The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 14, Number 38, September 11, 2011, Article 7


As announced earlier in The E-Sylum, Arthur Tobias has written a new book relating to W.L. Ormsby, author of one of the rarest books in U.S. numismatic Literature, Bank Note Engraving. He kindly provided me with a review copy and furnished some excerpts from the text. Here they are, along with my comments.

Full Ranger_B-side

From the Introduction:

Colt Clyinder Scenes This is a book about the three most widely known cylinder Scenes engraved by Waterman Lilly Ormsby for Sam Colt, used on some of the most popular products of that illustrious gun maker. In the order in which they appeared on the historical stage they are the Texas Rangers and Comanches Fight (Rangers), the Stagecoach Holdup (Stagecoach) and the Naval Engagement (Naval) Scenes. This book is also about Ormsby the artist and engraver and his methods. His ingenuity, creativity and personality are central to the story of the Colt Scenes and therefore the revolvers they graced.

Books like Arthur's are among the favorites in my numismatic library - the ones that are interesting and relevant to numismatics, yet not directly about numismatics. It's books like these that cross over into other areas that illuminate the whole of someone's life work - not just the numismatic parts, but all of it.

Through this little volume I learned a great deal about Waterman Lilly Ormsby, his life's work, his talents and his business projects as well as learning something more about his numismatic (and bibliophilic) projects.

From Chapter One: W. L. Ormsby, His Process:

Mention Waterman Lilly Ormsby to a member of the numismatic fraternity and you will hear about the famous engraver's many banknote designs of the mid-19th century, rarely a word about Colt cylinder scenes. Mention W. L. Ormsby to a collector of 19th century American engravings on steel and you will hear of the famous copy of Trumbull's Declaration of Independence that hangs today in the White House.

Mention Ormsby to a Colt collector and you will stimulate thoughts of the topics of this tome, cylinder Scenes. Rarely will you hear anything to do with banknotes or framed prints. The disparate collecting communities are not often aware of their mutual interests and how they are pooled in the life and works of this one original, irascible American artist, engraver and inventor.

Hopefully this book, with its crossover niche, will entice new collectors to the obsolete paper money field. Or encourage numismatists to take up arms and collect Colt revolvers!  

Concurrent with Colt's new arms venture in the late 1840s W. L. Ormsby had begun developing his anti-counterfeiting schemes involving unique, engraved images. These ideas would come to closely support the patents that Colt had actively protected since 1835. Ormsby's ideas were publicly promoted in his 1852 book Bank-Note Engraving. The sole, stated purpose of the large tome was to promote a method to defeat the efforts of mid-19th century America's numerous banknote counterfeiters. Though much talked about at the time, in the end Ormsby's proposal had little impact on banknote design.

Most of Ormsby's banknote output was of the clip-art variety, as seen in the $10 note on the Commercial Bank of Terre Haute, Indiana from 1858. But he did have a better idea. In his book he promoted the idea of the "single vignette bank-note," which he also called the "unit system." By this method the entire surface of the paper was covered by one, unbroken design engraved from a unique plate featuring complex scenes with the text interwoven. The images were supposed to be copyrighted and the printing plates jealously guarded so as not to be duplicated by direct mechanical or electrotyping means.

Neither the Colt Scenes nor Bank-Note Engraving was the last hurrah for W. L. Ormsby, Sr. In 1853 he founded the New York Bank Note Company. Its imprimatur and the well-known "W. L. Ormsby, New York." grace many notes issued by banks from New Hampshire to Utah in the 1850s.

The book illustrates one of Ormsby's bank notes and as a paper money collector these would be interesting items to have, now knowing more about their maker.

The book is primarily a study of its title subject, the Colt cylinder scenes. I enjoyed reading the historical and artistic background of the scenes Ormsby and Colt choose to use. Arthur's book reminded me of another favorite series of small but incredibly useful books in the obsolete paper money field - Roger Durand's "Interesting Notes..." series, where he provides background information on the images used to adorn many obsolete U.S. bank notes.

Although Arthur provided me with a good deal of text from his book, I'll stop with the above excerpts lest I give away all the best parts (and there are plenty). In short, I recommend it for any E-Sylum reader interested in numismatic literature, obsolete paper money, engraving, art (or Colt revolvers).

To order: In the U.S. send check or money order for $24.95 ($19.95 + $5 S&H) to: Arthur Tobias, P.O. Box 19981, Los Angeles, CA 90019.

For more information (or to order online) see: .

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see: NEW BOOK: COLT CYLINDER SCENES, 1847-1851 (

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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