Big Dreams Have Small Beginnings:
My Early Experiences With Coins
My friends at Whitman Publishing in Atlanta are working on a new book on collecting the various editions of A Guide Book of United States Coins (referred to in this article as the Guide Book), and which you may know as the “Red Book.” The Guide Book is popularly called the “Red Book” due to the color of the cover, although the earliest books were actually more of a burgundy. In any case, the nickname “Red Book” has stuck. This new volume about the Guide Book will be authored by Frank J. Colletti, with a forward by Ken Bressett, editor of the book for many years. I’m a current contributor to the Guide Book, and Mr. Colletti contacted contributors both past and present for our recollections. I picked my earliest recollection, dating from the mid-1950s, a portion of which I’ll share with you.
In the 1950s, my father Maynard Sundman was frequently visited by dealers from New York City and Boston, who would drive to New Hampshire to visit and hopefully to sell coins. My father liked mixtures, and Littleton often sold mixtures of tokens and medals in cigar box assortments to our customers. We had some regular suppliers of these, as well as U.S. and world coins. Usually mixtures were sold unsorted, but sometimes we’d break them down by categories, and retail the better individual coins. They would range from low-denomination base metal foreign coins, to tokens of the world, with some U.S. tossed in as well, principally Hard Times tokens and Civil War cents, often damaged or well worn. Sometime around 1956 or so, accompanying my dad one weekend to work at our then small family stamp and coin business, I came to really appreciate the Guide Book and the importance of reading it – or at least recalling images of its contents, if not actual values. Being curious, I liked to rummage through the mixtures my father had just purchased as it was really a treasure hunt. You never knew what you would discover. Even if the values were low, the coins and tokens were really interesting, and it was educational to see which ones I could identify. It also was a source of pride to an eight year old when I made a “discovery.”
My treasured (1792) Undated Washington Born Virginia token, and listing in 1956 Guide Book
One particular Saturday morning while I was plowing through a pile of coins from one of these mixtures, I recognized a U.S. token I thought was better – as it was listed in the Guide Book. It was a (1792) Undated WASHINGTON BORN VIRGINIA cent in Fine condition (currently listed on page 78 of the Guide Book.) At the time it cataloged for $75 but in actuality would have sold for more. This was my first good coin “find.” In hindsight, this really got me excited about coins and doubtless instilled a desire to follow in my father’s profession someday. As an eight year old, the idea of finding valuable coins was quite exciting (and still is)! Partly as encouragement to ensure we went to work with him, and partly so we stayed out of our mother’s hair on Saturdays, my father would pay my brother Rick and later Don (born 1954) and I ten percent of the Guide Book value for any better coins that we found in our searches. So the WASHINGTON BORN VIRGINIA cent coin represented a $7.50 “finder’s fee” to me, which was then a small fortune – representing more than a year’s supply of comic books!
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s when silver coins still circulated, Rick and I would support our comic book habit by finding good coins searching bag upon bag of dimes, quarters, halves, and even silver dollars. Dad would go to the bank and bring home the coins. After the dishes and our homework were done, we would clear off the dining room table and go to work. In particular, I can remember going through Mercury Head and Roosevelt dimes. Our business always had a ready supply of dimes at hand, because my father’s advertisements featured 10 cent offers. In those days you could really find almost all the dates of Mercury dimes in change or in bags available at the bank. Although I never found a 1916-D, I do remember finding quite a few 1921 and 21-D Mercs. In 1958 the 12th edition of the Guide Book listed the 1921 at $3.00 in Good and the 1921-D at $4.50 in Good, which we valued at 3 1/2 or 4 1/2 comic books, which cost 10 cents each back then! This meant a “finder’s fee” of 30 to 45 cents for each of us if we found those better dates – which might happen once or twice in an evening’s search of many thousands of coins, so we could buy quite a few comic books. Not only were we happy, but Dad was happy too as we provided him with another source of coins he could offer our Littleton Coin mail order customers.
Over the years, as I watched the value of the WASHINGTON BORN VIRGINIA cent increase from $75.00 to $90.00 to $120.00 etc., I always regretted selling that coin. Many years later I decided I would buy an example for my own small collection. Whenever I look at it today, I recall the one I found so many years ago and its listing in the Guide Book. It brings back many pleasant memories of working with my father “when I was just a kid,” and is a good reminder of how big dreams often have small beginnings. Today our firm has hundreds of thousands of customers, and employs a full-time staff of over 350 people. We are a respected, major employer in our town of six thousand inhabitants. Mention Littleton, New Hampshire, to coin collectors, and they immediately will say: “Isn’t that the home of Littleton Coin Company?” The most pleasurable thing is that my father lived to see the growth in the business he started. I am sure he knew he was smart to pay his three sons for their “finds,” as it made both the hobby and the business appealing and rewarding on many levels.
Littleton Coin Company now employs over 350 area residents
Today, Littleton Coin has an outstanding numismatic library which we make use of in both publishing our various catalogs and evaluating collections. My early coin “finds,” using knowledge gained from the Guide Book and other sources, reinforced in me the value of having a good coin and bank note reference library – which I have carefully built over the years. It also has encouraged me to support those who do research, which we’re pleased to do through sponsorship of the Maynard Sundman/Littleton Coin Co. Lecture Series – as part of the Numismatic Theatre at the ANA’s annual World’s Fair of Money held each August. In a small way, this assists in providing a platform for those who produce top quality numismatic research for the benefit of all collectors.
As a result of building my numismatic library, I also found that I enjoyed collecting old and new books and catalogs about coins, bank notes, medals and tokens, etc. And this led to my joining the Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS) many years ago. For those of you who like numismatic books, dealer catalogs, auction catalogs, etc. and reading all manner of stories about them, I highly recommend the NBS. Membership is open to all who value numismatic books, and enjoy collecting the same. Many top numismatists are members and it is a bargain, one of most affordable things in numismatics.
The Numismatic Bibliomania Society is a non-profit organization promoting numismatic literature. Membership includes a year’s subscription to the publication The Asylum (these book collectors have a sense of humor!), and is only $15 per year for standard mail delivery of The Asylum to addresses in the U.S., $20 for First Class delivery to addresses in the U.S., and $25 elsewhere. For those without web access, you can send your membership check to me at the address below. Include your e-mail address if you have one, and please tell me if you are a Littleton Coin Company customer.
David M. Sundman, Secretary/Treasurer
Numismatic Bibliomania Society
P. O. Box 82
Littleton, NH 03561
Please see the NBS website for more information. A membership application is also available. To join, print the application and return it with your check to the address on the application, which is the same as above.