A 1926d Lincoln like this one, maybe? Miss Ederle didn’t depart from New York until June, so there was probably time for a penny like this one to have worked its way from Denver out to the coast. (In those days, pennies travelled further, both geographically and in terms of buying power.)
The most numerous Denver-mint cent since 1920, before the collapse of the postwar boom, this 1926d cent was coined into America’s “Roaring Twenties.” Skirts were short, 50 million people listened to the radio, and a penny like this one would buy a Marlboro cigarette....
Maybe a lucky sixpence or a lucky penny was involved, or maybe not, but on August 6, 1926, Trudy Ederle walked ashore after a successful cross-Channel swim (the first by a woman) and was met by a British official who asked for her passport.
After her triumph—she had swum the English Channel faster than anyone before her—Trudy went to Germany to visit the branch of the Ederle family who lived in the vicinity of Stuttgart. They would have had plenty to talk about. Trudy’s swim, of course. But maybe too the terrible inflation of just a few years before would have been mentioned, as well as the fact that Germany and her mark were definitely making a comeback.
And probably the family hospitality would have been so complete that there was no chance to spend money and get coins in change for a day or so, but surely on the way there or on the way back, Trudy or a travelling companion would have come across a coin denominated in Rentenpfennig.
Maybe the odd denomination rang a bell—“so this was what they were talking about”—or maybe not, but I’d expect that a coin similar to this Stuttgart-mint 50-rentenpfennig found its way into a purse or a pocket for the ocean trip home….
But she had also been to Paris before her swim, and surely—despite the near-universal need to leave all one’s money in that irresistible city—well, maybe a “Chamber of Commerce” 2-franc piece like this one dated 1925 was insignificant enough to escape to Cherbourg, and the sea….
But it was 1926 when Trudy Ederle passed through town, and time had run out on the LMU. In two short years, of course, time would also run out on the old franc itself (after a fashion, anyway, as the franc Germinal gave way to the franc Poincaré).
But I’m sure these things didn’t much concern Miss Ederle or her handlers—there was too much to do.
Miss Ederle departed Cherbourg—again aboard Berengaria—and sailed for home, arriving in New York on 27 August 1926. It was a Friday. Mayor Jimmy Walker was there to greet her and there was a tremendous parade, a real hero’s welcome.
Gertrude Ederle lived a long time. (Until 2003, as a matter of fact.) And while I certainly don’t know what numismatic souvenirs she may or may not actually have gathered and taken back with her aboard Berengaria that late summer of 1926, the idea that they might have included a lucky sixpence makes me a little sad.
Marital good luck is said to be the sixpence’s specialty—by Americans too—and Miss Gertrude Ederle, who lived 98 years and was just 20 when she swam the English Channel, never did marry….
In late September ’29, Berengaria embarked Ramsay MacDonald—the first British Prime Minister to visit the United States—for his voyage to New York (on his way to Washington DC).
Many of the Prime Minister’s shipmates were Americans returning home from Europe. A lot of the coins they were carrying back to the States were from the European countries they had visited on business or on vacation, of course, but I find it difficult not to think that at least a few of the coins they had were Buffalo nickels like the one below, dated 1929.
We’ve already talked here about Buffalo nickels as offhand gifts. And back in the days when a single 5-cent piece could buy a telephone call, or a postage stamp that would send a letter overseas, tip a shoeshine boy, buy a bottle of soda pop or a candy bar for a restless child, or buy a newspaper for an adult with time to kill—well, it made real sense to toss a two-dollar (40-coin) roll of nickels into the bag you were packing.
And to also be sure that at least some of the nickels were saved for the trip home….
The American Twenties were a go-go decade almost to the end. But end they did, with a Crash.
Berengaria was at sea, on her way to New York, when the bottom dropped out of the stock market in October, 1929. As the story goes, some of the Americans who got on board the luxury liner in Europe as prosperous men and women, disembarked in New York as poor people.
The slang expression varies, but one common way of expressing personal poverty is to say “I don’t have two nickels to rub together.” Another way of putting it—older, probably—is to say “I don’t have two cents [or “pennies”] to rub together.”
The Indian Head cent was still in American pockets in October 1929—and of course more would reappear in circulation as the Depression deepened and families needed every stray coin—but as passengers got off Berengaria into the new world of post-Crash America, “Wheat” cents like these were more likely the pennies people were counting….
In the meantime there were still stories to read of far-away places, and of ocean cruises. Maybe more of them than before, in fact, as escape from daily realities became more and more important to folks. (During the 1930s, for instance, Hollywood would rake in American dimes, quarters and half-dollars like never before.)
There was no shortage of radio and newspaper advertising intended to exploit that desire for escape, but even in the glamorous world of the big and fast trans-Atlantic liners, much of the advertising copy aimed smaller than before.
The Great Depression cut sharply into the demand for trans-Atlantic travel, so the great liners had to scramble to survive. Much of what the fast luxury liners did during those years was a definite comedown, but an odd job was better than no job.
There was still money around, enough that some folks could play—maybe even if they couldn’t really afford to. And a lot of the play—not surprisingly—involved the sort of alcoholic escape that Americans were legally forbidden. Well, legally forbidden at home in the U.S., and in its territorial waters.
So a Berengaria specialty became little four-day Prohibition-evading jaunts—so-called “booze cruises”—from New York to Nova Scotia and back. Cost? Just 50 of these….
But not the silver dollar, which had been melted in such large numbers (270M) during and immediately after WWI, mostly (259M) to provide silver to the British to cover their wartime needs in India.
Politics in the American republic being what they are—even during wartime—a deal had been struck to replace the melted silver dollars after the war. It was wasteful, impractical nonsense—the coins had been available for immediate use in 1918 because they weren’t really needed—or much wanted. Nevertheless…
Silver dollar production—which had been suspended after the 1904 coinages—resumed in 1921 and ran until 1928, when the 270M Pittman Act “meltees” had been replaced.
So it seems reasonable to say that as the last of the 1928-dated Peace dollars fell from the coin-presses, yet one more of the countless war-inflicted hangovers was finally at an end. Nineteen-eighteen was ten years gone, the commemorative hope expressed by these big silver coins—“PEACE”—was as yet still uncontradicted by events, and the passage of time was dulling many of the late war’s injuries.
Aboard Berengaria about the time this 1928s dollar was coined, I’ll bet passengers could hear one of the better British jibes of the time, about the war of 1914-18, “The noise…and the people.”
(What this coin could do in the way of “booze cruises” on the West Coast was really something—and this is, after all, a San Francisco coin. But another time, maybe. Back to Berengaria.)
“Prohibition”—the Constitutional Amendment that outlawed the sale and transport of alcoholic beverages in the U.S.—was passed in 1919. (Passed, it is sometimes said, because the men who would have opposed the ban were overseas serving in the armed forces.) At any rate, by 1931 Prohibition was widely (and literally!) regarded as a major buzz-kill.
So there was a ready market for “booze cruises,” and there were big ships out of work.
Berengaria was a famous ship, and some cachet still attached to travel aboard her, even if it was only one of her 50-dollar cruises from New York to Nova Scotia. The “booze cruise” from 11 July to 14 July 1931, for instance…
Surely there were some big silver dollars aboard to plunk down for a drink, or a round of drinks maybe, or even a bottle. And who knows what silver dollars bought in Halifax? A seafood dinner, maybe? With wine, of course. And with Prohibition in the saddle back home, who would have cared whether the wine served with their fish was the customary white, or just whatever color happened to be handy?
Back aboard Berengaria for the trip home, scattered in cabins around the ship on dresser-tops or maybe in the pockets of pants tossed on the floor or draped neatly over chairbacks, there were doubtless small handfuls of Canadian change…
I note the large cent—Canada had introduced its new small cent in 1920, but its large cents were still circulating in ’31 (they weren’t withdrawn until 1937).
And as the thirties wore on…
Berengaria was getting old. And tired? Well, she really had always been a bit tired—especially after her four-year WWI layoff. And the hard years of the Depression hadn’t been kind. She had lost her place as flagship when Cunard and White Star were forced to merge in 1934 and Majestic (ex-Bismarck) took her place at the head of the company pack.
Then there was the new German pair, Bremen and Europa, Italy’s Rex and the French Normandie. All had taken turns winning the Blue Riband by mid-1935. Britain’s own Queen Mary had been launched in ’34 and was fitting out all through 1935. Clearly, the writing was on the wall.
The years of scraping by on odd jobs, the staff cuts, the maintenance deferred or shortchanged—all of these things combined with Berengaria’s advancing age to lend her a definite rundown air, and gave rise to Berengaria’s newest and cruelest nickname: “Bargain-area.”
Which would have made any American quarter-dollar aboard her—and there would have been some, as trans-Atlantic travel began to pick up by the mid-‘30s—well, any U.S. quarter aboard the “Bargain-area” would have contained the seed of a small joke.
The American quarter (descending as it does from the Spanish-American 2-reales piece) is, colloquially, “two-bits.” And in U.S. slang, anything called a “two-bit this,” or a “two-bit that,” is something cheap, cut-rate, rundown, second-rate, low-rent, bargain-bin, bargain-basement, bargain-area...
(Two-bits could well have bought breakfast on the way to the boat. Well, maybe a better breakfast outside the city, on the way into town—and the boat.)
The 1935 quarter-dollar above is from the “mother” mint at Philadelphia. It’s the most numerous American quarter to that time—more were coined than any other date 1796-1934—and as such is reflective of the then-reviving American economy. (In fact, new production records for quarter-dollars would be set by Philly three years running, in ’34, ’35, and ’36.)
Trans-Atlantic travel was also on the rebound as business improved, and—though this particular passenger probably also owed his trip to the Depression-fueled escapism mentioned earlier—who knows what small change may have been in the pockets of actor Peter Lorre as he boarded R.M.S. “Bargain-area” in November, 1935, for the UK and his role in Alfred Hitchkock’s Secret Agent?
Perhaps Mr. Lorre boarded Berengaria with a 1935 quarter like the one above (having skipped breakfast that morning!), or maybe he had a 1935 half-dollar like the one below….
I can imagine it loose in shallow blue-green water, just below the surface, zig-zagging through the sun-sparkles toward a white sandy sea-bottom. But not quite getting there—because an underwater-swimmer’s hand reaches out to snag it.
What is it about Berengaria that helps the imagination create such an image?
No matter the improving condition of the trans-Atlantic trade, by ’36, Berengaria simply wasn’t “the” ship any more. Other liners had the glamour, and for the “Bargain-area,” odd jobs in the off-season had become a routine fact of life, even after the end of Prohibition.
So it was New York to Bermuda, in September 1936. The tourist’s “home movie” that I’ve seen from that cruise is in black-and-white, but the bright sunshine is unmistakable. Berengaria is anchored in deeper water offshore and a tourist-friendly harbor-tender is ferrying passengers in from the big liner.
The old film records a few seconds of joyful commotion among a group of swimmers at dockside—it seems the tourists were tossing coins into the water.
So the imagination works overtime and there it is, a silver half-dollar, big and bright and loose in shallow blue-green water, just below the surface, zig-zagging through the sun-sparkles toward a white sandy sea-bottom…
Besides, it was a low-cost cruise—an economy vacation. And back home the wolf was still at the door. (The American unemployment rate, while falling, was still 17%.) It just wasn’t the time or place to throw money around. Not big money, anyway.
So I think if any American silver hit the water that sunny September day in 1936 Bermuda, it was much more likely a thin dime—10-cents—like this one.
Still a pretty image, a silver Merc zig-zagging through the water, but…oh well.
But it was British homeland coinage being used in Bermuda—and there was always the British crew’s usual pocket change—so I expect many, if not most of the coins Berengaria was taking back to New York that September were British.
So what coin to choose here? Mature colonial coinage systems remote from the source of new coins—Bermuda, for instance—are often numismatic backwaters. Older and more worn coins are circulating than at home, and certain dates and denominations are over-represented, depending on what got shipped to the colony, and when.
I have no pertinent information on coin shipments to Bermuda, so I’ll lean on another dynamic of colonial coinage—in mature systems that use homeland coinage, almost anything might arrive from home, at almost any time. (On board a British ocean liner, for instance.)
Big British pennies were always a target of American tourists—the size contrast with our own much smaller “penny” was a natural draw. And the British pennies of 1936, like this one—now a dignified brown, but then a bright mint red—were a special target for souvenir hunters and hoarders that year. Many folks just wanted a memento of the late king, of course. But others thought—since George V had died so early in the year—that his coins were scarce and would soon become valuable.
So maybe if a ‘36 penny like this was loose in Bermuda in September that year, it got aboard Berengaria. Or a member of the crew….
But on King Edward VIII, who had been aboard Berengaria as the Prince of Wales a dozen years earlier, there had been a foreshadowing of the royal upset of 1936.
Writing in his 1951 memoir, A King’s Story, Edward said “there was one question asked me by an American journalist on this 1924 trip about which I never told my father. As the Berengaria steamed into New York Harbour, the ship-news reporters swarmed around me, asking all manner of question: what ties and socks I wore, did I like America, and what was I going to do. Suddenly there popped out through the front row of burly newspapermen, the pert figure of a young woman. In a piping voice she asked, ‘Would you marry an American gal if you fell in love with her?’ In the delighted laughter of the other reporters and the somewhat disdainful guffaws of my British companions my affirmative answer was lost.”
We all know how it turned out: Edward got himself an American wife and Britain got herself a new king.
So Britain’s year-of-three-kings passed into history, and the new year—1937—brought the coronation of George VI. Along with him came his new pennies. (Edward VIII left behind only a few patterns, but the prospective Edward VIII penny reverse was used for the pennies of his younger brother.)
A 1937 penny, from very near the end of the long line of coins that could possibly have sailed the Atlantic aboard Berengaria…
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