From the September 2004 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:
It's Amazing They Survived!
By Mike Nourse
Many of us younger folks
take for granted the relatively plush modes of transportation that have existed
in the last half of a century. We ride in automobiles that have independent
suspension for each wheel, riding on nicely paved streets, or we fly in a jet
airplane at 35,000 feet in altitude, far above the turbulent atmosphere that
passengers had to endure prior to the jet age. Return to the Articles Index
It was not always like this! Personal automobiles did not become common until the 1920's, and suspension systems back then were crude at best. Paved roads were few and far between for many years thereafter. Trains were a reasonably smooth way to travel from the early 1800's on, but fares were expensive and the destinations available limited. In the 1800's, the average person's day to day mode of transport was either by walking or by riding horseback, or by some form of horse drawn conveyance, all three of which are virtually unheard of today outside of Pennsylvania.
Where am I going with all this? Oh yeah, how did early Proof coins of the 1817 to 1916 era manage to survive all that to remain in Gem condition today? As we all know, Proof coins of any era have deeply reflective fields, which show every tiny hairline or other minute imperfection. A few light hairlines, which look so bad on a Proof coin, can easily hide from view on the lustrous surfaces of a Mint State coin. And on the delicate surfaces of a Proof coin, it sure doesn't take much to produce hairlines! A very light rub with a soft cloth or even just a finger will be enough to create hairlines.
So now, lets return to the 1858 to 1915 era, when Proof sets were being produced for sale at the Philadelphia mint for sale to collectors as sets or as single coins. A collector who lived in Philadelphia or happened to be there for whatever reason could visit the mint and purchase individual Proof coins or a whole set from the current year and maybe also from the year before if any remained on hand. According to researcher Walter Breen, the Proof coins were simply stored in a drawer with little effort made to treat the coins gently. The fact that any gems remain today leads me to think that at least some care had to have been taken to prevent unnecessary marring of the coins.
Anyhow, the current year Proof set would be purchased by our visitor to the mint, and where would this group of unpackaged coins go? Probably into a pocket, or maybe a small pouch of some kind, to be transported home. Unless the purchaser took some effort to separate the coins by wrapping each one in a bit of cloth, they would jingle and jangle about inside the pocket or pouch. And what a jingle jangle they would receive, considering that the purchaser probably had a walk of at least a mile or two, or worse yet a few miles bouncing along by horseback or stagecoach. In any event, suffice it to say that the coins had a rough ride home. Even if they did have the benefit of a piece of cloth between them, it must be remembered that cloth back then was not quite as soft as it is today, hence the rough trip home could still impart significant hairlines.
Suppose our collector lived in Burlington, in northern Vermont, several hundred miles away from Philadelphia? No problem, he could still order a current Proof set through the mail by remitting the appropriate funds plus postage, much as it is done today. The set of Proofs would be mailed to the customer via the Post Office. I don't know how the coins were packed, but I do know they were not in nice sturdy 2X2's. Most likely they were individually wrapped in paper for protection, then packed in an envelope or small box. Now the coins have a multiple day trip that will likely involve any combination of walking, horseback riding, riding in a stagecoach, and maybe even as cargo on a train. Again this small package will be bouncing around as it is transported over rough roads by these various means. All the while, the coins inside the package will be rubbing against whatever material they are packed in, accumulating more hairlines and friction on the high points.
With all of this potential jostling around, isn't it amazing that any Proof coins at all from 1915 and earlier have survived in Gem Proof-65 condition? Another aspect to consider is that even if the coins survived the trip to their final destination relatively unscathed, collectors of that era were not quite as concerned about borderline microscopic flaws on coins as we are today. Back then, a Proof was a Proof was a Proof, as long as it was not notably damaged. A quality collection might be stored in a velvet lined coin cabinet for easy viewing and handling, which had the potential of creating hairlines if the coins shifted when a drawer was opened or closed.
Yet another grade reducing issue is cleaning. Toning, or tarnish as it was referred to back then, was considered to be very undesirable. Dips did not exist, so cleaning methods were harsh and abrasive, and they left far too many hairlines for a coin to grade Proof-65 today.
What about Mint State coins? Shouldn't the same situation apply for them? To some extent, yes, but there are differences. First off, as noted earlier, Mint State coins have lustrous surfaces rather than mirrored surfaces, and therefore a few minor hairlines will be virtually invisible on the Mint State coin while every tiny imperfection shows up loud and clear on the Proof. Then there are the circumstances that the coins would have encountered after production by the mint. Proof coins would go straight to collectors while the Mint State coins get shipped to the banks for distribution into commercial channels. Some of the Mint State coins may be obtained by an individual who is building a savings account under a loose floor board in his or her house, or maybe they are being held by the bank as part of their reserves. Large hoards of coins make the news, such as the Economite hoard of capped bust half dollars or the Redfield hoard of Morgan and Peace dollars, but for every large hoard there are countless small stashes of a few dollars up to maybe a few hundred dollars. Many of the coins in these small private stashes are probably circulated, but there may well be a good number of new coins that were obtained from a bank by an employer to pay this thrifty individual's payroll. These Mint State coins would likely receive minimal handling since they are not on display, and they would never be cleaned because their appearance is irrelevant to their face value.
So how many early proof coins have survived in Gem Proof-65 or better condition? Nobody knows for sure of course, but looking at certified coin population reports it seems that between one and five percent of the original mintages have achieved this rare feat. Survival rates are higher in Gem condition for the smaller coins that they are for the larger, heavier coins. This means that from 95 to 99 out of every 100 early Proof coins issued have met with some form of abuse over the last century or more, either from mishandling or from cleaning. However, given all of the possible destructive scenarios that could have taken place over that time frame, it is amazing to me that any early Proof coins have survived to this day in Gem condition!
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Questions, comments, or suggestions? Mail to: Mike@alaskacoinexchange.com