The Case of the Piggy Bank Thief (12 page)

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RESEARCH is one of the fun things authors do, even authors who write fiction. For
The Case of the Piggy Bank Thief
, I not only read articles and books about money and coins, I also visited the National Numismatic Collection. It's part of the Smithsonian Institution and is at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

“Numismatic,” by the way, means relating to coins, money or medals.

In the book, Cameron, Tessa and Nate take the elevator to the fifth floor of the museum, and I did the same thing. There, curator Karen Lee showed me the electronically secured vault in which the nation's coin collection, one of the world's largest, is stored. Then Karen and I sat down with grad student Evan Cooney at a table in the library. Wearing gloves and using the special jeweler's magnifier known as a loupe, I examined several rare coins, including a 1796 no stars quarter eagle like the one mentioned in the book.

A visit to the National Museum of American History is always worthwhile, but you don't have to go there to see the National Numismatic Collection. In fact, if you did, you might be disappointed. Only a tiny portion of it is on exhibit at any one time. Luckily, a good place to tour the highlights is on any available computer screen at americanhistory.si.edu/collections/numismatics/.

Online, you can see and read about some of the collection's half million coins and medals, as well as its million-plus pieces of paper money. Included are some of the oldest known coins, which were made in ancient Greece, as well as beads, Native American wampum (customized seashells), teeth, nails and other items that people through history have used as money.

Some interesting items in the American part of the collection are a set of checks with presidential signatures, and two 1933 double eagle twenty-dollar gold pieces, arguably the world's most valuable coins. Only three are known to exist, and the last time one sold at auction, it brought more than $7 million!

The person in charge of the National Numismatic Collection is Dr. Richard G. Doty, who was sitting behind a desk in his messy office looking rather imposing on the day I visited. In his chapter of the book
Money of the World: Coins That Made History
(Whitman, 2007), Dr. Doty perfectly explains why a nation's coins and bills are so important to it: “. . . [M]oney tells the folks at home and the world at large that the regime or nation exists, that it's a going concern, and that it has the right
to prosper and grow. . . . Early money proclaimed identity quite as much as it fostered commerce.”

The founding fathers of the United States saw it that way, too, which is why in 1792 Congress enacted a law that established basic policies for dealing with money as well as providing for the first mint, which is a factory for manufacturing coins.

According to the new law, the basic monetary unit would be called the dollar, and it would have the same value as a coin that had been in use in America for two hundred years already, the Spanish piece of eight. The law also dictated that the dollar would be divided decimally into dimes and cents. That might sound like an obvious way to do things, but actually, it was unusual. While the idea of decimally based coinage had been around since ancient Greece, the United States was the first to adopt it on a wide scale and then stick with it.

The secretary of the treasury at the time was Alexander Hamilton. He and his allies were hoping the United States would become what's called a hard-money country, one that uses coins instead of paper bills. There were several economic and political reasons to try this. For example, at the time, coins were considered more reliable and stable than paper because each coin had the same value as the metal of which it was made.

In spite of Hamilton's efforts, though, the hard-money idea never totally caught on. One reason was that metal was scarce. Today's United States has lots of mineral resources, but in 1792 few had been identified.
Ultimately, to make up for the metal shortage, banks and other organizations issued their own notes to serve as small change. Meanwhile, foreign gold and silver coins were used for bigger transactions. In fact, a lot of early U.S. coins were actually made from foreign coins, such as British sovereigns that had been melted down.

As for the mint, it was built in the fall of 1792 in what was then the nation's capital, Philadelphia. Making a coin is not necessarily a high-tech operation. After all, at the time of the American Revolution, people had been doing it for more than two thousand years already. The process starts with rolling hot metal into sheets of the specified thickness. These sheets are cut into shapes called planchets or blanks; then a stamp called a die is used to impress an image on each side, the obverse and the reverse.

Since the coining press at the first U.S. mint was operated by hand, making those early coins took a while. As of spring 1793, the mint had produced 11,178 copper cents, and it would be five years before it manufactured its first million coins. Just for comparison, today it takes about twenty-two hours for the mint—still located in Philadelphia—to produce a million coins.

Besides establishing the dollar as a basic unit, the 1792 law established three denominations of gold coin: the eagle ($10), half eagle ($5) and quarter eagle ($2.50). However, since the average adult in the new United States earned less than $2.50 per week, there wasn't much demand for any of these high-value coins. For that
reason—and because so little gold was available—it was 1796 before any quarter eagles were made.

The quarter eagle that figures in
The Case of the Piggy Bank Thief
is unique—the only coin of the time without stars on the obverse (front side). Designed by Robert Scot, the mint's chief engraver, it pictures Miss Liberty wearing a style of cap that has symbolized liberty since Roman times. On the reverse is an eagle surrounded by the words “United States of America.” A total of 963 no stars quarter eagles were struck, and an additional 432 with stars.

Why two versions of the same coin? No one knows!

It could simply be that the punch that engraved the stars got broken. It could be that the stars were intended to represent states and, given that new states were in the process of being added to the union, the engravers didn't want to risk getting the number wrong. Whatever the reason behind the mystery, the no stars quarter eagle is now one of the world's most valuable eighteenth-century gold coins.

Here is a true confession. Until I did the research for this book, I thought about coins mainly when I was fumbling for quarters for the parking meter. As I said earlier, though, research is fun—plus, it almost always gives a person a new appreciation for a subject.

When I visited the National Museum of American History, Evan Cooney told me he has been collecting coins since he was in kindergarten. As he opened the boxes to show me a few of the world's rarest and most
historic coins, he literally trembled with excitement. And his enthusiasm was contagious.

Now that I know a little about coins myself, I see them as pieces of art and pieces of history. Just like the First Kids, I think it's pretty cool that any old time I reach into my pocket, I might find buried treasure.

—M. A. F.

BOOK: The Case of the Piggy Bank Thief
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