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How Q. David Bowers Began Collecting Coins

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Q. David Bowers
Q. David Bowers

Note: Do you remember how you became interested in collecting coins? The following is an excerpt from the Foreword to the excellent book, A Buyer's and Enthusiast's Guide to Flying Eagle and Indian Cents by Q. David Bowers. Read how this noted author received encouragement from adult coin collectors and how this developed into a lifelong interest in the hobby.

Let me tell you how I began my interest in coins. Indian cents played an important part:

My maternal grandfather, Chester L. Garratt, an attorney by profession, was a hobbyist and researcher in many areas. The Book of Daniel in the Bible fascinated him, as did Revelation, and he had bookshelves devoted to these subjects. He also explored trisecting the angle and squaring the circle, and when I was in the second grade, suggested I give the trisecting and squaring puzzles a try. Of course, I thought I could solve both, but I soon learned otherwise. He copyrighted a perpetual calendar of which he was quite proud -- whereby you could insert any date in recent centuries or in the future, and find out what day of the week it fell upon.

In my grandfather's two-story red-brick, slate-roofed Victorian home, said to have been built in 1857, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, I lived for several years as a youngster. I recall with fondness the countless hours spent in his library which was at the top of a long flight of wooden stairs, with books lining all four walls. It was Grandpa Garratt who gave me my first "rare" coin, a well worn 1893 Columbian half dollar. He also had a cigar from the Columbian Exposition, sealed in an aluminum tube, to be opened and smoked 100 years after the fair. I wonder what happened to it.

In the same town a friend of our family had a home in which a dozen or more Indian pennies were embedded face-up in a concrete walk near the front door. I remember looking at these strange coins and their long-ago dates and marveling how wonderful it would be to own even one of them. This must have been about 1945 or 1946. Sometime about then the Episcopal Church in Honesdale had a fund-raising auction featuring donated items, and I was the successful bidder for a few dollars on a cast iron bank filled with worn Indian and Lincoln cents.

At an early age, I began accumulating miscellaneous information, not necessarily intentionally, but as a matter of interest. I bought used copies of anthologies of Robert Ripley's Believe It or Not column and found it fascinating to learn that the Lord's Prayer could be written on a grain of rice, and that Chinese people--if marching four abreast day and night--kept increasing their number sufficiently quickly that a parade passing a given point would never end. My aunt, artist Elsa L. Garratt, shared my interest in obscure things, and was very proud of an autographed book Ripley had sent her when she contributed information about a huge iron anchor that was cast in Sweden, but never used on a ship. I don't have the citation on hand today, but I recall seeing Ripley's sketch of it sitting on dry land looking like a forlorn monument. In the same vein, I enjoyed the books of globetrotter Richard Halliburton, especially his almost-like-being-there descriptions of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (the Temple of Diana, the Colossus of Rhodes, the lighthouse of Pharos, etc.). Years later while on a trip to Turkey I was shown a cornfield near Ephesus and was told that was where the great Temple of Diana once stood (not quite as romantic as Halliburton's sketch of what it looked like millennia ago).

In 1948 my parents, sister Eve, and brother Bill moved to Forty Fort, about an hour away from Honesdale and in the same state.

By 1952 I was 13-year-old high school student fascinated with the world around me. My interests continued to be diverse and included reptiles, scouting (my friend Bob King and I secured a scoutmaster and re-activated Troop 123), short-wave radio, building balsa wood Strombecker kit models of World War II airplanes (the P-38, B-17, and B29 were favorite types), picture postcards, rocks and minerals, and astronomy. Having a modest budget--my wages at the time were 25 cents per hour for cutting grass, pulling weeds, and shoveling snow--I had to spend wisely. I chose books over just about anything else.

Raymond L. Ditmars' Reptiles of North America was given to me by my mother as a Christmas gift in 1952 and was added to a small library of a half dozen books I had on the subject of herpetology. From Ditmars I learned, for example, that turtles might have a common name such as "box turtle," but in addition had nesting and mating habits, territorial ranges, physical characteristics, and other attributes which made them interesting. Ditmars, who was curator of reptiles at the New York Zoological Garden (Bronx Zoo), had a way of making just about anything sound fascinating. Reading about a box turtle was tantamount to developing an aching desire to own one as a pet! Today, years later, I still like turtles, and one of my favorite coin types is the common 1837 Hard Times token showing a diamondback terrapin.

From such experiences I learned the power of the written word and how it can spur one to a great enthusiasm for acquisition.

About that time I was deeply immersed in the study of rocks and minerals, subscribed to a couple of publications on the subject, and had a few reference books. I contemplated it would be nice to visit Franklin, New Jersey someday (where all sorts of fluorescent minerals could be found). I had heard about E.S. Dana's multiple-volume System of Mineralogy, the standard reference in the field. I took the bus (not being old enough to drive) to the Osterhout Memorial Library in nearby Wilkes-Barre to see if it had a set, which, fortunately, the institution did. However, unfortunately, one had to be 16 years of age even to examine it--apparently, it was in a stack or section reserved for adults. Therefore, whatever Dana had to report on his chosen subject was lost to me.

Someone told me that Robert L. Rusbar, tax collector for our town, had a very nice collection of rocks and minerals, so I made it a point to give him a call. I was greeted cordially, taken into the basement office of his home, and shown box after box of colorful garnets, Herkimer "diamonds," sulfur clusters, quartz crystals, and the like. Bob Rusbar, as I later called him, gave me a mineral catalog from Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, but like a nickel-less kid looking through the window of a candy store, I didn't have money to buy the beautiful crystals and other things arrayed on its pages.

After a session with rocks and minerals, Bob asked me if I collected coins, to which I replied in the negative. He brought out from a safe a small green-covered album of Lincoln cents, pointed to one of the first openings, and told me he had paid $10 for that particular coin. He carefully explained that it was a Lincoln cent made in the first year of issue, 1909, with the initials of the designer, Victor David Brenner, VD.B., on the reverse--but that alone did not make it valuable. With only these features, it would be worth just a few cents. However, beneath the date was a tiny "S" signifying it had been made in San Francisco. This letter or mintmark, hardly visible, jumped the value from a few cents up to the $10 he had paid.

I felt certain that as soon as I left his office and looked through some pocket change I would find several 1909-S V D.B. cents--after all, a copy of the Guide Book that he showed me revealed that 484,000 had been minted. Certainly, in the town of Forty Fort alone there must be hundreds just waiting for me to find!

Bob Rusbar gave me a couple of blue Whitman coin folders and a few mintmarked Lincoln cents to get me started. Inspired with the idea of making money more quickly than by cutting grass and other such mundane chores, I went to the Forty Fort State Bank, traded a $10 bill for 1,000 mixed Lincoln cents, and began looking for 1909-5 VD.B., 1914-D, and 1931-S pieces-the varieties I was told were the most valuable.

The first 1,000 pennies were looked through, then another 1,000, then another 1,000. Soon, my two Lincoln cent folders were nearly full-with no 1909-S V D.B., 1919-D, or 1931-S--but with most everything else. Unfortunately, during the next several months I found just one Indian cent --hardly enough to even attempt building a collection of these from circulation. On the other hand Barber dimes were seen occasionally and Barber quarters even more often. Barber halves--nearly always worn to the point of virtual smoothness--were available with some frequency, perhaps one Barber half out of every 200 or 300 half dollars examined.

From finding Lincoln cents in circulation I went to other series, including Mercury dimes and Standing Liberty quarters. Meanwhile, I sought to gain more knowledge. Not one to do things half way, I decided to take the bull by the horns and write to the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints to see how many older coins they could supply, and order Proofs from each.

Back came mimeographed form letters from each institution informing me that Proofs were made only at Philadelphia, that no back-dated coins were available, and giving me other basic information.

Soon, I discovered the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, a monthly journal put out by the Hewitt brothers (Lee and Cliff) in Illinois. This was like discovering Ali Baba's cave! Each month brought dozens of pages filled not only with stories and tales about coins and coin collecting but, better yet, dozens of advertisements offering things for sale. Today it is very difficult as an adult who has seen quite a few things over the years to describe how exciting it was one day each month when the Scrapbook arrived. Everything else would be forgotten for an hour or two as I digested almost every word.

My horizons continued to expand, and George P Williams, an insurance agent from nearby Kingston and a long-time numismatist, took me under his wing, gave me a tour through his beautiful personal collection housed in Wayte Raymond's "National" albums and took me each month to the meeting of the Wilkes-Barre Coin Club held in the YMCA. Although George had some Indian cents, he liked early half dollars better and had album pages full of them.

The first coin I ever ordered through the mail was an Indian cent--an 1859 Proof from the Copley Coin Company run by Maurice Gould and Frank Washburn in Boston. The price paid was $11, the full market price at the time. It was a glittering tittle gem. What a treasure!

It is impossible to convey how exciting it was for me to look at the description of a coin in the Guide Book, check its mintage and market value, and dream of owning it-and then send a check to an advertiser in the Scrapbook to order it, and in person actually own this dream coin a few days later.

I liked my beautiful Proof 1859 cent and decided to buy some other Proofs to go along with it. I recall contemplating an 1877 offered for $90, but passed it by in favor of buying most of the later, more common dates from 1879 to 1909 at $2.50 to $3.50 each.

By that time, I had decided to become a dealer--possibly a stretch of the use of that word--by running advertisements in the classified section of the local paper seeking coins. At one point, I got the brilliant idea of running some classified advertisements in Denver, believing that there must be lots of rare 1914-D Lincoln cents in circulation there, and that Colorado readers would be happy to sell them to me. However, no coins ever materialized, just bills for the advertisements. Learning was indeed a step-by-step process!

As time went on and my small but growing dealership prospered, my capital increased, finally to the point at which I had several thousand dollars' worth of inventory. I would buy coins locally from the public and from other collectors and then sell them at the coin club and to collectors I met there.

The more I became involved in coins, the more I wanted to learn about them. I soon found that while spending $10 or $20 for a rare coin was enjoyable, the same amount spent on books brought a lot more pleasure. Soon, I had back copies of the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine dating to 1935, and a file of several decades of The Numismatist. I wasn't old enough to join the American Numismatic Association--you had to be 17 at the time--but in 1955, my father, Quentin H. Bowers, joined, and I read the magazines as they came in.

Becoming a dealer wasn't easy in the 1950s. There were no guides to go by, no written rules, and experience was the great teacher. Moreover, buying and selling coins, as in many other walks of life, didn't come with guarantees. With relatively few exceptions, if I bought a coin and it turned out to be an alteration, forgery, or something else, that was my tough luck. (Today, most rare coin dealers guarantee the authenticity of the things they sell.)

Grading? There were no published standards, and what one person called Gem Uncirculated another might call About Uncirculated, or even less.

I learned by doing, and I am happy to say that my favorable experiences outnumbered the problems by probably one hundred to one. Important to the present book, I gained as much knowledge as possible, and did not rely upon anyone else when it came to making decisions. By now, over 40 years later, I have handled many important collections and major rarities and have dealt with many thousands of numismatists. I have seen it vividly demonstrated time and again that those who have the most fun, those who make the most profit from their collections, and those who stay with the hobby longest, are those who take the time to learn about coins. This is true whether one is collecting worn Indian cents or Proof $20 gold coins--or, for that matter, anything else.

Today, my quest for knowledge still continues. There are many things to learn, and while I am quite conversant with most basic things in American numismatics, there are still areas that invite research. Indeed, in the entire history of collecting, no person has known everything, nor will anyone ever. In recent years I have become quite interested in American monetary history of the nineteenth century. From a numismatic viewpoint, just one book has been written on the subject, the deceptively titled Fractional Money by Neil Carothers, "fractional money" not referring to familiar Fractional Currency paper notes, but to coins of various denominations. Much of what Carothers wrote pertains to the small cent series.

The longer I am involved with coins, the more I appreciate the history behind them. Writing the present book may seem to be backward, inasmuch as I have written books on many other topics, some esoteric, others mundane, but probably on no other series as basic as small cents. However, as a perusal of the comments and footnotes will reveal, there are still many mysteries within the Flying Eagle and Indian cent series.

I like Flying Eagle and Indian cents and probably always will, perhaps a reflection of my long-ago first purchase of an 1859 Indian cent. Although I have handled my share--or perhaps more than my share--of great American rarities, there will always be a place in my heart for an 1856 Flying Eagle cent, 1864 Indian cent with a tiny "L" initial hidden below the headdress, or the first branch mint minor coin, the scarce 1908-S cent. Some small cents are rare, others common, but each has its own story.

One of the "missed deals" I think about every so often is a cigar box filled with worn Indian cents that a family near my town owned when I was a teenager. In response to one of my advertisements to buy old coins I was invited to visit their home. After looking through several hundred coins and finding one 1872, but no 1877 or 1909-S, something came up, the owners had to leave, and I was told to come back another day. That other day never came, as they decided against parting with the old "pennies." Apparently, my enthusiasm for them rekindled their own interest. I've often wondered what happened to the coins.

At another time--this was from about 1954 to the early 1960s--I tried to buy every 1858 pattern Indian cent I could find--specifically, the type with laurel wreath reverse as regularly adopted in 1859. These were known as the AW-264 variety from the Adams and Woodin text on pattern coins. In the late 1950s when Abe Kosoff sponsored and encouraged Dr. J. Hewitt Judd to write a new book on patterns, I furnished Dr. Judd with the information that AW-264 cents existed in multiple die varieties--something not known before. This was the era of re-examination of many American series, and numerous hitherto overlooked die varieties were identified in such series as pattern coins, state copper coins of the 1785-1788 era, federal silver and gold coins from the 1790s to the 1830s, and tokens. Concerning federal coins, while cents and half cents had been studied intensely, many other series had been overlooked.

From nearly day one in my collecting endeavors, the 1856 Flying Eagle cent was a landmark. At the current price of about $200 to $300 in the early 1950s I could not afford to order one through the mail. It was a great day when I saw my first specimen--a nice Proof owned by Dr. Albert Thomas, who brought it and his other small cents to a meeting of the Wilkes-Barre Coin Club. As usual for fine private collections, his coins were displayed in "National" light brown cardboard album pages, a favorite way to house coins and enjoy them at the same time. I came to like and appreciate the Raymond pages, and I feel the hobby lost something when they were no longer being made. They were a "warm" and "friendly" place to house your collection and watch it grow coin by coin as the empty holes were filled.

Anyway, I have derived a good measure of enjoyment from Flying Eagle and Indian cents over the years. Quite possibly Indian cents are the "playground" of numismatics. Made in large quantities, they are inexpensive today, and at the same time they offer enough interesting varieties to keep the most astute numismatist reaching for his or her magnifying glass.

The current state of research and enthusiasm in the Flying Eagle and Indian cent series is of a high order of excellence and is far in advance of the methodology applied to most other series of the second half of the nineteenth century (possibly with Morgan dollars excepted). There are differences of opinion, but most in the field work together, share their findings, and are willing to accept new ideas. From such a foundation, progress continues to be made.

Writing this book has brought back many nice memories and has brought me a renewed appreciation of our hobby and what fine people there are in it. The research has been a lot of fun, and I thank each and every person mentioned in the Acknowledgments as well as those noted in the text.

The text above is an excerpt from the book A Buyer's and Enthusiast's Guide to Flying Eagle and Indian Cents. This is reprinted with permission by the author. If you would like to order a copy of this book or any other books by Q. David Bowers, visit the website for Bowers and Merena. Or you may send an e-mail to [email protected].

Q. David Bowers has been in the rare coin business since 1953 when he was a teenager. The author has served as president of the American Numismatic Association (1983-1985) and president of the Professional Numismatists Guild (1977-1979), is a recipient of the highest honor bestowed by the ANA (the Farran Zerbe Award), was the first ANA member to be named Numismatist of the Year (1995), has been inducted into the Numismatic Hall of Fame (at the ANA Headquarter in Colorado Springs), is a recipient of the highest honor bestowed by the Professional Numismatists Guild (The Founders' Award), and has received more "Book of the Year Award" and "Best Columnist" honors given by the Numismatic Literary Guild than any other writer. He has has written over 40 books, hundreds of auction and other catalogues, and several thousand articles.

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