Tracking Down James Brennan: One Thing Leads to Another

New Civil War Token Book Edition

Among the pleasant things on my plate is helping John Ostendorf and the Civil War Token Society with the preparation of the 3rd edition of United States Civil War Store Cards. The 2nd edition was published in 1975, nearly two generations ago, and much has been discovered or modified since. The new version, due out later this year, will include more listings, illustrations in full color, biographical notes on the well over 1,000 different merchants who issued such tokens, and more. Attributions are to Fuld numbers as created by Melvin and George Fuld in the early 1960s.

If you are a collector of these you know that there are two main categories: (1) Patriotic tokens with flags, cannon, portraits of heroes, and the like, with sayings such as UNION FOREVER, ARMY AND NAVY, etc. There is no mention of the issuer. (2) Store cards issued by various tradesmen, vendors of services and products, and other commercial entities. These are identified by the name of issuer and the location. The states of New York, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois have over a thousand varieties each—if you count the various combinations with reverse dies and strikings in various metals. In contrast, there was only one token issued in New Hampshire.


A Token Issued by a Stamp Dealer

Among the New York City issuers was James Brennan, a stamp dealer who held forth at 37 Nassau Street. The Fuld number for Brennan is NY-630-I followed by a number indicating the variety within this listing, plus a letter indicating the metal of striking. In the case of the illustrated token NY-630-I-1a, the a refers to copper. Brennan was the only stamp dealer who issued a Civil War token. In contrast several coin dealers issued such pieces.

The 3rd edition will list eight different varieties for Brennan, including three different reverse dies (the McClellan reverse is shown here) and metals a, b (brass), e (white metal), and j (German silver).

It is estimated that from 501 to 2,000 of the NY-630-I-1a tokens are known today — a very wide range ranking it as plentiful in the context of the Civil War token series. Nice examples can be purchased for less than $100. In contrast, an 1877 Indian Head cent, of which thousands are known, would cost into four figures for an EF or AU example. This explains in part the popularity of Civil War tokens.

The December 1, 1863, issue of The Stamp Collector’s Magazine (the first issue of which was published in London in February 1863) included this advertisement: “James Brennan, 37 Nassau Street (opposite Post Office) New York, United States, has always on hand a large stock of foreign and American stamps, used and unused. Orders promptly executed. Stamps exchanged.”


An Account from 1904

Seeking more information I found a copy of The London Philatelist, May 1904, on the Internet. It mentions Brennan and also, in passing, A.C. Kline (whose numismatic biography has been published by Dr. Joel J. Orosz). This account suggests that “our” Brennan was America’s first stamp dealer with an office. Wonder if that is true? An excerpt:

I recently received some interesting reminiscences from Mr. Samuel Allan Taylor, Boston, the doyen of American philatelic dealers and editors. I find his advertisements in the Boy’s Own Magazine for 1863, and I have before me vol. i. (the late Mr. Tiffany’s copy) of his Stamp Collector’s Record, begun at Montreal in February, 1864, and continued at Albany and Boston. Referring to Judge Suppantschitsch’s supposed discovery, Mr. Taylor writes :—

“I do not think that any German, Frenchman, Swede, Russian, Turk, or Southern European heathen of any kind is entitled to more than a smile of pity from Englishmen when he attempts to discover anything concerned with Philately or anything else in English printed literature. . . . The earliest notice in print on this side is, as far as I have ever seen, a paragraph in November, 1860, which states that youngsters were collecting the stamps of different nations. This appeared in a monthly periodical called Littell’s Living Age, published here in Boston. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Rebel States quickly issued stamps for themselves—special ones first like Mobile, New Orleans, Nashville, etc. These were counterfeited by a Philadelphia firm, and were reproduced in sheets of six (i.e. six of a kind) and sold by newsboys in the street and in stationers’ stores, not at all as philatelic treasures, but as curiosities of the Rebels. They sold some half dozen sheets for 10c. The words ‘Facsimile Rebel Postage Stamp, printed by S. C. Upham, Philadelphia,’ were printed in small type on each sheet. This thing was largely instrumental in bringing stamp-collecting into vogue.

The first person who sold stamps as a business was a man named James Brennan, who opened a small office (a very small place, not over 10 feet square) at 37 Nassau Street, New York, in 1863. He published a list, the type, style, size, etc., having been copied from one printed by James Robinson, of Liverpool. This was a foolscap size, 4 pp. thing, but the prices were filled in with the pen.

Before that one A.C. Kline, now dead, of Philadelphia, had issued a ‘Manual,’ a copy of Mount Brown’s first issue merely. Kline was a dealer in antiques, old coins, armour, firearms, etc., and stamps were only a small portion of his business. He kept a quite good-sized store on the ground floor.

Another person, Wm. P. Brown, 212, Broadway, New York, who is still in existence, and who then, as now, was more of a coin dealer and authority than a stamp man, sold stamps, but only through the medium of the mail, not having any office, he being a printer in a weekly newspaper office (of which his father, a distinguished clergyman, was editor). I believe that for some time he had a stand attached to the railing of the City Hall Park, as also had another man named John Bailey, but the business was largely coins and odd things, even military buttons. No one then knew what stamps existed, until the manuals of Mount Brown, Baillieu, Potiquet, and others appeared. This was all in New York, of course. J.W. Scott, who is a native of London, came to New York in 1863, he being then a lad of fifteen years. He came across Brown at his stand and made exchanges in stamps with him, but shortly after left New York and went to California.

I was in Montreal from 1860 to 1864. I had gathered some ten or a dozen foreign stamps as far back as 1857-8, France, England, and one 10 gr. Hanover; but I never saw or heard of any collectors until 1862, when I chanced to see the collection (probably forty or so) of a man named A. Nutter, and I made exchanges with him for local stamps, as I (having been brought up in New York) knew where the local stamps or posts were. I left Canada in 1864, and after a short time abandoned the druggist business and came to Boston, and have been here ever since. J.W. Scott I never heard of until 1867; the previous account of him I got from W.P. Brown. You can depend on it that no other dealer was earlier than James Brennan in 1863…

 I note in the Philatelic Journal of America for March 1885, being the first number of that paper, the statement that Dr. Blackie, of Nashville, has been ‘collecting for twenty-nine years,’ but that sort of talk is absurd. Letters from foreign countries were almost invariably paid in money and were stamped paid by the Postmaster. Street letter-boxes were unknown here, at any rate, and where would he have got the stamps in 1856? But the egotism of the average stamp-collector is something very awful…

Well, I imagine that the foregoing is of more interest to stamp collectors than to coin collectors, but still it is worthy of passing notice.

Scott and Brown

J.W. Scott of New York City was prominent in coins as well as stamps, and William P. Brown, also a New York City coin dealer, is remembered for having a very messy shop with everything in disorder. Beyond these comments, in the January 1895 issue of The Numismatist, Augustus G. Heaton, in “A Tour Among the Coin Dealers,” told that in a front room in a third floor location on Broadway was to be found W.P. Brown, “a rather taciturn and bearded philosopher” who was primarily involved with stamps, but who had some coins on hand. J.W. Scott Company, a similar name to the Scott Stamp and Coin Company, but of different ownership and management, occupied a lower floor in premises on John Street. Scott himself and a number of clerks were engaged in the stamp trade however, “coins, those subordinate, receive considerable attention and very choice pieces of all kinds are frequently to be found.”


Joel Orosz Comments

Upon reading the foregoing, Dr. Joel J. Orosz, Kline biographer mentioned above, wrote to say:

“Once again, you have uncovered some fascinating new material! It is curious that our sister hobby of timbrophily cares so much less about its own history and literature than do numismatists. Perhaps that is because there has been no philatelic equivalent to the scholarship of an Eric P. Newman or a Q. David Bowers. At any rate there is undoubtedly much to be learned about early numismatics (the two hobbies having in the mid-19th century been so closely linked), by systematically reading through early philatelic literature.

“With apologies to the writer in the ‘London Philatelist,’ however, we CANNOT depend upon James Brennan being the earliest stamp dealer in the United States when he opened shop in 1863.

“John W. Kline of Philadelphia, who from time to time did business under his wife’s name (A.C. Kline), was a coin, stamp, book and autograph dealer in Philadelphia for most of the second half of the 19th century. According to Herbert A. Trenchard and George T. Turner, in ‘John William Kline: America’s First Philatelic Author,’ in Philatelic Literature Review (Second Series) Vol. 42, No. 1, First Quarter, 1993, John W. Kline, in his advertisements for Kline’s Emporium, claims that his Emporium had been established in 1857. Trenchard and Davis were not able to find evidence to confirm this early date, although A.C. Kline is listed in the 1861 Philadelphia Directory as a seller of ‘stationery, etc.’

“Kline’s ‘Stamp Collector’s Manual,’ published in December of 1862, is mostly a line-for-line plagiarism of Mount Brown’s similarly-titled work, published in London in May of that year. The back cover of Kline’s ‘Stamp Collector’s Manual’ gave A.C. Kline’s business address as 824 Walnut Street, and listed the items he had for sale: coins, medals, medalets, tokens, cards, books, engravings, autographs, newspapers, stationery, and ‘Also, Postage and Despatch Stamps, of various nations, for Collectors.’

“So, until someone can document an earlier entrant, John W. Kline was the earliest stamp dealer in the United States, with Mr. James Brennan currently a strong claimant for second.”


 I hasten to add that in addition to Eric Newman and me, there are a dozen or more enthusiastic researchers into early coin dealers (the first of whom in America seems to have been John Allan, active in New York City in the 1820s). Joel Orosz, always modest, is in the front rank.

If the above is of interest to you, check the website for the Civil War Token Society and for information on old coin books and catalogs the Numismatic Bibliomania Society site. Well worth doing!

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