken has said, “It would be impossible to appreciate the story of the Red Book’s birth and development without a broad knowledge of its author himself; the publisher and printing facility that produced it; and the throng of talented individuals who contributed to its creation and continued success.”
He further observes, “Sad as it is, most of the participants involved in producing the early editions are no longer with us, and even the best of memories tend to fade with time.”
Ken wanted to bring together as much information as possible before it was lost to future generations. He took up the challenge of reconstructing the Red Book’s historical background based on his personal knowledge and close working association with Whitman Publishing over many years.
Whitman has been in business for more than a hundred years. Racine was its home for decades. Then, from the 1980s to early 2000s, the company and its ownership and management moved a few times—from Wisconsin to New York and down South, with points in between. Unfortunately, some of the physical moves resulted in a gradual loss of material culture—historical records, old letters, corporate items like plaques and awards, and similar artifacts.
“The task at first seemed nearly impossible,” Ken said, “until recent investigation uncovered a treasure trove of factual material related to every phase of Red Book production.” This allowed him to study much previously unknown (or unpublished) background of when, why, and how the Red Book came about. The trove included R.S. Yeoman’s personal papers, documents, files, correspondence, and artifacts related to his long and successful life and career.
Equally exciting was the almost simultaneous discovery of much of the original Western Archives, described by Ken as “documentation, data, background stories, and materials from Western Publishing Company files, including perhaps every numismatic book ever published by the firm, and curiosities that no one ever dared to think still existed.”
How A Penny Saved Came Together
Ken proposed a manuscript to Whitman in the summer of 2019. I’ll never forget talking with him about it at the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money that August, in Chicago. The idea of celebrating R.S. Yeoman’s life, showing coins from Yeoman’s own collection, publishing his handwritten notes, telling the Red Book story and of the old days at Western and Whitman—it was a dream manuscript pitch!
Much of the detailed architecture of chapter 1 of A Penny Saved, the story of Western Printing & Lithographing and the birth of Whitman Publishing, is built on the foundation of Frank J. Colletti’s Guide Book of the Official Red Book of United States Coins. (That book, volume 14 in Whitman’s Bowers Series, is highly recommended for its fascinating edition-by-edition study of Yeoman’s famous scarlet tome.) To that foundation Ken added material and information from the Western Archives and other resources.
In several places the assistance of David W. Lange, preeminent scholar of the history of coin albums and folders, was crucial. Robert Kelley, museum specialist and photography director for the American Numismatic Association, beautifully photographed many of the medals, framed portraits, books, and other vintage artifacts. Stack’s Bowers Galleries opened its auction archives for images of coins, tokens, paper money, and medals, common and rare. Lawrence Block, Lincoln Higgie, Ed Metzger, and Neil Shafer shared personal memories of their work at Whitman Publishing. Philip Bressett, Ken’s eldest son, offered his unique perspective and insight.
Ken was aided in the enormous task of studying, sorting, organizing, and presenting the story by Barbara J. Gregory, recently retired longtime editor of the ANA’s popular magazine, The Numismatist. Other individuals and companies helped in many ways, as noted in the book’s credits and acknowledgments.
Of course, the brightest mint luster on A Penny Saved is Ken Bressett’s personal involvement as author. He can recount the true stories, expose the myths and legends, and confirm the hidden facts because he was eyewitness to most of the Red Book’s history. On top of that, his own remarkable life is presented as a warmly personal and richly illustrated autobiography, found in chapter 6.
The Red Book Belongs to Every Hobbyist
So that’s the “why” and “how” of A Penny Saved. This book itself now becomes part of the Red Book story. If you’re a collector of United States coins, you’re already part of the story, as well, especially if you’re 75 years old or younger—the Red Book has always been a presence in your hobby! After you read A Penny Saved and learn the history of Western Printing, Whitman Publishing, R.S. Yeoman, and Ken Bressett, you’ll be able to share this remarkable story of our hobby with the next generation of collectors.