Exploring connections between the U.S. and East Asia through the Howard F. Bowker Numismatic Collection

By Ellen Feingold
Gold coin featuring a fierce image of a dragon. Its eyes make eye contact with the viewer. Its body is snake-like. It looks angry. Text: "Szechuen Province."

Imagine a 1,000-square-foot room holding thousands of tiny records of the past. You would probably assume such a room was part of a museum or library. But American collector Howard F. Bowker built a room like this in his California home. He filled it with more than 10,000 historic East Asian coins, banknotes, and stamps, as well as an extensive library that helped him study and interpret his large numismatic and philatelic collections. Earlier this year, Bowker's family donated a portion of his holdings to our National Numismatic Collection. This donation presents an ideal opportunity to explore what numismatic objects can reveal about the historic trade and technological connections between the United States and East Asia.

Bowker's passion for collecting and documenting East Asian history, culture, and art started when he was stationed as a U.S. naval officer in Hànkǒu, Hubei Province, China, following the conclusion of World War I. His extensive personal archive shows that he developed a sustained commitment not only to collecting, but also to conducting new research on the economic and social history of the region and sharing it with an international network of scholars and collectors.

Bowker's private collection ranged from some of the earliest Chinese media of exchange, including spades, bridge money, and knife money from the 5th century BCE to an impressive variety of both common and rare medieval, early modern, and modern Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Filipino coins. Together, these objects present great research potential to both ancient and modern historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists who examine modes and patterns of exchange, circulation, cultural interaction and representation, coin production methods, and metallurgy.

What is so exciting about Bowker's collection is that it not only documents the development of economic and cultural exchange in East Asia, but also contains objects that show how coins and minting technology helped cultivate connections between the U.S. and Asia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China sought to set up provincial mints and produce struck coinage en masse, but it did not have the technical capabilities to manufacture the necessary minting equipment. Representatives of private overseas firms, including American firms, traveled to China and worked with Chinese officials to design, manufacture, and export minting equipment for multiple Chinese mints. Americans even engraved designs for some of China's most iconic modern coins from that period. For example, the Ferracute Machine Company of Bridgeton, New Jersey, worked with U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber to produce brass gilt proof pattern coins for the Sìchuān province around 1902. These coins feature a commanding dragon design and have both English and Chinese characters. A set of these coins were held in the Ferracute Company archive for half a century before they were given to Howard F. Bowker by the president of the Ferracute Company as a gift in the 1950s.

The brass gilt Sìchuān coins are among the more than 380 Bowker Collection objects that the Howard F. Bowker family has donated to the National Numismatic Collection. These new acquisitions, as well as all of the National Numismatic Collection's East Asian coins (more than 10,000 in total), will soon be digitized and available for study online and for consultation in the National Numismatic Collection's new Howard F. Bowker Research Room. A selection of these objects are also on display in the New Acquisitions case within The Value of Money. We hope that by making these objects available to researchers and museum visitors, they will serve as an international resource for the study of East Asian and U.S. history—as well as a reminder of the power of numismatic objects to connect people and their cultures across space and time.

Ellen R. Feingold is curator of the National Numismatic Collection.