Collectible Stocks and Bonds from North American Railroads     by Terry Cox

A guidebook and catalog of prices
(I neither buy nor sell stocks and bonds)

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Search the Coxrail database for descriptions of 23,700+ certificates from over 7,400 North American railroad companies.

Notes about catalog numbering

Catalog numbers look like this:

NEW-530-S-50

which represents three specific kinds of information:

NEW-530
-
S
-
50
(specific company)
 
(certificate type)
  (certificate variety)

  • My primary goal is to create a catalog that:
    • allows quick identification of certificates, and
    • allows quick discovery of collectible values.
  • My ideal is to make the numbering system as simple as possible.
  • My philosophy is to:
    • allow the numbering system to be as complex as needed to achieve my primary goal, and
    • avoid 'flyspeck' varietization.

Allow quick identification

In creating a numbering system, I made certain observations and predicted certain probabilities. All these factors affect everyday decisions in creating new varieties or including minor new certificate variations among existing catalog numbers.

  • This catalog will be used by collectors of all experience levels.
  • Advanced collectors tend to be more interested in the numbers and types of collectibles available, while beginning collectors tend to be far more interested in valuation.
  • The catalog will be used by collectors and sellers who will be greatly hurried and will therefore not be overly critical in their observations.
  • Certificates may need to be identified from less-than-ideal photographs and scans.
  • Sellers almost never describe or illustrate the backs of certificates.
  • Sellers almost never describe minor features.
  • Descriptions and understandings of colors are extremely unreliable.
  • Scanners, printers and monitors are notoriously inaccurate in reproducing odd certificate colors.
  • Information about new certificates will appear randomly.
  • Errors in descriptions are normal whether reported by amateurs or professionals.
  • Cataloging errors may not be corrected for years or decades.
  • The number of collectors in our hobby is very low compared to related collecting hobbies such as coins, stamps and paper money.
  • Collectors essentially never offer premiums for minor varieties, no matter their rarity.

Realities of the hobby

I believe most collectors want simple, easy-to-remember catalog systems for their hobbies. However, certificates were created over a period of 180 years by over 25,000 railroad companies. All had different needs, finances and customs. I suspect those companies created more than 100,000 major varieties of certificates. Minor varieties might be double that number. So far, I have cataloged over 19,000 'vaieties.'

We will never know which companies will contribute the next new discoveries. Varieties appear randomly. Therefore, I tried to design a numbering system sufficiently robust to accept tens of thousands of new certificates over a period of decades, even though I don't believe we will ever see more than five percent of the certificates ever printed.

I could have designed a very simple numbering system. Unfortunately, many collecting hobbies have been littered with "simple" cataloging systems that failed. Simple systems fail because they are unable to accommodate the complexities that develop with time and popularity. Overly simple systems tend to be overly inflexible.

Complex systems, on the other hand, normally fail to gain wide acceptance with both buyers and sellers. That is the reality I face with this project. The certificates I am attempting to catalog, by their very natures and numbers, create highly complex numbering. Catalog numbers ARE hard to remember. Even though I designed my system and have been working with it every day for twenty years, I cannot possibly remember more than handful of catalog numbers.

I fully understand that my cataloging system will never gain wide popularity, I nonetheless argue that cataloging system must recognize hobby realities. Consequently, this catalog numbering system attempts to deal with these realities:

  • Companies
    • There are large, unknown numbers of railroad companies represented by certificates.
    • Similar or identical company names are extremely common.
    • Companies changed names frequently.
    • Every company needed different kinds of certificates.
  • Certificates
    • There are large and unknown number of varieties.
    • Some companies issued many varieties of certificates and some very few.
    • An unknown percentage of certificates survive today.
    • Certificates may have been used for one-time purposes or for long-running purposes.
    • Minor differences between certificates are common.
    • Minor differences rarely attract different bids.
  • Information
    • Contributions from collectors are crucial.
    • At the time of contribution, no contributor, myself included, will know whether any particular bit of information will end up being important or trivial.
    • Information will appear randomly.

The basic concept of the numbering system

My numbering system is essentially a modification of the system that James Haxby created for his monumental catalog on United States Obsolete Bank Notes, 1782-1866 (Krause Publications, 1988, 2,702 pages in four volumes.) My numbering is comprised of three parts:

  • a code representing company names

The first part of the code represents the first three letters of company names followed by three semi-arbitrary numbers to allow logical name sorting.

  • a code representing certificate types

Although there will always be certificates that blur the boundaries. I divide railroad certificates into three categories: S = stock certificates, B = bonds, O = other.

  • a code representing specific varieties

I will discuss varietization in more detail below, but I generally create numbered varieties based by major features printed on certificates and not by features added later.

Company names

It was exceedingly common for railroad companies to re-organize in times of financial uncertainty and take on new names when they emerged from bankruptcy. By my reckoning, essentially every railroad company went through one of more name changes. It is crucial for collectors to understand that every word in corporate names was important. Variable appearances of words like 'railway', 'rail way', 'railroad' and 'rail road' commonly signaled completely different companies, and therefore completely different groups of certificates.

Even the word 'The' often signaled different incorporations and company charters, but there is no hard and fast rule. At times, it appears that the presence or absence of the word 'The' was simply left up to printers. The same goes for characters such as ampersands (&) and hyphens (-). Sometimes, single characters signaled different incorporations. Sometimes they didn't.

It is extremely common to encounter two or more companies that used identical names. When identical names are encountered, it is crucial for collectors to look for less obvious information such as states of incorporation, representations of state seals, places of issuance noted on certificates or on company seals, and secondary words such as 'The', 'Company', hyphens and other obscure evidence.

While usually named after prominent and important companies, equipment trusts create separate listing concerns. Most equipment trusts were not actually companies at all. Rather, they were independent trusts managed by banks and trust companies. Generally, equipment trusts acquired rolling stock with investors' money and then leased that equipment to like-named railroad companies. I generally catalog equipment trusts as separate entities.

With rare exception, the word 'Saint' is usually abbreviated as 'St.' in both common usage, official city purposes and on certificates. In order to keep company name listings together in the catalog, all company names that begin with the word 'Saint' are abbreviated as 'St'.

While the word 'Mount' is often abbreviated as 'Mt', the abbreviation is less common on certificates and appears to be much less common in official usage. Again, in an effort to keep similar name listings together, 'Mt' is always spelled as 'Mount' when the word begins company names.

Spanish railroad companies often named their companies beginning with words like 'Compañia' and 'Ferrocarril'. After deliberation, I decided to designate those companies with 'COM' and 'FER' to accommodate English speakers unfamiliar with decoding Spanish company names.

City names, especially those that include 'burg' or 'burgh', have varied substantially over time. Exact spellings of town and city names were much less important during the 1800s than they are today. For the purposes of this catalog, company names are spelled exactly as they appear on certificates. Different spellings of the same company name often signal different groups of certificate varieties.

Having said that, it is not at all uncommon to find company names spelled two different ways on certificates issued at the same time. In fact, it is not uncommon to find company names spelled two different ways on the same certificate.

There are numerous certificates that were printed with one company name and then altered by hand for use by a successor company. Because those certificates were used during periods of change from one company name to the next, I call them 'transitional' certificates. In a few cases, transitional certificates represent the only examples from certain companies.

The use of punctuation in railroad company names is inconsistent and highly variable on stocks and bonds. With the exception of hyphens, I ignore ALL punctuation in company names. As best I can tell, most official state corporation records also ignore all punctuation.

Certificate types

For the purposes of making it easier to find certificates, I classify certificates simply as 'stocks', 'bonds', or 'other'. Every company encountered its own financial challenges, so every company used different types of certificates and thereby created hundreds of certificates that do not fit neatly into my three simplistic categories.

Still, my primary goal remains to try to make it easy to find certificates. Therefore, I rely heavily on appearances for classification.

For instance, equipment trust certificates are usually worded very much like stock certificates. However, they closely resemble bonds. For ease of finding, I classify equipment trust certificates as 'bonds'.

Similarly, I usually classify stock trust certificates among stock certificates, even though most were actually receipts issued by receivers or committees. I am much more concerned with helping users find certificates in my catalog than I am about being precise in my definitions of certificate types.

Certificates varieties

I came to the stock and bond hobby from the paper money hobby. I can spot micro-varieties as well as anyone. However, as I stated at the top of this page, I try to avoid flyspeck varietization. I will not number every tiny, microscopic variation. I want varieties to be easily identifiable by the majority of collectors. Driving that philosophy is the inescapable fact that collectors do not currently pay premiums for minor features, regardless of rarity.

I fully recognize that many collectors enjoy searching for minor features and differences, especially those collectors that have come from coin and stamp collecting. In those hobbies, minor differences can create large premiums. Our hobby sees no such relationship. There are simply too few collectors to create demand for micro-varieties.

Deciding which minor features to "varietize" and which ones to ignore is tricky. No advanced collector would accept that certificates printed with '188_' dates are the same as those printed with '19__'. The same goes for certificates printed by American Bank Note Company versus those by Homer Lee Bank Note Company. Never mind that American Bank Note Company might have used the original production plates originally created by Homer Lee Bank Note Company.

While not a hard and fast rule, my basic desire is to group certificates into major varieties based on features that can be seen arm's length or in low-resolution images. If collectors can hold certificates and recognize them as different, then they are clearly separate varieties. The harder it is to see differences, the less inclined I am to differentiate.

I also generally create varieties based on what was originally printed on the paper. For varietization purposes, I tend to ignore anything added to certificates after printing.

One could argue that differences in trust and transfer company names should make for separate varieties. This is a very gray area. Most trust/transfer company names are very small and hard to read in ordinary photographs. They also changed very, very frequently. In some companies, creating micro-varieties based on trust/transfer company names might add 20 to 30 new numbers.

Admittedly, differences between trust/transfer company names can sometimes be seen at arm's length. In fact, trust/transfer company names are so large on certificates of the Cleveland & Toledo Rail-Road that they literally cannot be missed. On most certificates, though, trust/transfer company names are too small to read unless certificates are in hand. To date, only a handful of contributors have ever asked for sub-varieties to be created based upon these markings. I suspect collectors have proven reluctant to argue for additional varietization because they realize there are no differences in prices.

The final step in the issuance of many stocks and bonds in the 1800s involved the application of colored paper seals. It is tempting to include such obvious features as variety designations, especially on otherwise plain certificates. However, the colors of paper seals were meaningless. Paper seals merely completed issuance. It made no difference whether seals pulled from drawers were green or red, shiny or dull, scalloped or circular.

It may seem inconsistent, then, that I forcibly argue that some markings made to stock certificates during issuance should constitute separate varieties. I make these arguments only for a very narrowly focused group of certificates.

There are a small number of certificates that were altered by hand, rubber-stamp or typewriter before, during or after issuance. These alterations generally affect par values, capitalizations or corporate names. Such alterations were purposeful and reflected official corporate changes. I reason that if companies had had the time and money, they would have reprinted certificates with every change. Corporate budgets demanded they change less frequently. (The Little Miami Railroad changed its certificates many times, but it was an odd exception to the rule.)

I have a special page dedicated to listing the various types of hand alterations you might encounter. That page clearly explains which features I find important.

The relationship of pricing and varieties

By looking at this and other collectible hobbies, I think we can accept a few observations about varietization:

  • pricing follows popularity
  • popularity increases with the number of average collectors attracted to a hobby
  • micro-varieties become important only when prices achieve elevated levels

Our hobby is very young. With the exceptions of select autographed certificates, prices are extremely low relative to rarity. Pricing represents opinions of collectors. Prices clearly prove average collectors do not currently care about flyspeck, varietal differences.

At some time in the future, collectors might look back on this period and wonder why we didn't notice or record subtle varieties. While I can appreciate that view from the future, I exist in this time period. I cannot ignore the fact that collectors do not pay for minor varietal differences AT THIS TIME.

Do I classify certificates that SHOULD exist, but are as yet unknown?

I do not. I list certificates only when definite proof of their existences emerge.

Coupons occasionally appear for sale that came from bonds that no longer seem to exist. I will not catalog such items until bond are confirmed to exist. If certificates are not known to collectors, how could anyone consider them 'collectible?'

In a similar vein, old Poor's and Moody's catalogs could help us identify thousands of additional certificate issuances. Those references, of course, tell us nothing about extinct certificate designs. While Haxby assigned catalog numbers to paper money not known to survive, I choose not to.

I will gladly catalog them when they appear and become collectible.

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(Last updated September 22, 2012)

 

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