The History of the University Libraries' Numismatic Collection
As historic artifacts, old coins and paper money possess a “hands-on” quality that allows us, quite literally, to touch the daily lives and personal exchanges of people in bygone eras. Such old moneys can serve, too, as effective educational tools in studying the past. Few other artifacts are better suited for illustrating a culture’s economic and political development or for portraying its professed ideals and preferred symbols of wealth and power.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the educational value of collecting and exhibiting numismatic specimens was demonstrated more than two centuries ago. In 1795, the year the school opened, Charles Wilson Harris served on campus as one of only two teachers at the new state institution. Harris, a recent graduate of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), also served in 1795 as the University of North Carolina’s de facto librarian and, by formal appointment from the board of trustees, as its official “Keeper of the Museum.” In those dual roles, Harris began to collect books for the school and to gather natural history specimens and cultural objects for use in classroom instruction and for public displays. Listed among the early items acquired for those purposes were “Roman [and Greek] coins and paper money of all descriptions.”
Although the University of North Carolina continued to obtain more numismatic items during the remaining years of the eighteenth century and during the nineteenth century, those additions accumulated in a piecemeal manner under no official guidance to build a currency collection either for the University Libraries or for some other institutional descendant of Keeper Harris’s early campus museum. Such a collection would eventually be formed, but that action would not occur until 147 years after the university’s opening.
The University Libraries finally established a formal numismatic collection in the summer of 1942 after accepting a large gift of Civil War currency from Alexander Boyd Andrews, Jr. (1873-1946), a prominent attorney in Raleigh, N.C., and alumnus of the University of North Carolina. Outside the professional duties of his law practice, Andrews spent much of his time over the years serving his alma mater as a trustee, supporting charitable causes, and, as a hobby, collecting material relating to North Carolina’s history. In the latter activity, he amassed an impressive personal collection of books, pamphlets, manuscripts, and “antique” currencies, most of which he donated to the university.
A library acknowledgement pertaining to Andrews’ initial numismatic gift is preserved in the University Archives and is dated June 22, 1942. That document describes the donation as simply a “Collection of Confederate Money” contained in several small cardboard boxes. Other donations of paper money by Andrews followed in the succeeding months, along with gifts of at least two groups of coins. Unfortunately, records made at the time are quite general and provide no details about individual pieces, such as serial numbers on notes or mint marks and dates on coinage. In February 1943, Andrews did request from the library written confirmations of his gifts for tax purposes. Correspondence between the library and Andrews does contain broad descriptions of what he had given in the preceding seven months: 1,792 obsolete or “broken” bank notes; 620 Confederate notes; 1,844 North Carolina state treasury notes; and 171 notes issued by other states governments during the war. References in subsequent letters penned by Assistant University Librarian Olan V. Cook indicate that Andrews continued to donate more specimens, far more, during the first half of 1943. In a letter dated June 29 that year, Cook estimates that the library by then had obtained as many as 10,000 pieces from Andrews.
The absence of detailed records is not the only issue that complicates an accurate accounting of Andrews’ numismatic gifts. Another problem relates to the historic currencies that the University Library possessed prior to receiving his donations. Library staff for decades had often found old paper money nestled among stacks of acquired manuscripts or tucked between the pages of books donated to the school. Such discoveries had been saved, but they were set aside as incidental material and left uncataloged. Assistant Librarian Cook alludes to those in-house finds in a letter drafted July 11, 1942, just nineteen days after the library accepted Andrews’ first donation of Civil War currencies. In that correspondence, Cook mentions assigning a staff member in Wilson Library the task of “smo[o]thing out several hundred bills” before adding them to the Andrews Collection. Four months later, Cook writes that he had incorporated into the same collection “the bills from the North Carolina Room, a basket full of miscellaneous bills, bonds and notes from the Southern Historical Collection, a few items from the Main Library, and a few of my own.”
The wholesale mixing of unnumbered specimens from various sources makes it impossible today to reconstruct the full content of Andrews’ gifts. Muddling this situation further are the efforts that Assistant Librarian Cook made to exchange and sell specimens to improve the collection. Additional correspondence from the 1940s discloses that he, with Andrews’ encouragement, contacted various public institutions, private collectors, and currency dealers to obtain specimens that the library lacked. In January 1946, Cook submitted to North Carolina’s state museum in downtown Raleigh—the “Hall of History”—a list of Civil War duplicates held by the University Library, likely with the intention of transferring those duplicates to the museum in trades. It is unclear whether any such transfers actually occurred. It is certain, however, that before Alexander Andrews’ death on October 21, 1946, Cook did arrange and follow through with an exchange of Confederate currency with the library at nearby Duke University. Cook relayed thirty treasury notes to Duke; and in return Duke gave Civil War currency to the University of North Carolina. The exact number of specimens provided by Duke in that exchange is yet another uncertainty. According to a memorandum drafted at the time by University of North Carolina personnel, Duke gave forty-seven notes, although a related article in the October 6, 1946, issue of The Herald newspaper in Durham reports that Duke sent fifty-eight pieces of currency to the Chapel Hill campus. Following that trade, Assistant Librarian Cook continued to propose more exchanges and sales of duplicates. In April 1951, he sent an unspecified amount of Civil War currency to George F. Ivey, the president of the Southern Desk Company in Hickory, N.C.; and in 1955 Cook discussed selling duplicates with John J. Ford of the New Netherlands Coin Company in New York.
By the late 1950s, the University Library’s numismatic collection remained an uncataloged assemblage of thousands of specimens stored in Wilson Library and unavailable to researchers. As a matter of fairness in any review of Olan Cook’s early work on the collection, it should be underscored that in his day numismatics was not a mainstream concern or acquisition priority for libraries. Cook’s part-time caretaking of the university’s historic money, a task he apparently assumed, was no doubt viewed as peripheral to his more pressing, routine obligations as a senior administrator on the library’s staff. Another point to be made is that when Cook was working on the collection, nineteenth-century American currencies, particularly southern issues dating from the Civil War, were regarded as all-too-common; and outside a tight circle of paper-money collectors, the currencies from that period were generally viewed as having little historic merit or real monetary value as collectibles. The monstrous sums of Confederate money and state notes that survived the war only perpetuated public perceptions of the currencies’ worthlessness and often led people who found wads of the old cash in their attics or among a deceased relative’s belongings to cast it into the rubbish bin. Such occurrences, however, began to ebb by the early 1960s, when celebrations marking the Civil War’s centennial were being held across the nation. Special events and many publications and programs associated with that commemoration broadened public interest in the war and, correspondingly, began to expand the collectors’ market in related memorabilia, including the market for moneys used during the bloody struggle.
It was in this period, on the eve of the Civil War’s centennial, that another important figure entered the story of the University Library’s numismatic collection: Claude W. Rankin. Rankin had attended the University of North Carolina from 1903 to 1905. Thereafter, he worked in banking in Fayetteville, N.C., served as that city’s treasurer, and built a highly successful insurance agency there. Rankin, like Alexander Andrews, also served on the university’s board of trustees and donated historic material to the school’s library. Rankin enjoyed collecting coins and paper money as well, a hobby that later drew him into the North Carolina Numismatic Association and into serving as that organization’s president in 1965. Rankin enjoyed a friendship, too, with Olan Cook, who encouraged the Fayetteville businessman and community leader to give some of his old currencies to the library. In letters to Cook in 1957, Rankin mentions the prospect of turning over pieces of his collection to the university and of his desire to acquire some specimens from the library. In May that year, Rankin writes, “Do not sell any of your [the library’s] duplicates until you see me as I would like first chance at them. Of course you understand you can have any of mine that you need.” Rankin would not commit to donating any of his own notes for another two years. In June 1959, for his tax records, he requested an appraisal of his numismatic gift from the North Carolina Collection, the department in the library where the university’s currency collection was being kept due to its significant proportion of North Carolina specimens.
Claude Rankin’s involvement with the library’s money collection continued to deepen over the next six years. In 1961, University Librarian Jerrold Orne granted him the title “Honorary Consultant in Numismatics” with responsibilities “for protecting and extending the best interests of the University Library in numismatic material of whatever nature.” Orne later qualified that expansive mandate by stressing to Rankin that the library’s chief objective with regard to currency was to acquire more North Carolina pieces, Rankin’s own chief area of interest. With that instruction in mind and acting on precedence, Rankin began to contact potential sources for specimens. Evidently, those efforts yielded little results and evoked clear resistance from at least one of the sites approached. In a letter by Orne dated June 6, 1961, the librarian tactfully comments, “the state museum in Raleigh [was] not at all eager to let us take over their collection.”
As Rankin continued to consult on numismatic matters, he made four additional donations of Civil War specimens to the library between 1962 and 1965. Regrettably, as in the case of Andrews’ gifts, a note-by-note record was not made of Rankin’s submissions, and the honorary consultant in numismatics did not number the specimens, neither any of those he donated nor any of those already residing in the collection. Rankin did, though, loosely organize a selection of North Carolina issues from the Civil War, presumably a mix from the paper money that he and Andrews had provided. Rankin placed several hundred of the state’s wartime specimens into four three-ring binders, slipping the notes into polyvinyl sleeves and arranging them by authorization date and denomination. Judging by the presence of alphabetical checklists and marks on slips of paper inside the sleeves, Rankin’s ostensible goal was to illustrate in the binders each plate letter of every type of treasury note issued by North Carolina’s government during the war.
Following Olan Cook’s retirement from the library in 1964 and Claude Rankin’s death in 1966, the University’s numismatic collection essentially lay dormant for two decades. Additional work on the collection was put on hold as library staff struggled to keep pace with the ever-increasing numbers of books, maps, newspapers, manuscripts, microforms, and other types of library material that flowed into the university. With no one assigned to oversee the currency collection, parts of it became dispersed to several storage locations in Wilson Library. Most of those parts rested in more than a thousand letter-size envelopes in an old vault situated in the west stairwell of Wilson Library’s first floor, while other pieces were kept on bookshelves in small boxes and in the binders that Rankin had arranged.
Despite the numismatic collection’s inactive status between the late 1960s and late 1980s, two significant donations of coinage were added to it during that period. In 1967, Claude Rankin, Jr., donated 2,898 coins and tokens in recognition of his late father’s associations with the university and the library’s currency collection. That gift consists of a wide assortment of modern European, South American, and Asian coinage, as well as United States coins and tokens. The latter categories include United States half pennies, “Indian Head” cents, Lincoln cents, nickels, Mercury and Roosevelt dimes, quarters, and half-dollars, as well as scores of store cards and patriotic tokens circulated by northern merchants during the Civil War. Hundreds of the twentieth-century United States coins remain wrapped in rolls or are contained in collector albums and folders.
In December 1979, another outstanding numismatic gift was made to the University by High Point numismatist Herman Bernard: a set of very high-grade Bechtler coins. Mr. Bernard’s contribution consists of five gold dollars, seven gold “quarter eagles” ($2.50), and twelve gold “half eagles” ($5.00) minted by Christopher Bechtler, Sr., his son Augustus, and nephew Christopher, Jr., in Rutherford County prior to the Civil War, during the height of North Carolina’s gold rush. At the time of the Bernard gift and for several years thereafter, there was no area in Wilson Library where these Bechtler coins could be properly and securely displayed. Due to this, the gold set was kept stored in a safe-deposit box in a bank near campus.
In 1984, with the completion of the Walter Royal Davis Library at the university, many of the services and most of the book collection housed in fifty-five-year-old Wilson Library were transferred to that new facility. Wilson then underwent a major renovation and a reorganization of its interior. That work resulted in the allocations of much greater space to the special collections remaining in building: the North Carolina Collection (NCC), the Rare Book Collection, and the various sections of the Manuscripts Department, which include the Southern Historical Collection, the University Archives, and the Southern Folklife Collection. The availability of more space for the NCC allowed its curator, Dr. H. G. Jones, to establish a new unit and exhibition service for that department. In November 1986, Jones hired R. Neil Fulghum, a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, to build the North Carolina Collection Gallery in the east wing of Wilson Library’s second floor. As the Gallery’s first “keeper,” Fulghum was responsible for designing and constructing the unit’s main display areas, installing the Gallery’s replication of the library at Hayes Plantation in Edenton, N.C., reinstalling the Sir Walter Raleigh Rooms and Early Carolina Rooms, and establishing new work areas and collection spaces for the Gallery. In connection with his organization of collection spaces, Keeper Fulghum was also assigned the tasks of gathering, documenting, and preserving the large number of artifacts or “museum objects” that the NCC and the library as a whole had acquired in past generations.
The material that Fulghum located and brought together involved thousands of items connected directly to the university’s history, as well as thousands of additional artifacts relating to other aspects of North Carolina’s past and to notable events and personalities outside the state. This “material culture” included antique furniture, paintings, framed maps and drawings, silhouettes, statuary, ceramics, glassware and silverware, political campaign material, flags and banners, samplers, and old library and scientific equipment. While assembling and recording all these artifacts in the late 1980s, Fulghum rediscovered the numismatic collection in Wilson Library and reunited its scattered parts under the Gallery’s management. First he numbered, categorized, and recorded in a centralized data base every bill, note, coin, token, bond, stock certificate, and piece of scrip he found. The paper currencies, more than 7,000 pieces, were placed into individual sleeves made of polyester film. Part of that work involved the removal of the notes that had been placed in harmful polyvinyl enclosures in the 1960s. Metal security cabinets were then purchased and placed together in one of the Gallery’s collection areas to accommodate all of the library’s money-related material.
In the inventories that Keeper Fulghum compiled, he designated the core of the library’s numismatic holdings as “The Andrews / Rankin Collection.” He did this as a tribute to the generosity of donors Alexander Andrews and Claude Rankin. Fulghum also combined the men’s surnames in the collection’s title for practical reasons. The past trading and intermingling of unnumbered specimens had blurred the provenance of much of the currency, making it impossible for Fulghum to reconcile discrepancies between estimated totals cited in the 1940s and 1960s with the figures for the coins and paper money that he had found and inventoried decades later.
Notwithstanding the numismatic collection’s convoluted, often scant paper trail, great progress was made in the 1990s organizing the library’s currencies and in showcasing pieces from the collection. The Herman Bernard Collection of Bechtler coins was placed on permanent display in the Gallery in 1991 to complement other exhibits relating to the history of North Carolina’s gold rush. In his ongoing research and evaluation of the collection, Fulghum also enlisted the assistance of Dr. Richard G. Doty, senior curator of numismatics at the Smithsonian Institution. He invited Doty to visit the library in November 1993 to inspect the collection. In the time that the Smithsonian curator had available, he focused attention foremost on notes issued in the 1800s by private banks and by governmental authorities outside North Carolina. Doty’s review and observations proved most helpful, for he identified several counterfeit and altered notes, as well as a Texas note and a few other specimens he classified as exceedingly rare.
By the late 1990s, the library’s numismatic collection began to benefit greatly from its increased public exposure and donations of historic currency. Henry H. Philips, Jr., of Tarboro, N.C. (UNC Class of 1940), made the largest in-kind gift during this period. In memory of his grandfather, Philips donated dozens of Confederate bonds and more than 200 Civil War notes. That entire donation remains preserved en suite in the Gallery as the Frederick Philips Collection. In the fall of 1998, the Gallery also mounted its most elaborate numismatic exhibition to date. That project, “Hard Cash & Hard Times: A History of North Carolina Currency,” showcased selections from the library’s holdings, as well as specimens borrowed from the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. In addition to broadening and deepening the collection’s connections within this region’s numismatic community, the six-month exhibition helped the Gallery to extend its contacts on a national level, especially with the American Numismatic Society in New York, the American Numismatic Association in Colorado, and with the University of Notre Dame Library and other academic libraries that also held sizeable collections of historic currency.
The Gallery’s 1998-1999 exhibition “Hard Cash & Hard Times” attracted widespread public attention to the University Libraries' numismatic collection. Here viewers examine a portion of the hundreds of specimens featured in that exhibition. Seeking to secure ongoing financial support for the collections, Keeper Fulghum in 1998 also drafted a proposal to sell a large portion of the library’s Confederate duplicates but with provisions to maintain multiple examples of all types in the highest grade. In that proposal, Fulghum also requested that all the proceeds from the proposed sales be used to establish a numismatic trust fund for buying needed North Carolina currencies and to underwrite costs associated with the conservation and long-term care of the currency collection. After the university’s board of trustees approved Fulghum’s proposal in November 1999, a total of 2,131 documented Confederate notes were transferred the following April to R. M. Smythe and Company in New York for public auction. In this same period, important additional financial assistance was obtained. In February 2000, the daughter of the legendary numismatist John Jay Pittman donated funds to the library to establish a memorial for her father, who had earned his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina in 1934. The Pittman Fund’s expressed purpose is to help “foster greater public understanding, and appreciation for the economic, social, and artistic impact that money in all its forms has had on our culture.” Later, in May 2001, Fulghum submitted another proposal to sell duplicates of nineteenth-century railroad stock certificates with all receipts, as before, going into the trust designated to support the university’s numismatic holdings. After that proposal’s approval, R. M. Smythe once again administered the sales.
Thanks to the generosity of donors, the interest generated by trust funds, and to some supplementary funding furnished by the University Library’s central administration, the NCC has been able to purchase currencies that have substantially improved the diversity and research value of the collection, especially in areas relating to the economic conditions and fiscal policies of North Carolina and other southern states during the colonial, Revolutionary, and early federal periods. The Gallery has also been adding a wide range of tokens and public and private scrip to its holdings, along with examples of later state and federal issues. Specimens from other nations also continue to be acquired, for foreign currencies have formed an important subcategory in the collection since its creation in 1942. Overall, the collection remains dedicated to preserving North Carolina’s numismatic past. Nevertheless, a proper interpretation of that past cannot abruptly stop at the state’s borders. Having examples of currencies from other states and nations is important for conducting comparative studies and presenting exhibitions that place North Carolina’s monetary past within broader historical and geographical contexts.
Today, the library’s currency collection constitutes half of the 20,000 historic objects managed by the North Carolina Collection Gallery. The ongoing development of this large body of numismatic material is dependent on continuing public support. Collectors familiar with current market prices in numismatic collectibles know very well that Bechtler and Charlotte gold coins, many antebellum private bank notes, and every type of North Carolina national bank note command huge, often astronomical prices. Such costs can easily exhaust the NCC’s annual interest from its numismatic funds, frequently making it impossible for the department to compete successfully in auctions of rare specimens. At best, the NCC’s available funds allow it to purchase only a few important pieces a year.
Whether it is an assembly of books, photographs, or historic moneys, great reference collections are not effectively built by periodically adding a handful of pieces; they rely instead on the acquisition of entire collections or large groupings of historic materials. The NCC continues to gain a reputation among donors as a place where they can deposit and preserve for future generations the numismatic pieces they have either inherited from relatives or have dedicated many years themselves to acquiring and researching. Such additions not only enhance the research value of the library’s collection, they can also serve as memorials, as in the cases of the aforementioned gifts made by Henry H. Philips in 1997 and by Polly Pittman in 2000. More recently, Dr. Sarah Davis of Chapel Hill continued this trend. In 2006, she generously donated 693 pieces of Civil War currency as a lasting tribute to her grandfather. This Matthew S. Davis Collection includes Confederate notes, along with several small “bricks” of North Carolina notes still bound in their original payment wrappings.
More than six decades have elapsed since the founding of the University Library’s numismatic collection. Alexander Andrews, Librarian Olan Cook, Claude Rankin, and others associated with its early development would no doubt be pleased if today they could examine the library’s holdings of historic moneys and see on public display some of the same specimens with which they had worked so long ago. No doubt, too, those gentlemen would be astounded by our modern electronic networks and its capabilities, how numismatic images and information about the collection can be shared instantaneously and worldwide with the tap of a few computer keys. In the coming years, such expanding technologies will afford the library even greater opportunities to share this part of its extensive resources and to advance its ongoing mission of building the finest collection of state currency in the nation.