Category Archives: September 2011

Liquid Assets

A brick of tea presented to Tzar Nicholas II, 1891

A brick of tea presented to Tzar Nicholas II, 1891

Coin collectors are often drawn to the more bizarre forms of money that have been used throughout the world. Some of the strange items used in barter or trade included huge stone wheels on the island of Yap in the Pacific, feathers, shells and beads of all sorts. But one of the most unusual forms of money has to be the bricks of tea once used as money and an international item of trade by Chinese merchants.

Tea has been the beverage of choice in China for hundreds of years. There is evidence that tea drinking was popular in the eighth century, and that its use spread to Russia and Western Asia during Mongol times. By the 16th century the use of tea was well established throughout Europe, and in time English colonists brought the custom to America along with the first settlers. Today tea is used by more people, and in greater quantity, than any beverage but water.

The use of tea as a commercial trade item probably began with the heavy demand for fine Chinese tea from the Russian nobility. It was considered very valuable and only the rich could afford it. At first, dried leaves were transported from China to Russia by caravans of camels over the treacherous silk route. In time it was discovered that a more convenient commodity could be fashioned by processing the tea and forming it into solid bricks about the size of a large book. Eventually tea bricks became an accepted medium of exchange that could pass the same as silver and other trade items both in domestic and foreign trade.

There are no records of exactly when the Chinese pressed tea bricks began being shipped outside the country. Some believe that it may date back to very early times. The first written account of the use of brick tea as both a drink and a medium of exchange was described by Abbi Huc in the account of his travels in Tartary, Tibet and China during 1844-1846. Later reports confirm its continued use as money in remote parts of Central Asia until as recently as 1935. The average brick was valued at one rupee, and used for paying wages, buying provisions, and in ordinary trading.

In Tibet, swords, horses and other property were sometimes priced in a given number of tea bricks or packets (of 4 bricks). In Mongolia cattle and wood were likewise priced in terms of bricks. For smaller purchases, pieces were broken from the bricks and passed by weight. The natives of Siberia preferred brick tea money to metallic coins because of its beneficial use as a medicine for coughs, colds and lung diseases, as well as a refreshing beverage; other forms of money being much more prone to fluctuation in value and loss to bandits.

Most of the brick tea was made in China and carried by camel and yak caravans to the distant lands of Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia. Although this tea was used as a form of money during transit, when it reached Russia it was used for a beverage by the Russian army, tourists, hunters and sportsmen because of its convenient form. British traveler Thomas Atkinson reported in 1860 that a chief of the Khirgix tribe served him a bowl of brick tea with clotted cream, salt and millet meal added, boiled for a half hour and served hot. “I cannot say that the beverage is either bad or particularly clean,” Atkinson noted, “still hunger has often caused me to make a very good meal of it, but I think of it as rather tea soup than tea.” The Tibetans, it is said, enjoyed their brick tea by boiling it with yak butter in a large cauldron.

Collectors of odd and unusual forms of money treasure the old bricks that were made for use in trade and drinking. Very few have survived their original purpose, and intact bricks that still have clear images and inscriptions are valued highly. The pieces made for trade in Russia, showing both Russian and Chinese inscriptions seem to be the rarest, and sell in the $1,000.00 range. Those made and used during World War II are considered the most common of the original pieces but still bring prices in the hundreds of dollars. The modern bricks that were sold in U.S. grocery stores for actual use as tea have no collector value, but they are a colorful reminder of one of the most unusual forms of money ever used anywhere in the world.

Posted in September 2011 | Leave a comment

Unique Half Dollars Of 1853

1853 Half Dollar

1853 Half Dollar

There are many things that are abnormal about most of the half dollars made in 1853. They do not weigh the same as any made before that date, and they do not look like any made before or after. If it were not for the recorded history of these pieces, it would be logical to conclude that they were not genuine. What we do know is that there are two distinct kinds of half dollars made that year and that the government took a good chunk of silver out of most of them.

From 1836 to 1852 all half dollars weighed 13.36 grams, and were made of .900 fine silver. For most of that time the silver content was worth slightly less than the face value. Then in 1852 the price of silver began to rise to a point where it became profitable to melt the larger United States silver coins for their added value. Congress took action to curb this on February 21, 1853, by authorizing a lower weight standard for the half dollar, quarter, dime and half dime. The silver content

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of the half dollar was lowered by about seven percent to 12.44 grams of .900 fine silver that was enough to save it from speculators.

The legislation required some immediate changes at the Mint, and it was decided that the new 1853 coins of lower weight should look different so that they would not be confused with the heavier pieces. The change that was agreed upon was easy to accomplish by adding a large arrowhead on each side of the date, and a burst of rays behind the eagle on the reverse. The resulting design was anything but artistic, and it was used only for the remainder of the year 1853. After that the arrows were retained, but the rays on the reverse were removed, and that design was used through 1855. It was reasoned that everyone would realize by then that the newer coins were of the lighter weight standard and resist melting them.

The weight change of 1853 was implemented early in the year, but not before production had begun with some coins on the old heavy standard. Many of those dimes, quarters and halves were melted at the Mint prior to release and other old coins were destroyed at the Mint to provide silver for the lighter coinage. All of the new coinage of 1853 was identified by the addition of arrows at the date, but the half dollars seemed to be the most conspicuous because of their size and the large amount of silver they contained. The silver dollar however, probably for political reasons, was never changed.

As a one-year-only type design, the 1853 half dollar with arrows and rays has always been very popular. 3.5 million pieces were made in Philadelphia, and another 1.3 million in New Orleans. Many of them were saved, and they are still easy to acquire at modest prices. The other Liberty Seated half dollars of 1853, the heavier ones without arrows and rays that were made in New Orleans, are another story. Most of them seem to have been melted before they ever reached circulation.

Today there are only three known examples of the heavyweight 1853-O half dollars. The first recorded piece appeared at an auction in the 1880s. All known surviving pieces are heavily circulated, but even in worn condition they are considered to be prize possessions for anyone fortunate enough to own one. A specimen that was sold at auction several years ago brought $75,000. It left no doubt in anybody’s mind that the half dollars of 1853 are indeed special in many ways.

Posted in September 2011 | 1 Comment

Carson City Mint Still Attracts Visitors

Carson City Mint, 1866

Carson City Mint - 1866

The legendary Carson City Mint continues to cast its spell on collectors of United States coins. It was in operation only from 1870 to 1893. It never produced very many coins in any one year. And yet, it is so closely associated with the history of mining and intrigue in the colorful Old West that any and all coins that bear its unique “CC” mint mark have a special place in every collector’s heart and coin cabinet.

Only eight different denominations of coins were made at the Nevada operation. They were all struck from January 1870 to November 1885, and from July 1889 to July 1893, when it was changed over to become an official Assay Office. In the last year of operation only the Morgan dollar and $5, $10 and $20 gold coins were produced. Prior to that it had also produced dimes, double dimes, quarters, half dollars and a few Trade Dollars. The most common Carson City Mint coins, if indeed any of them can be considered common, are the dimes made in 1875, 1876 and 1877. Nice specimens of those dates can still sometimes be found for under $20.00 each.

The Carson City Mint has survived years of hardships that included earthquakes; political moves to close the operation and mines, scandals and neglect. The building was officially closed in 1933 and the facility subsequently sold to the state of Nevada. Today it stands proud as a State Museum that is open to the public to share its history as part of the story of the western silver industry.

Legislation to construct the Carson City Mint was passed by Congress in 1863, but it was three years later before ground was broken. The first coinage presses arrived in 1869, and the first coins were struck the next year. An earthquake that hit the area two months before coinage began, nearly altered the course of history for the Mint. And if that was not enough to discourage production, Mint Director James Pollock, who had control over all U.S. mints, felt that there was no need for an expensive branch mint in the Nevada Territory.

The first of six steam-powered coinage presses that was used in the Carson City Mint was eventually moved to two other facilities before returning home where today it continues to make souvenir medals for museum visitors. On February 11, 1870 this press struck the first coin bearing the famous “CC” mint mark, on a Seated Liberty silver dollar. For the next 23 years it continued to be used to produce most of the larger denomination pieces produced at the Carson City Mint. When it suffered a cracked arch in 1878 repairs were made at the local Virginia & Truckee Railroad shop, and it was put back into service.

Nevada State Museum, Carson City, NV 2009 - Image by Scott Schrantz

Nevada State Museum, Carson City, NV 2009 - Image by Scott Schrantz

Through efforts on behalf of the Carson City Museum, the old press was rescued from the scrap heap after additional years of service in Philadelphia and San Francisco, and returned to Nevada in 1958. After a thorough cleaning and painting, it quickly became one of the favorite attractions in the State Museum, now housed in the original Mint building. The museum also features memorabilia of Nevada’s history, geology and culture, including a full-size replica of a ghost town and an underground mine. Visitors also get to see an exhibit of 57 different Carson City Mint coins, and various other items that have been fabricated from Nevada silver, like the 15-gallon punch bowl made by the Gorham Company in 1915.

A visit to the Carson City Mint Museum should be a must for any interested traveler to Nevada. The exhibit is open year-round. Information is available from Nevada State Museum at their site museums.nevadaculture.org

Posted in September 2011 | 1 Comment

Glossary – Fractional Coins

Vicksburg National Military Park Quarter

Vicksburg National Military Park Quarter unveiled August 30, 2011

Fractional Coins are coins minted by a government that are simply fractions of the basic currency unit. For example, the U.S. dollar is divided into 100 cents. Fractional coins are any coins that represent less than one dollar. Thus, 50-cent pieces, quarters, dimes, nickels, and cents are all fractional coins.

Posted in September 2011 | 2 Comments

Fascinating Coin Fact

Ye Olde Mint, Philadelphia, PA

Ye Olde Mint, Philadelphia, PA

The first United States Mint was built on the grounds of an abandoned distillery, but that structure was not used for the Mint. In 1792 it was torn down to make room for a new building, which was the first

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ever erected for public use by the new Congress. Production of coins for circulation began in 1793.

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