The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 14, Number 11, March 13, 2011, Article 4


The online Whitman Review has a nice article about the new book from Joel Orosz and Len Augsburger on the Secret History of the First U.S. Mint. It's a great look at how numismatic research projects come together. Here it is in its entirety. -Editor

Secret History of the U.S. Mint “Authors are notorious for underestimating the work that must be done in order to write a book,” write Joel Orosz and Leonard Augsburger in the preface to The Secret History of the First U.S. Mint (subtitled How Frank H. Stewart Destroyed"And Then Saved"A National Treasure), “but in the long history of publishing, few writers have ever misjudged the magnitude of the task before them quite so spectacularly as those who wrote the volume you now hold in your hands. Recounting how this project expanded"perhaps ‘metastasized’ would be more accurate"from a modest article into a profusely illustrated tome may prove instructive to anyone contemplating a seemingly simple literary project.”

In February of 2006, the authors’ attention was fixed on topics well-removed from Frank H. Stewart and the first U.S. Mint. Leonard Augsburger was focused on another city (Baltimore) in another century (the 1900s), in the homestretch of research for his book, Treasure in the Cellar, the first thoroughly documented history of the great gold coin hoard literally unearthed in Depression-era Baltimore. Joel J. Orosz’s attention was fixed on America’s “small beginning” in coinage, the 1792 half disme. It was this diminutive coin, of course, that served as the (unseen) focal point of John Ward Dunsmore’s celebrated painting, Washington Inspecting the First Money Coined by the United States. Like most numismatists, the authors knew just enough about Dunsmore’s canvas to be dangerous: it was painted around the time of World War I; it was commissioned by the man who wrote the History of the First United States Mint; and it represented the triumph of artistic license over historical accuracy.

Orosz, still fixated upon half dismes, began to ask logical questions about the Dunsmore painting, such as whether the artist may have painted more than one version, and if so, where the original and the copies may currently reside. He sought the help of selected numismatic scholars, and Augsburger replied with a citation, discovered during his Baltimore coin hoard research, which suggested that Washington Inspecting may once have been in the possession of the U.S. Secret Service. Orosz was intrigued by this surprising information, a correspondence on the subject ensued, and on February 27, 2006, Augsburger emailed Orosz the following proposal: “an article on the Dunsmore painting would be the perfect sort of piece for the Numismatist. . . . What do you think, should we co-author it?” Orosz enthusiastically accepted the invitation, agreeing that enough data might be available to support a short article in a numismatic journal.

It did not take long for the writing partners to discover that their compact and tidy research project would be, in fact, neither compact nor tidy. Almost immediately, they realized that it was all but impossible to seriously study one painting that Stewart commissioned without studying the other, and therefore Edwin Lamasure’s Ye Olde Mint was added to the research docket. An understanding of the pictures was impossible unless one understood the artists, but surprisingly, there was not a good biography of either Dunsmore or Lamasure in existence, so the project expanded to include the lives of the painters.

As the authors’ research progressed, they encountered other artworks that clearly had been inspired by Stewart’s two commissions: A Product of America’s First Mint Is Examined by Its Director, by Frank Reilly; and Washington Examining the First Coins, by Henry “Hy” Hintermeister. These artists, too, proved bereft of reliable biographies. Then, evidence of a forged copy of Washington Inspecting came to light (artist understandably unknown), and a legitimate copy of Ye Olde Mint (by Natalie Hause) surfaced as well. The “modest article” had clearly morphed into a monograph, if not a full-fledged book.

The expanding roster of artworks was daunting enough, but it was matched by the topic’s growth in other directions. There was no way to tell the full story of the paintings without discussing their patron, Frank H. Stewart, but his numismatic notoriety notwithstanding, Stewart was devoid of a published biography. And it was hopeless to write Stewart’s life story unless one was willing to delve into his life’s work, the turn-of-the-20th-century electrical supply business in Philadelphia. Nor was it practical to tell the story of Stewart the businessman without including where he conducted that business, namely the property on which the buildings of the first Mint once stood.

True, this history had been told idiosyncratically by Stewart himself, and more thoroughly by Don Taxay in The United States Mint and Coinage, but comprehensively by no one. The intricacies of land ownership, building construction, damage, repair, and sale over more than three centuries now became part of what was beginning to appear, like the universe, as an ever-expanding system. And the enlargement only continued, for the Dunsmore and Lamasure canvases, as it turned out, were only a small part of a large aggregation of coins, medals, and mechanical artifacts from the first Mint that Stewart had collected and then donated to Congress Hall, a museum located within the Independence Hall complex. The authors now faced the fact that completing the project would require them to conduct extensive research and produce fluent writing on subjects as diverse as art history, biography, Philadelphia heritage, business history, the evolution of the U.S. Mint, the development of coin-making technology, and"oh yes"several aspects of numismatics.

Fortunately, or perhaps frighteningly, there proved to be an almost inexhaustible well of primary resources to draw upon, the sheer number and geographical range of which did little to reduce the authors’ carbon footprints. No city can match Philadelphia for the magnitude of Stewart- and first Mint"related materials. Independence National Historical Park holds the bulk of the Stewart collection of numismatic and first Mint artifacts, along with a rich archive of documentary material. So comprehensive is this assemblage that Independence Hall has loaned a superb selection to the fourth U.S. Mint (including Washington Inspecting and Ye Olde Mint), which are displayed in the mezzanine-level exhibit area.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the American Philosophical Society, among their encyclopedic collections, contain invaluable information about the first Mint. The Philadelphia City Archives holds a wealth of information about the Mint property’s evolution over the years. Time and again, the authors visited this formidable array of repositories, eventually developing a new understanding of W.C. Field’s famous gibe, “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

For all its resources, however, Philadelphia does not enjoy a monopoly of Stewartiana. The mother lode actually resides at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, a trove so rich that it took repeated research visits to completely mine its resources. Major metropolises also offered much of value. New York City provided the New-York Historical Society, the Fraunces Tavern Museum, and the Salmagundi Club; Washington, D.C., the Archives of American Art and the Copyright Office; Chicago the Newberry and Chicago Public libraries.

Smaller towns also had their roles to play, such as Woodbury, New Jersey (Gloucester County Historical Society and probate records), and even Lithopolis, Ohio (Dunsmore art archives). All told, the authors spent the equivalent of 15 weeks in archives large and small, gathering documentary evidence that had been undisturbed for decades.

This accounting of sources, as exhaustive (and exhausting) as it is, has not yet mentioned the almost limitless resources of the Internet. Endless hours peering at Google search results produced data by the gigabyte-load, ranging from the discovery of entire repositories, such as the collection at Lithopolis, to the uncovering of arcane details, to the identity of descendants of key players in the Mint’s history. Among those brought to light were living leaves on the family trees of Adam Eckfeldt, John Ward Dunsmore, Edwin Lamasure, and even Frank H. Stewart himself.

This tsunami of primary and secondary information transformed the anticipated article into a monograph, then into a very substantial book, and made infinite jest of the authors’ initial assessment of the time and resources needed to completely tell the story. “Rarely, indeed, have two authors been so wrong about a subject,” write Orosz and Augsburger in their preface, “but never have any writers been so happy to have been so mistaken.” Frank H. Stewart, who saved so many artifacts and enabled the writing of so much history, has never before received due credit for his accomplishments.

“To bring just recognition to his memory at long last has rendered every note transcribed and every trip taken worth the time and effort expended,” the authors assert. “It is no overstatement to say that it has become an honor and a privilege to bring this project to a successful conclusion. In summary, we recall the words of Stewart himself, and count ourselves among those he encouraged: ‘It is my hope that this little volume will encourage others to do . . . what I have attempted to do . . . possibly not without errors, because the town and hall clocks have tolled the hour of midnight many times while I worked and thought of men, things and buildings that are gone.’”

To read the complete article, see: The Making of a Modern Numismatic Classic: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE FIRST U.S. MINT (

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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