This article appeared in
December, 2012

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Loving the Hobby

I think it was in the late 1950s when the wonderful steel plate engravings on U.S. currency first attracted my attention. I remembered marveling at the incredible details, all created from thin lines. Under a microscope, I realized that some details were not entirely created by the lines themselves, but completed by my own imagination. How did they do that? What incredible skill!

Following that discovery, I participated in several collecting hobbies, but never strayed far from paper. Especially paper money. Fractional currency. Confederate currency. National currency. Educational notes. Military payment certificates. Souvenir cards. Columbian Exposition tickets. I loved them all.

But what exactly was it I enjoyed so much? I loved the history. No doubt about that. Every new tidbit of knowledge increased my overall enjoyment. But there were more visceral factors. I loved the feel of paper. I loved the feel of ink on paper. I didn’t know it at the time, but I even loved the smell of old paper. I loved holding century-old pieces of paper that were as crisp as they were on the days they were printed. But, curiously, I think I loved the worn and torn notes carried by steel workers and coal miners every bit as much. Even the imagined histories of counterfeits, passed on the streets of Chicago and Pittsburgh and Boston, came alive when they passed through my hands.

After fifteen or twenty years, my eventual encounter with stocks and bonds had become inevitable. By that time, I had become involved in economic geology, so mining certificates were a natural interest. Nonetheless, there was something about railroad certificates that appealed to me even more. Even today, I can’t really say why that would be. Yes, I worked as a geologist for a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Corporation, but involvement with the railroad was minimal. Besides, I had already written a book about mining history.

Regardless of the attraction, that path has since brought immense enjoyment. While personally a rather haphazard collector, I thankfully get to see and record essentially every North American railroad certificate ever encountered. I love it! And I can’t really express the terrific enjoyment of dealing with collectors who love their certificates as much as I do. What an unbelievable gift!

Writing articles like this allows me the selfish pleasure of trying to quantify exactly what it is that I enjoy so much about the hobby. After five-plus decades of involvement with paper, I still enjoy steel plate engravings as much as I did in the 1950s. But, then, I also enjoy crude woodcuts and soft, fuzzy lithographs, too. I enjoy certificates that were transitional from one company name to another. I enjoy plain jane, generic certificates with handwritten corporate names. I enjoy certificates signed by Thomas Durant and Jay Gould. I enjoy certificates with serial number 1 and I enjoy certificates that represent controlling interest in companies.

No, I don’t own many of those kinds of items. I know it’s very weird to say, but I get subdued pleasure out of actually those terrific certificates. Rather, it is the appreciation that drives me.

Oh, sure, I get thrills out of owning peculiar sorts of things, many of which would mean little to other collectors. For instance, I recently acquired a bond from a German dealer friend strictly for its underprint. Yes! No kidding. I bought it for its underprint! You see, I once paid $25 to rescue a lithograph stone from service as a door stop in a Denver antique store. The stone had been carved by hand to print a $500 denomination on some kind of bond. (A picture of the stone appears on page 11 of my catalog.) It took me thirty-two years to find the matching underprint on a bond. As fate would have it, it appeared on a railroad bond! The bond is not terribly rare but now has great value. To me.

Another interesting find is a dreadfully common 10-share certificate from the Pennsylvania Railroad worth $2 or $3 at best. For whatever reason, I enjoy the fact that it has 32 rubber stamp impressions on the back recording dividend requests by Credit Suisse over a period of 15 years. What is so important about that? Nothing. I just enjoy the touchable access to arcane financial history. Now I need to discover how much the value of shares varied over that period.

I will conclude by re-stating the obvious. “Love is where you find it.” I’m not going to get sappy or sentimental about it, but I feel compelled to confess to a few hundred of my closest hobby friends that I really do love this hobby. I hope you do, too.