by Tim Gilmore, 10/11/2017
It looks wrong. Not just because it’s far larger than today’s dollar bills.
Though the 1908 $10 bill says, “The Heard National Bank of Jacksonville, Florida will pay to the bearer on demand Ten Dollars,” and is signed by bank President J.J. Heard, the $10 bill also shows an image of President William McKinley and says, “National Currency” at the top.
“These national bank notes carried local banking imprimaturs to give people confidence the bill was good,” says Emory Robinson, owner of Edgewood Coin Shop. “A lot of people still couldn’t understand how paper money could be worth anything.”
Even if your interest in collectible coins ended after finding that wheat penny or buffalo nickel in elementary school, you’ll find you could listen to Emory for hours.
He sits behind a glass display case, surrounded by millions of coins. The hometown ten-spot came from its hiding place in a vault deep behind the wood-paneled walls. Antique pocket watches hang in nearby bankers’ stalls from the 1970s. An old slot machine showing a lemon, cherries, and a Liberty Bell sits on a nearby counter. A large coin blazoned with the likeness of Alexander the Great dates to about 300 BC.
Emory Robinson opened this alternate-world-within-the-world 54 years ago. For two decades after he took over the Murray Hill Theater two doors down in 1960, movie tickets garnered his main income. From 1963 to ’79, the coin shop operated in the smaller storefront right next to the theater.
Then came the silver run of 1979 to ’80.
As Emory tells me about it, Ivan throws his voice our way. He’s a corpulent man wearing a kind of head-to-toe pajama featuring large bright green leaves and bright purple flowers on a cream background. Just as Emory mentions the Hunt Brothers, Ivan yells, “That was the Hunt Brothers, wudden it?”
Lamar, Nathan, and William Hunt inherited the oil empire of their father, H.L. Hunt. Nelson Bunker Hunt was a far-right political financier and supporter of the John Birch Society. Lamar Hunt co-founded the American Football League and proposed the first Super Bowl.
Nelson and William Hunt tried to corner the global silver market by buying enough global stock to be able to call the price.
Though the ensuing scandal led to Silver Thursday—March 27, 1980—a near crash in the silver market that sent panic through other financial markets, the New Year’s eightfold increase in silver prices from December 1979 to January 1980 resulted in a boom for coin dealers. That year, Robinson moved the coin shop into its current and much larger space.
Ivan continues to interject his numismatic knowledge. World War One was indeed supposed to be the “war to end all wars,” not that fighting fire with fire has ever worked, and thus, with murderous irony, led to peace monuments and symbols throughout the country and the culture, including, as Ivan makes sure Emory tells me, “the Peace Dollar.”
Emory’s pointing from older neoclassical coin designs to early-20th century Art Deco, explaining that Theodore Roosevelt sought to modernize American currency by using French coins as models.
Burnishings of light and shade dance from the profile of an open-mouthed Lady Liberty whose crown looks like light, radiating up through her hair.
Before the American Gold Eagle coin in 1986, the South African Krugerrand dominated gold markets. It’s not entirely random that the boy and his father in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road find a Krugerrand in the lone dead wastes somewhere in the erstwhile American Southeast.
Many countries had imposed economic sanctions against South Africa in the 1970s for its white supremacist policies of Apartheid. The United States, always late to global humanitarianism, imposed sanctions in 1986. Opposing Apartheid may have been but a convenient rider to American economic interests since the Krugerrand comprised 90 percent of the global market in 1980. The U.S. accompanied its sanctions with the American Gold Eagle.
Emory’s as interested in coin design as he is in economic plot twists. He shows me the Lady Liberty face of a 1997 Gold Eagle coin and a 1927 Saint-Gaudens, and it’s clear the coins’ obverse, 70 years apart, bears yet the likeness of Beaux-Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ depiction of the goddess, holding both a torch and an olive branch. She rises from a fanning radiant like Botticelli’s Venus grown triumphantly feminist. If only.
Emory sells to customers who buy three or four boxes of 500 Silver Eagle one-dollar coins. A number of regular customers fear economic downturns and come to Edgewood Coin for gold bullion. It hasn’t hurt that TV advertisements for right-wing fearmongers of recent years, like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, have championed gold as a physical guarantee for abstract currencies if world economies collapse.
Though Emory would never advise so investing the majority of one’s wealth, he says bullion coins serve as both a psychological and a financial security. Gold coins, he notes, have their purity guaranteed by the United States government, unlike gold bars. That promise paradoxically sticks in the craw of anti-government alarmists who bulkhead what “the government” might take from them with governmental assurances.
Until 1965, he says, the Federal Reserve sold $1,000 bags of silver dollars. He once sold a single customer 70 bags. He bought bags he used as collateral to buy more bags to extend his credit to buy more bags and so on.
Still, even today, gold and silver coins from the 1880s show up, never circulated, because the Treasury minted millions of coins not for spending, but for backing, in storage, at federal and local banks.
Perhaps the days of Jacksonville banks imprinted on national bills to give confidence to local merchants and buyers aren’t so far behind.
That old hometown bill doesn’t claim to be ten dollars. Nor does a $10 bill today. Today’s bills call themselves “legal tender” for the debt of the person who holds it in hand, and our debt is our expectation. Money has only ever been representation.
Our bills today claim to be worth the amount printed on their paper. They do not claim to be that amount.
All any money has ever been worth is the value of people’s belief.