Little things mean a lot, or so the saying goes.
The coin collecting hobby has a perfect illustration in the "penny board."
When J.K. Post devised this simple item in the early 1930s, it seemed like nothing more than an offbeat novelty: an 11-by-14-inch board, suitable for display, with rows of circular spaces designed to hold U.S. coins by date and mint mark.
Today, it is apparent that Post's ingenious creation changed the very face of the hobby and helped pave the way for the far-reaching market we know today.
Without exaggeration, the coin board revolutionized numismatics in the first half of this century, much the way plastic "slabs" have done at the century's end.
It was 64 years ago, in 1934, that Post brought his clever idea to the Whitman Publishing Co. in Racine, Wis.
Richard S. Yeoman, who went on to become a hobby legend as author of the Red Book and Blue Book, was a 30-year-old sales and advertising executive on the Whitman staff at the time. In a 1984 interview, four years before his death, he told me about that day -- which he still remembered, half a century later, in vivid detail.
Post, he said, approached Whitman not in an effort to sell the idea of the coin board, but simply to place an order to have some boards produced.
"Some of us looked over the samples," Yeoman recalled, "and quickly got the urge to fill them up with our pocket change."
The staff was intrigued by the boards, and several months later Whitman bought the rights to them from Post. It proved to be a sound business move, for the product was a hit with the public, too.
"The system of collecting by dates and mint marks made all the difference in the world," Yeoman remarked. "The idea of filling holes one by one until the collector had put together a complete set -- this had tremendous impact upon the American public.
"And people were quick to see that numismatics need not cost them anything. Coins selected from pocket change would always be worth face value. In a sense, many collectors thought of the hobby as a convenient way to save money and have fun at the same time."
Although they are often spoken of as "penny boards," those early Whitman boards actually covered eight different U.S. coin series and four different denominations. The company produced two boards for the Barber quarter (one spanning the period from 1892 to 1905, the other from 1906 to 1916) and one board apiece for the Indian Head cent, the Lincoln cent, the Liberty Head nickel, the Buffalo nickel, the Barber dime, the Mercury dime and the Standing Liberty quarter.
Two boards were needed for Barber quarters because, being larger than the cent, nickel and dime, they wouldn't all fit on a single board.
Curiously, the boards for the Barber quarters and dimes described them as Morgan-Liberty Head" coins -- an obvious misnomer, since both (as well as the Barber half dollar) were designed by Charles E. Barber, not George T. Morgan, during the days when both were Mint engravers.
It's interesting, too, that the Standing Liberty quarter board provided holes from 1916 to 1936 -- even though the series ended in 1930. Evidently, Post or Whitman -- or both -- regarded the first Washington quarters as commemoratives, rather than part of a new, ongoing series, and figured that the Mint would soon resume production of the Standing Liberty coin.
The absence of half-dollar and silver-dollar boards may purzle some present-day collectors, since both denominations are, of course, extremely popular now. In the mid-1930s, though, those coins represented substantial sums of money, and Whitman perceived that not many people would be in a position to set them aside.
In addition to selling the nine individual boards, Whitman also offered a "coin album" in which all nine were, in the words of a promotional brochure, "neatly bound in a gold-stamped, cloth-bound board cover," with the boards themselves "cloth-hinged and interleaved with fancy tissue."
Individually, the boards sold at retail for 25 cents. The nine-board album cost $3.
Dick Yeoman was given charge of promotion and customer service for this new product line. Then, in 1940, he hit upon a method of improving the basic board: By adding extra pages and a flap, and reducing it in size, he transformed the board into a folder, thereby giving the coins more protection and making it easier to store them and carry them around.
At first, Yeoman recalled, many of the people who purchased the boards -- and later the folders -- weren't much concerned with the concept of premium value. They were filling them as a novelty, not because they regarded their coins as collector's items.
Gradually, though, value and collectibility came to be subjects of greater interest -- especially as Whitman began expanding its line into earlier series of coins. This, in turn, led to the development of the now-famous Whitman guide books.
"People wanted to know what coins were worth," Yeoman said. "They wanted to be sure they were not overpaying for coins for their collections. Others -- collectors and non-collectors alike -- would write us letters indicating that they wanted to sell their coins and wondered what a dealer would pay for them.
"We came to realize how desperately the public needed a reliable and accurate guide to coin values."
The Blue Book -- more formally titled the "Handbook of United States Coins" -- made its first appearance in 1942 and became an immediate success. The Red Book - "A Guide Book of United States Coins" -- was scheduled to follow soon after, but World War II delayed its introduction until 1946. Both have now been issued in more than 50 editions, and together they have sold tens of millions of copies, ranking them among the all-time nonfiction best-sellers.
Clearly, these two books have been vital ingredients in coin collecting's phenomenal growth. And, without the coin boards, they might never have been published.
Through the years, Whitman has added new folders on occasion and deleted others, depending on the shifts in market demand. In the early 1960s, for example, it introduced a deluxe companion line of "Bookshelf albums" -- hard-cover volumes with heavy cardboard pages which house collectors' coins between sliding acetate inserts.
Demand for the folders, in particular, has been dampened in recent years by the sharp drop in the number of date-mint combinations available in circulation. It also has been hurt by the widespread hobby apathy toward the cupronickel coins of the last two decades. Nonetheless, the folders and albums continue to be mainstays of Whitman's line of numismatic products.
In the early 1970s, the company attempted to stimulate interest in "clad" coins -- cupronickel dimes, quarters and half dollars -- by bringing out a series of five new folders specifically designed to house these and other coins that were readily available in change.
The notion of assembling coin sets "to save money and have fun" had lost its novelty, though, since R.S. Yeoman witnessed that phenomenon in the Thirties. By the Seventies, coin folders and albums were primarily tools for collectors. And collectors, for the most part, saw no point in saving coins they considered worthless.
Within a few years, Whitman was forced to fold this so-called "Current Issues Coin Collection" series.
"The folders died," said Kenneth E. Bressett, current editor of the Red Book and Blue Book and former manager of Whitman's coin products division. "They just weren't as successful as we thought they would be."
Notwithstanding that one unhappy chapter, there's far more triumph than tragedy in the history of J.K. Post's coin board and its descendants.
"It created a whole new generation of collectors," Bressett declared. "Thousands of people, myself included, got started in the hobby by using Whitman boards and later folders.
"The funny part," he went on, "is that when this began, the board was simply viewed as a leisure-time activity, much like Whitman's jigsaw puzzles and playing cards -- an inexpensive pastime during the Depression years, when people didn't have a lot of money to spend.
"Coin collectors adopted it, though, because it was such a convenient means of storage. And then it became a case of the tail kind of wagging the dog: The penny boards became so popular that they transformed the hobby by greatly expanding its base."
In a sense, the original board was akin to the tiny acorn which grew, in time, to be a mighty oak.
And so, as buyers and sellers busy themselves today with their teletypes, computers, on-line services and other modern tools in the ever-more-sophisticated coin market of 1998, they might do well to pause and reflect upon the roots of all this progress.
As R.S. Yeoman commented some years ago: "It all started with a coin board."