Olin Library’s newly completed Newman Tower of Collections and Exploration spotlights objects from Washington University’s Julian Edison Department of Special Collections as well as loaned artifacts and exhibits curated by students and faculty.
Materials in the current Money Exhibit are part of the Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society collection. Once displayed in the now-closed Newman Money Museum (formerly housed in the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum), this collection features items from Eric Newman’s extensive coin collection.
Eric Newman Expanding the Study of Currency
Eric Newman was a leading scholar in numismatics, or the study of currency. He wrote many books and scholarly papers on the topic, and was an avid collector of rare coins and bills. In 2013, four years before his death at the remarkable age of 106, Newman sold many of his most prized collectors’ items, including a 1776 silver dollar minted by the Continental Congress, a 1792 penny with a silver center, and a set of five 1913 Liberty Head nickels, for more than 72 million dollars and gave most of the proceeds to the Newman Numismatic Education Society he had formed in 1959. This society has funded the formation of the Newman Numismatic Portal, an extensive online resource created at Washington University in St. Louis to fulfill Newman’s stated goal to “make the literature and images of numismatics, particularly American numismatics, available to everyone on a free and forever basis.”
The Making of Money
The first known coins were struck from the precious metal electrum in Asia Minor during the 7th century BCE, and their minting process remains largely unchanged today. The portion of the Eric P. Newman Numismatic Collection currently on display in the Newman Tower contains a number of fascinating items related to the creation of currency like planchets, coinage dies, and printing plates.
To make a standard coin, a coinage die (pictured below) is placed in a screw press, which strikes a design onto a metal disk called a planchet (above). A different piece of equipment called a casting machine is used to put designs or words on the edge of a coin. Printing designs on the edge of a coin deters counterfeiting and makes it difficult to shave bits of precious metal from the edges of the coin.
Coinage dies and printing plates are incised in reverse so that the printed bills will show the desired image. Retired plates are scratched to prevent them from being used by unauthorized parties.
Decay of Money
We don’t normally think of the money we use as having a limited lifespan, but as you may imagine, paper currency can only last so long before it is too crumpled and torn to be used. The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing makes “paper” money out of starched cotton and linen that is more durable than regular paper, but bills still only last, on average, for 400 passes between people. This amounts to an average of 4-6 years for more common bills ($1, $5, $10), and up to 15 years for the less commonly exchanged $100 bill. The average lifespan of a coin is much longer, ranging from 30-40 years.
Federal Reserve banks retire worn or damaged currency by shredding it. These shreds are then either composted, recycled, sold as souvenirs, or burned in waste-to-energy incinerators. On average, 6 billion bills are destroyed each year.
If you are interested in learning more about currency used in the United States, including older state currencies that predate the formation of our nation, the Newman Numismatic Portal is an excellent resource. We also encourage you to come see our Money Exhibit in the Newman Tower to learn more about how money is made and to see portions of Newman’s collection for yourself.
McFadden, Robert D. “Eric Newman, Whose Coins Told of America’s History, Dies at 106.” The New York Times, 16 Nov. 2017.