My Two Cents
What’s your oldest possession?
By Bill Fields
This particular Sunday afternoon more than a half century ago was different from the others.
On a regular weekend visit to my grandmother Daisy’s house in Jackson Springs, looking for entertainment beyond the porch swing and GRIT magazine, I found a jar of coins on a table in a dim hallway. Ma-Ma, as we called her, gave me permission to examine them.
Some of the coins might have been change Ma-Ma carried home from the Red & White grocery in West End or Kimes Blake’s store just down the hill. I discovered others, though, minted much earlier. With Ma-Ma’s blessing, a few Mercury dimes, buffalo nickels and Indian head pennies became the foundation of my boyhood collection. So did two badly tarnished coins, each slightly larger than a quarter but smaller than a half dollar, about 1 1/8 inches in diameter.
“They’re very old,” Ma-Ma told me. I confirmed this after borrowing her magnifying glass. One was so browned and worn that no date could be ascertained. The other, though, was in a bit better condition — it was an 1854 one-cent piece with a lady’s head encircled by 13 stars.
After I purchased a coin guide from The Country Bookshop — then located in a tiny space at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Bennett Street in Southern Pines — I found out my treasures were copper “large cents.” I later learned this denomination was produced from 1793 to 1857, when it was replaced by the smaller penny. A half-dozen variations were minted in that span. My discoveries were of the “braided hair” final design that debuted in 1839. All of the millions of large cents were made at the Philadelphia mint.
“Old things are better than new things because they’ve got stories to tell, Ethan,” one character says to another in Beautiful Creatures.
My large cents — under a jeweler’s loupe the other one appears to be from 1851 — remain my oldest possessions. They pre-date the Civil War, the telephone, automobiles and manned flight. They were minted during the California Gold Rush. The New York Times came off the press for the first time in 1851, the same year Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick, and the Great Flood ravaged the Midwest. In 1854, the Republican Party was founded, and George Eastman and John Philip Sousa were born. There were just over 23 million people in the 1850 U.S. Census, including 3 million slaves.
The early 1850s was a time of pungents, leeches and tinctures, cod liver oil and pickled oysters, parasols and goatskin bootees. A large cent went a long way: It was 11 cents a pound for flour. A bushel of potatoes ran 90 cents. You could buy a lard lamp for 25 cents and a ton of coal for $6. Board might be $1.50 a week, and steady work could leave something left over for a bottle of Scheidam Schnapps, for medicinal purposes, of course. Life expectancy at birth was less than 40 years.
I’ve pondered whose pocket or purse held my large cents more than a century before I claimed them. Had they been passed along to my maternal grandfather, who was born in 1861, when he was a boy? Where might the coins have been other than Montgomery and Moore counties, where my family has roots?
Although it is a coin-collecting no-no but aware that they aren’t worth much as collector pieces, recently I couldn’t resist cleaning my Coronet cents. I soaked them in various solvents — vinegar, ketchup, Coke — and rubbed their surfaces with a pencil eraser. The wear and nicks are still there, but the original copper color is nicely revealed.
Their history always will be a mystery, but I hope my youngest relatives, now of elementary-school age, some day will wonder about their heritage decades down the road the way I do now. If they have children and pass the cents along, these mid-19th century coins could be the oldest things owned by someone in the 22nd century, when they will be very, very old, and cash itself might be ancient history. PS
Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.