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American Copies of British School Medals
Feb. 26, 2009
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Most of the medal collectors I know started as coin collectors, but gravitated to medallic items for any of several reasons - the generally stronger historical connections, higher quality of design and artistic expression, lower cost to acquire much rarer pieces, better condition specimens and/or the almost infinite design variety. Indeed, on the point on variety, it is nearly impossible to find two different medals of exactly the same design.
A few common design themes often recur, such as specific monarchs' busts, the seated allegorical figure of Liberty (or Britannia) with an arm outstretched, Athena offering a wreath as a symbol of achievement, or the draped standing woman weeping next to a funeral monument. The design details on various medals are usually very different, however, reflecting the unique artistic expression of the individual die engraver.
During my three decades of collecting school award medals, though, I've come across a handful of mid-nineteenth century American school medals that appear to be direct, intentional copies of commercially produced British award medals. At the time of the industrial revolution, when the steam presses in Birmingham were churning out all manner of historical, commemorative and award medals, it was customary in both British and American schools for teachers to award their best students with either paper or medallic "rewards of merit".
This custom is extensively described and beautifully illustrated in the book Rewards of Merit, by my friend Al Malpa and Patricia Fenn (Ephemera Society of America, 1994). While many of these paper rewards and medals were produced for specific schools and some were even uniquely hand engraved for a specific student, many others were stock items that could be purchased from a local bookseller or other merchant by a teacher to give to his or her best students.
It is clear that some of these stock medals were produced in Birmingham specifically for export to the American market, for example the award medals by Joseph Davis showing Washington (Baker 349-351 and 353) and Franklin (Greenslet GM-57). You may not be surprised, then, that enterprising Americans copied these British exports just as American entrepreneurs copied the metalwork, pottery, textiles and other British manufactures exported to the American market.
While it is possible that the British designs copied American originals, as seems to be the case with Thomason's copy of C.C. Wright's Erie Canal medal, I believe it is much more likely that Americans copied the British originals and offered them as cheaper alternatives for American teachers than the British imports.
Figure 1 shows a white metal medal (38mm) signed by Davis from about 1850, with a nearly identical medal (41mm) signed "Bridgens N. York" below it. The reverse lettering and details of the wreath are somewhat different, and Bridgens has added "School Boy" under the figure just in case his audience didn't get the idea, but everything else is nearly identical - the boy reading his book, with his bag and slate propped against the door of the "School", the beehive signifying industry and the temple of fame on the hilltop in the background signifying the ultimate reward of diligent effort.
Joseph Davis and Charles and William H. Bridgens were roughly contemporaries. Davis was active in Birmingham, England from about 1830 to 1860 and the Bridgens' operated on William Street in New York from about 1850 to 1870. As an aside, there is a girl's version of the Davis medal, showing a young girl in a dress sitting on a chair facing right, but I have not seen a girl's version of the Bridgens medal.
Figure 2 shows another Davis knock-off, this time by F.B. Smith, also of New York. The medal on top is a copper version signed by Davis (38mm), showing a girl praying, with part of the first line from the Lord's Prayer as the legend, "Our Father Which Art in Heaven", from the King James version of the Bible (Luke: 11, 2 and Matthew: 6,9). The white metal version below (34mm) uses the more American "...Who Art in Heaven" and is signed "F. B. Smith F." (for "fecit", Latin for "made it").
Note that the reverse is identical to the boy's version of this medal signed by Smith, shown at the bottom of Figure 3. From 1835 to 1848, Smith was a partner of Joseph Bale, who in turn had been partnered with C.C. Wright prior to that. Smith was later partnered with a Hartmann and then Horst, but in between these partnerships was on his own for a short time, I believe.
Figure 3 shows three white metal versions of essentially the same design, two of which are copies. The two medals at the top are both British and nearly identical, the first (45mm) signed by Allen & Moore and was probably made about 1840-1860. The second (also 45mm) signed by Fenwick, but he was active much later in the nineteenth century, roughly around 1890. Both signatures can be found at the bottom of the folio leaning against the stool. The F.B. Smith version at the bottom of the photo (34mm) is from roughly 1850 and has the identical central device on the obverse, but Smith has changed the placement of the legend and eliminated the ornate border on the obverse and used a different reverse design.
Figure 4 shows two nearly identical white metal medals, the main difference being the use of the words "Sunday" versus "Sabbath" in the reverse legend and the inverted legend on the obverse. The medal at the top (34mm) is not signed and was purchased from an American dealer, so could be American. The medal at the bottom (35mm) is signed "Merriam" on both obverse and reverse, referring to either Joseph H. or George H. Merriam of Boston, who were active from about 1850 to 1870.
One of the things I most dislike about coin collecting is the fixation on dates and die varieties - I mean, who cares which way the "s" slants on a particular half dime - and I certainly don't mean to take us down that path. But I think it's interesting to observe that some medals were clearly commercial products and, just as with other commercial products which achieved success in the marketplace, someone copied them and undercut the price. So it was with a few school award medals in the mid-nineteenth century.
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