Imperator/Berengaria had a varied career during her quarter-century of work, and it got me to thinking about the succession of coins that might have been visitors in and around her at various times over the years.
If anyone knows of any particular coin associated with her (perhaps under her mast), I sure would like to know. Anyway, with apologies for the extreme length of this thing, and more or less at random, some guesswork….
And please, as always, doubts, questions and corrections are most welcome.
Imperator continued fitting out well into the next year, with another change being made to her finished form courtesy of a British liner. This time it was Titanic, which had gone down only the month before Imperator’s launch, and this time the belated addition to the new German ship was potentially life-or-death: more lifeboats.
Company officials and engineers, artists, decorators, furniture movers and ship-workers of every sort would swarm over the new ship, and then finally her first captain and crew would come aboard. That’s a lot of coin-purses and pockets, and I’ll bet not a few of them held 1-mark pieces like this Berlin-mint example from 1912. It was a common coin, of real value to regular folks, yet also still useful for the well-to-do.
And 1912a too—a souvenir-worthy date and mint (although a local Hamburg-mint coin might have been better)—of precious metal, significant enough to remember a famous ship sliding into the water, or a glimpse of the Kaiser that day, but not big enough that setting it aside would ruin a working-man’s budget.
A store of small gifts is a good thing to have while visiting foreign countries, and coins are especially useful as giveaways. So what coins would Americans boarding Imperator have had in their pockets and tucked away in their luggage that fine summer of 1913?
The new 1913 nickels, of course! Indian Heads. Buffaloes (well, bison). Because any seasoned traveler would know that the European crush on (a heavily romanticized) American West would make the new 5-cent pieces irresistible.
Besides, Americans too liked their ground-breaking new nickel, and would have been proud to put it on foreign display. That, and the nickel was a wonderfully useful coin, all the way to Imperator’s gangplank.
Gerard is clearly taken with the luxury liner: “The Imperator is a marvellous [sic] ship of fifty-four thousand tons or more, and at times it is hard to believe that one is on the sea. In addition to the regular dining saloon, there is a grill room and Ritz restaurant with its palm garden, and, of course, an [sic] Hungarian Band. There are also a gymnasium and swimming pool, and, nightly, in the enormous ballroom dances are given, the women dressing in their best just as they do on shore.”
New Ambassador Gerard was given “a dinner of twenty-four covers, something of a record at sea.” I wonder if during his time aboard—perhaps even at this congratulatory dinner—anyone showed him a portrait of the Kaiser (with whom he would soon be dealing) on a coin like this impressively large 1913a Prussian 5-mark?
It was, after all, of the new century; it was a good size to carry around, there was the Kaiser and his predecessor sporting their ceremonial best, and if their jugate image today seems somewhat extravagant, well, another good reason a coin like this might have been aboard Imperator in 1913 was the eagle atop the Kaiser’s helmet—in shape and attitude it was very like the enormous crowned eagle at Imperator’s bow.
Many coin collectors, of course, know about the “Buffalo” nickel’s problems. Production of the new coins had begun in mid-February, 1913, and by April the authorities were already concerned that “FIVE CENTS” was too exposed to circulation wear, and would quickly disappear. To cure that defect, and to also address stacking and possible vending machine difficulties, “FIVE CENTS” was protected from wear by recessing the exergue.
So why in the world wasn’t the problem with the date fixed as well? It too was overexposed to circulation wear. And wear it did, disappearing from these coins by the hundreds of thousands, as if they too were just so many vanishing bison on the prairies of America’s Old West.
Below is a reworked (type two) Indian Head 5-cent piece of the kind introduced later in 1913. This piece, however, is dated 1917. Within a few years, these coins too would be boarding Imperator in some numbers….
I guess it’s safe to say that in those years the coinage aboard her became very sparse indeed, and exclusively German.
A miscellaneous company official, perhaps, would visit her some days. And there would likely have been a series of watchmen making their solitary rounds. (I expect they would have been older or disabled men, since younger or fitter specimens would have been needed elsewhere.) Nights especially must have been lonely for the watchmen, with a slumbering Imperator moving quietly beneath them as they waited for the morning shift change.
And the coins in their pockets? I’ll bet plenty of them were 10-pfennig pieces like these—peacetime copper-nickel early in the war, then steel, and zinc later on.
It’s easy to imagine Imperator’s night watchman checking his pockets very early in the morning, making sure he had the right coins for a morning newspaper, and maybe—if he wasn’t living aboard—the streetcar ride home. Bed….
The United States joined the war as an active belligerent early in 1917, and the population of nickels like these ticked up in and around the great AEF (American Expeditionary Forces) embarkation point of Hoboken, New Jersey. Soldiers brought the new 5-cent pieces in from all over the country, and left many of them in the businesses and public conveyances downtown.
“Hobo nickels”—some of them famously carved using Indian Head nickels by “hobos” during the Depression of the 1930s—are well-known in the American coin hobby. But…
There’s some (convincing) revisionist thinking going on that suggests the “hobo” nickname owes something to the “Hoboken nickels” carved by WWI soldiers awaiting transit to the war-zone….
The new year turned without Peace having come, of course, and whatever else anything may have been, it wasn’t Hoboken. So, Christmas, 1917, and another coin that would soon be going aboard Imperator, although again, not quite yet….
But in 1917 the trouble with these coins was more immediate. The design was too soft—not at all tough enough for the change in early 1917 from peace to war.
For some decades, orthodoxy within the American numismatic community had the obverse design change of 1917 having been the result of public prudery. (Chain-mail armor was added to cover Liberty’s bare breast.) But it has become less and less heretical over the years to credit the World War for Liberty’s additional clothing.
It’s oddly fitting here—talking of both ocean liners and of the weak messaging of early Standing Liberty quarters—to recall something I read in an old British coin catalog from the 1920s, which listed them as Liberty Disembarking quarters.
But onto 1918 and Eleven-Eleven-Eleven….
I expect many of these 1918 quarters had gone to Europe in the pockets and personal effects of American soldiers and sailors. Some of these coins, I expect, would soon be boarding Imperator either overseas, or back at home, in Hoboken…
By 1919, it was an ironic “Lafayette, we are still here.”
Getting the boys (and some girls) back home as quickly as possible became a priority, and the passenger-ships that had survived the war were in high demand. Imperator—again, laid-up in Hamburg from 1914-18—was requisitioned for the U.S. Navy in 1919 and became the U.S.S. Imperator.
Buffalo nickels, Standing Liberty quarters, and Lincoln cents like the one below doubtless came aboard U.S.S. Imperator that summer of 1919, carried in the pockets of the soldiers going home, and the sailors going back and forth, ferrying the doughboys to Hoboken and parts west.
The Lincoln cents they carried were only a decade old at the time, and the once-controversial initials (VDB) of its Lithuanian-born designer, Victor David Brenner, had been restored—albeit nearly invisibly—to the coin in 1918.
(Just before America’s entrance into the war, the coin’s master hub was redone, and it is sometimes said that the Lincoln cents of 1916 are the best-realized of the design’s long run.)
Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War of 1861-65. I’ll bet—in 1919—that pennies like this one occasionally got looked at by returning soldiers and sailors who were thinking about Mr. Lincoln’s war, and about their fathers, their grandfathers, and their great-grandfathers. By 1919 it had been more than a half-century of stories of the Blue and the Gray, of reunions and parades, of shrinking old uniforms brought out to wear maybe once or twice a year, and the polishing of old swords and medals.
But there had been a lot more to the Civil War and its aftermath—things that could neither be talked about, nor forgotten—and the soldiers and the sailors returning from the battlefields of the World War now knew it too.
Those long-ago doughboys are departed from us now. But look around at most any American coin show; the coins they brought home from WWI are still with us….
I’ve wondered about this one for some years now.
Its smooth-worn surfaces make this 1912a Prussian 3-mark especially interesting. Its brief circulating career likely ended about 1917—and certainly it had been demonetized by April, 1920—which suggests to me that it did duty as a pocket-piece. For some unreconstructed partisan of the departed Kaiser, perhaps?
(What a contrast that would’ve made with the 3-mark piece of this type that I saw with the satirical “folk art” treatment of its distant cousins, the French coppers of the pickelhaubed Napoleon III. A top-hatted Wilhelm II? I’m not quite sure why it was done, but I’m pretty sure the civilian headgear wasn’t meant as a compliment.)
On reflection, though, I wonder if this wasn’t the pocket-piece of some American, a reminder of time spent overseas putting the Kaiser out of business. “How Ya Gonna Keep’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” Indeed. For many of the older men I’ve known, their wartime experience was the great adventure of their lives. So given where and when I found this coin, I think maybe there’s a chance this was the long-time pocket-piece of a returned WWI doughboy….
By 1922, then, many of the coins in the pockets of Berengaria’s passengers and crew would have been British, like the florin below.
It’s sort of a random choice, I guess, but the florin—decimal precursor that it was—definitely saw considerable use at the time. And this one isn’t a prewar coin, of sterling silver. In that, and in more ways, this 1922 florin is a useful metaphor for the Britain of its time: injured, somewhat confused—certainly diminished—but still not shorn of the adjective “Great.”
The financial strains of the late war, coupled with the postwar spike in silver prices, forced the UK to debase its silver coinage beginning in 1920. The move wasn’t popular. The Daily Express, in 1921: “Nobody likes or wants the new silver coinage. It is too various in its complexions, too unpleasant to the touch, to find a single friend. The money has had a public life of ten days only, and already the coins have lost their minted whiteness. They are disreputable in appearance and chameleon like in habits. At the end of a week they change to a nasty sickly yellow tint, and then become a greasy, unhealthy black. They are dirtier to the hands than copper...the silver has that peculiar ‘soapy’ feel previously associated with counterfeits.”
And so the Royal Mint struggled for some years, experimenting with its new silver alloy. From what I’ve read, the 10% nickel component was removed for a time and a simple 50% silver/50% copper mix was used in at least some of the 1922 coins—this one, perhaps—but I can’t say for sure.
I’ve also read that the Royal Mint bought no new silver in 1921-22, so this florin may have been struck using metal recovered from the old sterling coinage (or perhaps even silver Britain had gotten from its share of the 270 million American silver dollars melted by the U.S. pursuant to the Pittman Act of 1918).
At any rate, it’s a good bet that when they were young, 1922 florins like this one sailed the North Atlantic—sometimes aboard Cunard’s new flagship, R.M.S. Berengaria…..
The underlying coinage aboard Berengaria in those days was British, of course, with a steady influx of American and French coins that reflected her usual route. An uptick in American—and Canadian—coins aboard would head east from New York to Southampton, and Cherbourg, with a spike in French—and other European coinage—periodically heading westward from Cherbourg and Southampton back to New York.
The British coins on board? The sixpence has long had a reputation as a lucky piece. So I wonder if one like the 1926-dated example below found its way to Miss Gertrude Ederle after she sailed from New York aboard Berengaria in June, 1926?
Maybe after it became known why Miss Ederle was headed for Europe, someone—a dinner companion, maybe, or maybe someone walking with her on deck or standing with her at the rail—someone, maybe, slipped her a lucky sixpence like this one. Because anyone planning to swim the English Channel could use a whole roll of lucky coins.
Well, if it stayed on shore wrapped up in her towel, or tucked into her shoes….
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