Coin Update is launching a new series dedicated to reflecting on the long history of Whitman Publishing’s Guide Book of United States Coins, also known as the Red Book, now in its 70th edition. “Red Book Recollections” will feature personal reflections written by Red Book contributors, collectors, and others with the aim of providing different perspectives on the long-lived reference work.
Our first narrative comes from David T. Alexander, esteemed numismatist and long-time contributor to Coin World and the Red Book.
David T. Alexander
My recollections of the Guide Book of United States Coins, the slim volume that everybody has long called the “Red Book,” are somewhat conflicted. As young numismatists in Miami, Florida, during the early 1950s, my late brother John and I did not successfully collect U.S. coins, but we were already well aware of the “Red Book.” Our family lived in what the Victorians used to call “genteel poverty,” with essentially no money for hobbies. Rent, school tuition, and basic diet were barely covered by severely limited family funds each month.
Newspaper routes and corner sales brought in some spending money in the day when the Miami Daily News cost a nickel, an evening paper bringing our readers “today’s news today!” Neither of us showed any skill at saving and such good coins as the customers gave us were generally spent on such “staffs of life” as chocolate. What were then called “foreign coins” were far easier to keep since they usually couldn’t be spent, though with Canadian coins and the omnipresent Cuban coins you had at least a chance.
Young collectors in that long-ago Miami had two things going for them that many other American cities did not: a really outstanding public library and a vibrant, welcoming coin club. We made good use of both. The Miami Coin Club had been founded in 1948, and the dapper founder, Otto T. Sghia, formerly of The Bronx, New York, was still active. He had organized the Miami group and endowed it with the constitution of the New York Numismatic Club, emphasizing fellowship, speakers, and member exhibits while forbidding excessive commercialism.
In the early 1950s the club was in its heyday. Local members rubbed elbows with visitors and what were called “winter residents,” including the venerable Abraham Heppner, who carried what he confidently asserted was a genuine 1804 silver dollar. One especially elderly club officer member was James Pollard of Indianapolis, who was said to have collected U.S. half cents from circulation! There were far more down-to-earth members, older men wearing overalls and drawling, “Well, ah save quarters ’n<COMP: set apostrophe, not opening single quote> half dollars. . . .”
Then there was Lee A. Hervey Jr., who gave us his 1955 “Red Book” at the May 1957 meeting. We had already encountered the “Red Book” at the downtown library, the great white marble structure built in 1952 to block off Miami’s view of Biscayne Bay at the foot of Flagler Street. This library was unusual in that it had several running feet of shelves in the circulation section with all sorts of coin books ready and waiting. Among these titles were the widely respected Standard Catalogue of United States Coins and several “Red Books” of varying ages. I came to know both, and was especially impressed by the “Red Book’s” in-detail descriptions of U.S. commemorative coins. The Standard Catalogue offered each a single line, often followed by a somewhat disapproving value in italics for issues Raymond regarded as “speculative.”
In the 11 years I devoted to the Historical Museum of Southern Florida (1963 to 1974), I always kept current “Red Books” next to the two telephones, upstairs and down. Inevitably, often on weekends and (we suspected) from parties, would come the calls: “Hey, I gotta old penny. . . .” The “Red Book” made many friends for the museum because it ensured that we always had an answer!
In the spring of 1974 I found myself in a new career and town, as a staff writer for Coin World in Sidney, Ohio, where I came to know much more about the “Red Book.” The observant reader will have noticed that as an ex–Coin World writer, force of habit still demands quotation marks around the Guide Book’s nickname!
Whitman was one of the few rival publishers with whom Amos Press Inc. had fraternal relations. I learned that the great success of the “Red Book” was the result not just of content but of distribution. The then-owners of Whitman Publishing in Racine, Wisconsin, had a nationwide distribution network already in existence to serve such other products as Little Golden Books and the Whitman “penny boards” of an earlier generation. This network included five-and-10-cent stores, such as Woolworth’s, that were found everywhere. Wayte Raymond, on the other hand, limited distribution of his otherwise excellent titles to a very small network of what he called “established coin dealers.” Availability spelled success. Then there was the unchanging appearance. Stability was absolute for decades in number of pages, continued use of the same black-and-white halftone illustrations, and standardized descriptions.
Coin World brought home to me that many thrifty main-line collectors often failed to buy a new “Red Book” each year. This was made clear in the unfolding of a subscription-building promotion of 1970 that promised new Coin World subscribers a brand-new “Red Book” autographed by the newspaper’s whole editorial staff. The inrush was amazing: scores of subscriptions were taken out by readers who had been relying on “Red Books” eight to 10 years out of date but still in loyal and tattered use.
As a younger collector, I tried to keep up with succeeding editions, and today my own collection is extensive, though not complete. Yes, I have the 1947 edition, in a heavily used condition which a coin grader might optimistically call About Very Fine. My fourth edition of 1950 is virtually new, as are most of my “Red Books” since that time. Among my special editions is a 1974 with the cover gold-stamped, “Miami Beach International Coin Convention, January 3, 4, 5, 6, 1974, Deauville Hotel,” and a deep-maroon-cover volume distributed at the 1997 Denver ANA convention. Most imposing is the spectacular oversize, genuine leather, gold-leaved 2008 Limited Edition distributed at the Numismatic Literary Guild bash during the 2007 ANA convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The “Red Book” (sorry for the quote marks) and I go back a long way, and each copy on my shelf recalls wonderful times, places, and above all, people. Few collectibles bring with them not only an implicit history of U.S. coin collecting, but also such a wealth of warm recollection!
David T. Alexander’s recollection first appeared in A Guide Book of the Official Red Book of United States Coins by Frank J. Colletti.