Q. David Bowers, Hard Times Tokens, and the Art of Numismatic Writing

January 8, 2015 By ekr


by Dennis Tucker, Whitman Publishing



If you’re a longtime coin collector, as I am, you’ve probably read quite a few works by Q. David Bowers. After all, he’s been writing in the field of numismatics since the 1950s, he published his first book (Coins and Collectors) in 1964, his list of titles has surpassed four dozen, and his articles and columns number in the thousands. Yes, the thousands. Dave’s scope ranges from American colonial coins to modern-day Proofs, from ten-cent tokens to ten-million-dollar rarities. On top of that his prose is featured in various parts of the Guide Book of United States Coins (the hobby’s best-selling “Red Book,” with more than 23 million copies in print since 1946). So if you’ve been collecting coins, tokens, medals, or paper money for more than a year or two and you’ve never read a word of Bowers, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you’re rarer than an 1804 dollar! The bad news is you’re missing out on a full and complete hobby experience. Fortunately the solution is never far away, thanks to your local bookstore, the library, and the Internet.

I spoke with Mr. Q. David Bowers for the first time soon after I joined Whitman Publishing in December 2004. I was in the company’s Atlanta headquarters and Dave was in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where he does most of his writing. At the time he was already Whitman’s numismatic director. I had grown up, numismatically speaking, reading Bowers books and articles, so it was quite an honor for this recently minted numismatic publisher to be speaking with a legend as a colleague. “Call me Dave,” he said. “Everybody does. If you insist on calling me ‘Mr. Bowers’ I’ll call you ‘Mr. Tucker’!”

Dave and I have talked or emailed nearly every day since that first phone call. Over these ten years we’ve worked on books ranging from 96-page monographs to 900-page encyclopedias. His productivity is amazing. One of the most frequent questions I hear from collectors is, “How does Dave Bowers write so many books?” The process is remarkable to observe.

First of all, you need to know that he’s been writing for more than 50 years. Perhaps writing isn’t the best word; it’s too constrictive, too narrow. Producing? Creating? What Dave does is multi-faceted and immersive, more long-range than the simple physical act of sitting down at a desk and putting pen to paper (to use an old-fashioned expression). The bedrock of his system is the Bowers archives. Long before the Internet, Dave was compiling a personal library and research center of books, newspapers, magazine clippings and snippets, and other resources—anything and everything numismatic. He read and studied decades’ worth of old periodicals the likes of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and made note of everything relating to American coins, tokens, paper money, general and specific economic conditions, the intricacies of day-to-day bank operations, interesting financial-sector goings-on, Mint procedures, Treasury gossip, and more. (Again, this exercise was before Google searches, online book archives, and other modern conveniences. It has developed, or least strengthened, what I suspect is a photographic memory combined with instant recall.) Starting in the mid-1950s Dave began interviewing key figures in numismatics—B. Max Mehl, Abe Kosoff, Stephen Nagy, Robert Botsford, U.S. Mint directors from Rae Biester to date, and hundreds more, gaining knowledge that would have otherwise been lost forever. As technology has advanced, so has the Bowers research machine. Historical images that he earlier had to clip, photograph, or photocopy can now be scanned and saved digitally in high resolution. Instead of having to travel to faraway museums and archives, email and the Internet put him in a hundred places at once, with instant communications.

This brings up another important factor in how Dave Bowers works: collaboration. “To have a friend, you must be a friend,” as the proverb goes. Over a career spanning decades, Dave Bowers has built a reputation as a researcher who generously shares information instead of jealously guarding it. His network has grown strong from this. Today, when a numismatist gets an email or phone call saying, “This is Dave. I’m working on a new book about [fill in the blank], and was wondering if you have any images, die varieties, new research, or other information to share?” the answer is nearly always an enthusiastic “Yes!” He knows all of the museum curators, all of the Treasury and Mint officers, all of the historians, the collectors, the dealers, the auctioneers, researchers, archivists, and aficionados who make numismatics a vibrant and living American science. He goes out of his way to share his knowledge with them when they need help. In return they share their own specialized insight—and Dave absorbs and synthesizes it as only he can, to bring to his readers.

Another element of the Bowers method is a constant and never-resting spirit of inquiry that spans genres, disciplines, and fields. Dave is as curious a student of current Presidential dollars as he is of Massachusetts colonial silver and pre–Federal Reserve bank notes. He wrote a book on gold dollars minted from 1849 to 1889. He wrote another on State quarters that your kids can collect from pocket change today. Not to mention a massive study of pre-1916 American motion pictures . . . the definitive reference on automatic and coin-operated music machines . . . a monumental history of the California Gold Rush . . . an illustrated monograph on Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. . . . an exploration of the American bison in popular culture. His subjects run up and down the Dewey Decimal system. The breadth and depth of Dave’s intellectual curiosity and study bring to mind President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote at a 1962 gathering of Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Add to these elements a genuinely engaging writing style; the ability to connect with and satisfy readers; a scientist’s ability to rigorously test theories and fearlessly question conventional wisdom; a technician’s grasp of information design and user interface; and an artist’s knack of seeing the whole before the parts are assembled.

All of these moving parts came together in the Guide Book of Hard Times Tokens, which will debut at the Whitman Baltimore Expo in March 2015. The foundation of Dave’s manuscript was the research he’d been gathering for many years: biographies of die engravers, histories of issuing firms, narratives about the political personalities involved; plus his observations on the market and collector activities, from several decades’ perspective; and images gathered over the course of his career. He called upon friends and colleagues in the field: Steve Hayden volunteered his database of more than 18,000 public auction records and advised on retail pricing and rarity ratings; Evelyn Mishkin and others read early drafts to pick out typos and offer feedback; various collectors and dealers offered photographs to supplement Dave’s voluminous personal archive; historians at the American Numismatic Association, the American Numismatic Society, and other organizations pitched in as needed. At Whitman Publishing our design team planned the book’s look and feel, and our editorial staff worked with Dave to fine-tune the manuscript and marshal its million details. Over the course of several months this huge project was given its legs to stand on, and it took off running.

As the Guide Book of Hard Times Tokens was under way, Dave was also actively working on manuscripts about obsolete paper money, Civil War tokens, 19th-century advertising shell cards, and several other topics. “I like to work on projects in parallel,” he always tells me. When he gets bored with one he’ll turn to another, which somehow charges his batteries so he can return to the first refreshed. A normal person would simply get tired, but the inimitable QDB is actually energized by work.

So there are some of my behind-the-scenes perspectives on the Dean of American Numismatics. When ambitious young writers ask me, “How can I become the next Q. David Bowers?” the answer is simple. All it takes is an insatiable curiosity about the world, a steel-trap mind, the ability to connect a hundred different disciplines logically and with panache, a vast network of friendly collaborators whose respect hasn’t been bought or beguiled but earned, an untiring work ethic, and 50 years of experience. Start early. The encouraging news is that if you accomplish even one-half of Bowers’s output, you’ll have earned a secure place in the numismatic history books.


Dennis Tucker

Publisher, Whitman Publishing, LLC

Atlanta, Georgia
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