U.S. Coins

A Curious Character

Published April 2, 2024 | 5 min read

By David McCarthy

The coins struck between the close of the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the Philadelphia Mint in 1792 are among my favorite U.S. issues, largely because we have so much left to learn about them. Post-Revolutionary coinage was struck before any sort of national monetary system was established. Solving its mysteries can offer us insights into not only the development of coinage in the United States, but also into a period when ideas like decimal coinage and a national mint were still open to debate. 

Many of the coins issued by non-governmental entities at the time defy easy categorization. Researchers do find new and useful information about post-Revolutionary coinage from time to time. However, the significance of these new discoveries can easily be overlooked.

The Standish Barry Threepence

The Standish Barry threepence is a perfect example. Although collectors enjoyed these pieces as early as the 1860s, little effort was made to understand them. Sylvester Crosby had the following to say about them in 1875:

A curious little silver token of which we have no history, is supposed to have made an appearance in Baltimore Maryland, in 1790. It is apparently a private issue, by Standish Barry, and represents the value of three pence. A curious feature in this token is the preciseness of its date—July 4 90.; Whether any special celebration of the anniversary of American independence was observed in 1790, is unknown to us.

Crosby’s explanation was little more than a description. For the next 135 years, our understanding of these pieces hardly changed. Then, in 2009, numismatist Max Spiegel discovered a news item in a June 3, 1843, article in the Baltimore Sun. It describes the discovery of a Standish Barry threepence at a construction site. It reports that workers had discovered a silver coin,

…bearing the inscription on one side, “Baltimore Town, July 4th, 1790,” with an impression of a head, said to be that of Mr. Calhoun, then commissioner of the town, being an office corresponding to that of Mayor.

Spiegel’s discovery led to a pair of articles. The first appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of the C4 Newsletter, and the second in the April 2010 issue of the Colonial Newsletter. Prior to these publications, most numismatists had presumed that the bust on Barry’s threepence depicts George Washington. However, the Baltimore Sun identified the portrait as James Calhoun. Spiegel’s comparison of three portraits of Calhoun with the image on the coin was compelling. Additionally, his discovery that Barry and Calhoun attended the same church seemed to clinch the matter.

Unfortunately, a deep dive into Calhoun’s life suggests that his appearance on a coin or token in 1790 is highly unlikely. Although he had achieved a measure of success as a Baltimore by the time Barry’s threepence pieces were struck, he had yet to become a public figure. Calhoun’s first significant position was as Justice of the Orphans’ Court in 1791.

A Possible Pattern

However, the Baltimore Sun article led Spiegel to uncover the significance of “July 4 90.” Spiegel’s second article identifies the date as that of Thomas Jefferson’s “Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States.” He does not definitively conclude that Barry’s threepence was struck in conformity to Jefferson’s report. However, a close comparison between the weight of Barry’s coins and Jefferson’s proposed dollar is impossible to ignore.

Jefferson called for a dollar of a little over 410gr of .9167-fine silver. In 1790 the dollar was valued at 96 pence in Maryland, so 1/96 of a Jeffersonian dollar would weigh 4.2725gr, yielding a threepence of 12.8175gr. The average weight of a Standish Barry threepence is 12.77gr, a barely measurable deviation from Jefferson’s standard. This suggests that Spiegel’s speculation that “Standish Barry intended them to be pattern coins minted to conform to Jefferson’s July 4, 1790 standard” is almost certainly the correct analysis of the available information.

A version of this article appears in the May 2024 issue of The Numismatist (money.org).