If someone asked you to pick out one coin that best represents America, which one would you choose?
In The Numismatist, November 1909, Howland Wood gave the following advice under the title of “Numismatic Maxims for Beginners.” Just one coin variety was specifically mentioned: His advice, by the way, is still relevant today:
Don’t set your heart on acquiring any coin right off. If you force the market you generally have to pay more than it is worth.
If you are a young man you can afford to wait; it is only the old men who cannot.
Don’t plunge in too quickly at the start and think you must buy every coin offered.
Don’t try to collect everything; you’ll never catch up with your contract. Also you will not enjoy what you have.
You’ve got to learn by experience; a few jolts and knocks will impress you more than all of the advice an older collector can give you.
Don’t take any man’s word that a coin is unique. There are far fewer unique coins than there are said to be.
Collect, if possible, coins in the best condition; you then buy but once, and when you want to sell, you have something worth selling. A poor coin is an aggravation and an eyesore, and you as a rule can get very little for it when you want to sell.
A library goes hand in hand with the collection of coins.
It is better to collect a few series and know your subject than to attempt to collect everything and think you know it all but really know nothing.
Every collector should have a Pine Tree shilling, as that is the first question your guests ask if you have.
Never cry down another collector’s coin; give them, at least, the benefit of the doubt.
Never talk scandal or say mean things about other collectors; if you have nothing good to say, say nothing.
The last maxim is the most important one to remember, and it is the one most often transgressed.
Some years ago I asked several collectors what their favorite American coin was. Louis Eliasberg and Ken Bressett picked the Pine Tree shilling, and I did as well.
The pine tree was the fourth motif in the Massachusetts silver coinage series authorized in 1652. The first had NE, the second had a scraggly something-or-other that numismatists called a willow tree, the third depicted and oak, and the fourth a pine. Pine Tree coins were minted from 1667 to 1682, but all used the 1652 date of authorization.
These and other silver issues were struck by John Hull on contract, who operated a small mint in Boston.
The Massachusetts coins circulated widely in the Eastern Seaboard colonies and in Canada. There were sufficient pieces in commerce in Maryland that on November 19, 1686, that colony legislated that silver sixpence and shillings from New England should pass as equivalent to British coins of the same denominations. Threepence pieces, never made in large quantities, did not become important in commerce.
Part or perhaps most of the fame of the Pine Tree shilling dates from a whimsical tale spun by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the late 1830s, stories of history told by a grandfather.
Mintmaster Hull daughter Betsey, a plump lass of 18 years, was about to be married for her dowry. To set the couple on their way, a large pair of balance scales was brought out. Betsey was placed on one side, and on the other sparkling new Pine Tree shillings were placed to equal her weight.
Another story has it that such pieces, if bent twice, would ward off witches, said to be prominent in Salem in the late 17th century.
By the early 19th century, long before numismatics became a widespread hobby in America, Pine Tree shillings and related issues were recognized as interesting items to collect and sold for premiums in various auctions and offerings of antiquities. Many accounts were published of stray pieces being found here and there, as in this item in Historical Magazine, July 1867:
An old “pine tree shilling” of Massachusetts coinage, of the very old and rare date, 1652, was picked up a day or two ago by Orrin Loomis, of West Springfield [Massachusetts], an old man of 75, while walking in his own fields. The letters upon the coin, the figure of the old tree, date and all, have been distinctly preserved.
Today several thousand Pine Tree shillings exist, mostly in grades from Very Good to Very Fine. There are many different die varieties. The earliest ones were struck on large planchets, the later on small. The planchets were cut out of a sheet with shears and are thus slightly irregular in shape.
There is much to read about Pine Tree shillings in the literature, including in the Whitman Encyclopedia of Colonial and Early American Coins, available from your favorite dealer or on the Whitman website.