By Q. David Bowers
The Guide Book of Continental Currency and Coins, the latest Whitman Publishing book by Q. David Bowers, debuted this month (March 2021) and is already nearing a sellout, with a second print run planned. The 288-page book is volume 25 in the popular Bowers Series of numismatic references. It is available from bookstores and hobby shops and online (including at Whitman.com) for $19.95. Here, Bowers discusses his long-held interest in the money of the American Revolution.
Continental money has fascinated me for a long time. My involvement in dealing in Continental Currency and Continental dollars in the 1950s led me to read many books on the history of the era, including J. Benson Lossing’s encyclopedic two-volume Field-Book of the American Revolution and the peripheral Timothy Dexter Revisited, by John P. Marquand, published in 1960. Soon after reading the latter, I went to Newburyport to visit the Dexter mansion on High Street and, courtesy of the owner, explored the beautiful building and grounds. The surrounding land was much smaller than depicted on engravings. At one time Dexter was one of the most interesting and enigmatic figures in town, with life-size statues of historical figures in the front yard (a few survive and have been restored). As I relate in my new Guide Book of Continental Currency and Coins, the source of Dexter’s fortune remains somewhat of a mystery, but it was most likely arrived at by speculation in federal and state Revolutionary War debt and Continental currency, the latter of which could be purchased for as low as $1,000 in paper for $1 in coins. He later redeemed it at a very profitable ratio after the federal government, under our current Constitution, instituted a redemption policy.
Along the way I formed a collection of bills by issue date and denomination, except for several that eluded me, including the 1775 $20 on French paper. I found the inscriptions and mottoes, which I first came across in the J.W. Scott Stamp & Coin Company Standard Catalogue No. 2, Paper Money, 1889, to be absolutely fascinating. The continuing research of Eric P. Newman, a fine friend from my teenage years onward, kept adding new information. A researcher par excellence, Newman’s works were factual rather than theoretical or guesswork, needing little later revision.
My experience with so-called Continental dollars has been extensive. Over the years I have bought and sold all of the die combinations. A favorite was the 1776 coin with the misspelling CURRENCEY corrected by the last two letters being recut and an ornament being added. Among these was the coin in the Emery May Norweb Collection that was sold to Eric Newman.
Eric was almost alone in his in-depth research into Continental dollars until 1991, when Michael Hodder’s “The Continental Currency Coinage of 1776: A Trial Die and Metallic Emission Sequence” was published by the American Numismatic Association. This treated emission sequences, weights, and other data in a manner that had not been done before. At the time Michael was on the staff of Bowers and Merena Galleries in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. In 1993 he, along with a small group of others, founded the Colonial Coin Collectors Club (C4), which grew to include today’s hundreds of members and to publish multiple reference books.
In the second decade of the present century the coins—or are they medals?—attracted a new wave of attention, especially as to where and how they were minted and distributed. Recent thought has been excellently synopsized in John M. Kleeberg’s study, “The Continental Dollar; British Medals or American Coins?” published in the Journal of Early American Numismatics in December 2018. By then, other researchers including Bill Eckberg, Erik Goldstein, David McCarthy, and Maureen Levine had published other theories, mainly that the coins were in fact medals and had been made in Europe. Today, the debate continues. I present various ideas and detailed information in chapters 5 and 6 of my new Guide Book.
While I’ve always been fascinated by the Continental Currency bills and metallic pieces, their history has been an even greater attraction. The advent of the Internet has made it possible for me and others to do research with an ease that was not achievable earlier. No longer do I have to go to the American Antiquarian Society, the Library of Congress, and other institutions to fill out call slips and wait for a group of books to arrive. A few keystrokes make thousands of books, newspaper articles, and other sources available. In recent times I have gathered together my research notes dating back to the 1950s, arranged them in some semblance of order, and added much new information.
It is my hope that you will find the new Guide Book not only a useful companion to studying and perhaps collecting Continental Currency and “dollars,” but also to enjoy reading about their history. I found the new (to me) information on the tyrannical restrictions that Congress placed on even discussing the depreciation of paper money to be especially remarkable. I think you, too, will learn much that is surprising, fascinating, and wondrous to consider.
Q. David Bowers has been in the rare-coin business since 1953, including in recent years as a founder of Stack’s Bowers Galleries. He is a past president of the American Numismatic Association, a trustee emeritus of the New Hampshire Historical Society, and a fellow of the American Antiquarian Society. He has been a key numismatic consultant to the Smithsonian Institution since the 1960s, and has advised the United States Mint and Treasury Department. The author of more than 60 books including many standard references, he serves as numismatic director of Whitman Publishing, and is senior editor of Mega Red, the expanded edition of the Guide Book of United States Coins.