Category Archives: Uncategorized

Coins as history

I just spent a week going through one of the big books used by coin collectors, numismatists, to grading and pricing United States coins. Oh, there are a lot of them: colonial coins, foreign coins that circulated in the United States, privately issued coins, Confederate coins, bullion coins, commemorative coins, proof coins . . . and that’s even before we get to the coins the U.S. Mint issued for circulation.

If you know what to look for, and have the background, every coin tells a story.

Take this coin, the 1876-CC twenty cent piece. Your first two questions are, “1876-CC, what does THAT mean?” and “Twenty cent piece??” Good questions.

The Federal Government was given the responsibility for issuing coins as money in the U.S. Constitution. They were supposed to be in gold and silver. And the original denominations were 1/2 cent, one cent, five cents, ten cents, quarter dollar, half dollar, dollar, quarter eagle ($2.50 in gold), half eagle, and eagle ($10 in gold). The first mint was set up in Philadelphia, and it began churning out coins in 1792. Considering the Constitution had been ratified in 1789, you can see it took a few years to get started.

There were some rules, mostly set by the Mint. The coins had to depict some representation of the goddess Liberty on the obverse (front) and an eagle on the back. (Not true for copper coins.) No living people on the face of the coins; we were not some monarchy! The coins had to carry their denomination and “United States of America.” The other mottos you associate with our money, “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust” weren’t standard in the early days. The initial content was nationalistic enough. The styles of Liberty and the eagle changed every so many years, based on the whims of the Mint directors and the aesthetics of the Chief Engraver and his assistants.

The Mint struggled to put out enough coins to facilitate commerce in the United States. So sometimes new mints were established in places that either had major gold and silver strikes, or were commercial hubs, to increase the number of coins minted. There was a major silver strike out in Nevada, which is why a branch mint was established there. To do some primitive quality control, special letters were stamped into coins that came from mints other than Philadelphia. These were called mint marks. “C” had already been used for a branch mint in Charlotte, North Carolina, because of a gold strike in the 1830s, so Carson City’s mint, which was established later, got “CC” as its mint mark.

The Mint experimented with different denominations to address different needs. A three-cent piece was coined for many years when the price of a first-class postage stamp was three cents. Sensible? yeah, maybe. The twenty cent denomination takes a bit more explanation. There was frequently a shortage of small change, below a dollar. This was particularly bad in the western states and territories, which being newer had less capital and coins to start from. So some influential politicians decided that another silver coin added to the mix would be useful, especially if it were coined in quantity in the branch mints out west. And a twenty-cent piece, five to a dollar, made a certain amount of sense. So the coin was authorized, and most of them were coined in Carson City or the other western branch mint, San Francisco.

But, as you might expect, the twenty-cent piece was often mistaken for a quarter. The design was very similar, though the eagle faced in opposite directs. The twenty-cent piece was close to the same weight and size as the quarter. And so the coin quickly became unpopular. Three years of circulating coinage, two more years of coinage for collectors, and that was it. The twenty-cent piece disappeared from the Mint, from circulation, and from people’s memories.

The Carson City Branch mint endured into the 1890s, thanks to local silver mining and pressure from Nevada Congressmen. Now it’s a museum.

Blogging and a course on witch trials

Like my fiction blog, Sillyverse, this blog has been mostly inactive for a few years. Life, and death, got in the way. And just as I’ve resumed Sillyverse with a new story, so I’m restarting Sillyhistory.

Next week, I start teaching an online course called Burn the Witch! Witches and Witch-Hunting in Early Modern Europe through the Cambridge (Mass.) Center for Adult Education (CCAE). Because it’s online, you don’t need to live near Cambridge to enroll (although I suspect if you live outside the U.S., this really won’t work well). And yes, it does have open spaces for people. You can check it out here. If you’re interested, consider enrolling!

I’m going to use this blog once again as something of a sidecar to my courses, among other things. So expect to see here articles on subjects related to what I’m teaching. I expect to post weekly.

Long live history!

The Witches’ Sabbath, painted in 1607 by Frans Franken II (1581 – 1642)

I changed and made some landmarks in my life

The fall when I was 32 years old, I was getting tired of my job. I hadn’t taken a good vacation in years, and hadn’t even managed a week off that summer. The company I worked for was beginning its slow slide into being absorbed by another company. It was time for a change.

So I changed. I went and saw a travel agent, a first for me. I talked with her about going someplace warm in the wintertime, a first for me by myself. (I’d helped my parents set up in Florida a few years previously.) I’d leave the United States, something I’d never done before, except to visit Canada (which, apologies to all Canadians, I didn’t think of as TRAVEL) and a business trip to Germany.

My travel agent gave me brochures for all sorts of places, mostly in the Caribbean, but a few in the Antipodes. I saw all those wonderful beaches in Queensland, and that settled it: I was going to spend 21 days on a beach in Queensland. What could be more relaxing?

Then reality set in. 21 days on a beach in Queensland? More like one day on a beach in Queensland, 20 days recovering from the sun poisoning. I’d had sun poisoning before. I was not tempted to try it again. So I gave up on that idea. And I noticed that all those Australia brochures had one or two suggested trips to New Zealand . . . which was not so tropical. And so New Zealand it was.

Making the trip, my first vacation overseas, was one landmark. The second? I was going on a five-day hike. I’d never even hiked with a backpack. But I was going to do it. The third? I didn’t want to be bothered bringing shaving equipment on the hike. The less I carried, the better. So I decided to grow a beard. Never mind everyone told me I’d look terrible. I was going to do it anyhow.

So here I am, sitting on Quintin’s Rock, at the top of Mackinnon Pass in the Southern Alps, 3000 feet above the ground underneath my feet. It was cold, and the wind was blowing from behind me. No one else in our group of 40 hikers sat on the rock that day. I was tough. I was up for the challenge. I was . . . terrified. I’m afraid of heights, especially when I don’t feel securely grounded and balanced. With the wind behind me, I was NOT secure. But I HAD to do this. You see, besides all the other landmarks, it was my birthday. I was turning 33.

It’s summer, can’t you tell?

The beard, incidentally, looked wonderful. I’ve kept it ever since. Shaved it off twice, looked in the mirror both times, and decided I had to grow it back immediately! It may be mostly gray now, but without it . . . well, you’d think there was a village somewhere missing its idiot.

On this day in history, February 22

1371 – Think of marrying the boss’s daughter? Can’t aim much higher than Walter Stewart, who married the Scottish King Robert the Bruce’s daughter. Their son Robert becomes king of Scotland on this day.

1651 – As many as 15,000 people along the coast of the North Sea are killed by “Saint Peter’s Flood,” because some saints are mean, I guess. (OK, it’s because it was a St. Peter’s feast day; but it’s still a stupid idea to name it that way.)

The War of the Austrian Succession also involved the Hungarian succession. Confused? So were contemporaries.

The War of the Austrian Succession also involved the Hungarian succession. Confused? So were contemporaries.

1722 – It is actually February 11 in Virginia when George Washington is born; the American colonies don’t change over to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, at which point George objected to having a birthday 11 days too early, and switched to the 22nd. We celebrate George Washington’s birthday today as a holiday which NEVER falls on his birthday.

1744- The Battle of Toulon marks a turning point in the War of the Austrian Succession, not to be confused with the wars over the Spanish, Polish, or Bavarian successions, all of which you distinctly remember from your European history course.

1819 – The United States buys Florida from Spain for $5 million, which is about what the state will be worth after global warming gets through with it.

1821 – Alexander Ypsilantis begins the Greek War of Independence by invading what is now Romania. No, he did not have a bad GPS system in his dashboard. He was trying to get all the Christians in the Ottoman Empire to revolt.

1848 – The French Revolution of 1848 leads to the Second French Republic which promptly elects Napoleon’s nephew as President, who overthrows the republic and proclaims the Second Empire in 1851. Even Karl Marx made fun of this episode in history.

1862 – Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as President of the Confederate States of American for a six-year term. Too bad for him the Confederacy didn’t last much more than three.

I also assisted in getting Darwin and Wallace to cooperate in announcing evolution together

I also assisted in getting Darwin and Wallace to cooperate in announcing evolution together

1875 – Charles Lyell dies at age 77. Don’t recognize the name? You should. This is the man who made the case that geological processes proved the Earth was millions of years old. Without him, Charles Darwin probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with the theory of evolution. (Ironically, Lyell himself never fully accepted Darwin’s theory.) Queen Victoria made Lyell a baronet, and probably thought she was honoring him, but no title could give him more honor than his role as a man of science.

1921 – A rogue anti-Boshevik Russian military leader of Baltic German descent restores a Buddhist religious figure to the throne of Outer Mongolia. Truth is stranger than Game of Thrones.

1924 – Calvin Coolidge becomes the first President to make a radio broadcast from the White House. Legends that John Cage was inspired by this event are not true.

1980 – Just as Saint Peter flooded the Dutch coast, God takes a hand this time to give the United States Olympic hockey team a victory over the Soviets, the “Miracle on Ice.”

I was so famous I became a taxidermist's project (Credit: Wikipedia/Mike Pennington)

I was so famous I became a taxidermist’s project
(Credit: Wikipedia/Mike Pennington)

1983 – The play “Moose Murders” opens and closes on Broadway. One would like to think that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was responsible for the closing, though its non-existent equivalent, PETH (People for the Ethical Treatment of Humans) would have had a stronger case.

1997 – Scottish scientists announce the cloning of a sheep named Dolly. Scotland . . . sheep . . . why am I not surprised?

This day MISremembered in History: December 7

You all know about Pearl Harbor, but other notable events happened on December 7.

574 – The Byzantine Emperor Justin II abdicates due to recurring insanity brought on by waging too many wars in the Middle East.

Darnley and the Queen

Darnley and the Queen, before his “accident”

1545 – Lord Darnley is born. He marries Mary, Queen of Scots in 1565. He has Mary’s secretary and rumored lover killed in 1566. He is killed in an explosion in 1567, probably planned by the man who would become Mary’s next husband. Game of Thrones, you ain’t got nothin’ on the Scots.

1672 – Richard Bellingham, former Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, dies. Lawsuits over his estate were blamed for the delays in Boston’s Big Dig project (1982 – 2038?).

1787 – Delaware ratifies the U.S. Constitution. 2,643 firms immediately incorporate there to avoid taxes.

Bligh in one of his cheerier moments

Bligh in one of his cheerier moments

1817 – William Bligh dies. It’s a shame he’s remembered only as the failed captain of the HMS Bounty. He was also the failed Governor of New South Wales as well.

1862 – The Battle of Prairie Grove, the only Civil War battle fought by armies of prairie dogs, ends when all the prairie dogs jump off a cliff and drown.

1869 – A misunderstanding over an illegible withdrawal slip leads to Jesse James’s first bank robbery.

1902 – Thomas Nast dies. He popularized the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, Uncle Sam, the modern Santa Claus, and Donald Trump’s hair style.

1905 – Gerard Kuiper is born. His belt size increased so much that it now circles the Solar System beyond Neptune.

1917 – The United States Congress declares war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire after debating for six days whether it really exists.

1930 – The worst disaster in United States history: the first television commercial is broadcast.

Every taxi ride deserves a sequel

Every taxi ride deserves a sequel

1942 – Harry Chapin is born. They tell us he died, but I think he’s still driving a taxi.

1965 – The Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople say they were just kidding when they excommunicated each other more than nine centuries earlier.

1972 – Apollo 17, which the U.S. Government would have you believe was the last manned moon mission, is launched. Either it was all a fake and we never landed on the moon, or it was just the preliminary steps for Apollo 18 setting up a permanent base on the dark side of the moon to defeat the Nazis there; possibly both.

(N.B.: Not to be used to prepare for a history test, to write a history paper, or to drive a taxi.)

And on the sister blog to this one

I rarely cross-post from my fiction blog to my historical blog (or vice versa) but this is one of those exceptions, and it’s to toot someone else’s horn, so it’s OK. Over at Sillyverse, E. J. Barnes, whom some of you know as an illustrator and comic book artist, has a picture that goes with my current serialized story, Summer of the Netherfield Witch. So follow this link and take a look!

My apologies for the paucity of recent posts. After I taught a course on pirates, I needed to take a break for a bit. New articles should be appearing soon.