A Romantic Coin Tale: Hawthorne’s Pine Tree Shilling Story Delights

This 1652 Pine Tree shilling of the small planchet type grades Very Fine 35 and sold for $5,287.50 in a 2012 auction. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

By Gerald Tebben

As part of his “Whole History of Grandfather’s Chair – True Stories from New England History 1620-1808,” the 19th century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne penned one of the most marvelous stories ever written about coins. It amused me as a child when I started collecting coins and it still delights.

The sixth chapter of Hawthorne’s 1841 book, titled “The Pine-Tree Shillings,” purports to tell the romantic tale of the 1652-dated Massachusetts silver piece.

Colonial collectors know the history of the piece and the theories on why a coin minted from 1667 to 1685 would bear a date a decade and more earlier, but Hawthorne’s fanciful tale is largely forgotten. Hawthorne makes no mention of the date issue.

Collectors are divided on whether the coin bears the date of the coin’s authorization or whether the coins were predated to evade British law.

Hawthorne marvelously builds his tale on just one fact—that Mintmaster John Hull was given “one shilling out of every twenty to pay him for the trouble of making them”—to spin a tale of true love, humor and reward.

Sylvester S. Crosby confirms the amount of payment in his 1875 “Early Coins of America,” but notes Hull was initially paid 15 pence (three pence more than a shilling) for striking the colony’s coins.

Hull’s daughter, Hawthorne says, was no small child, a crucial circumstance upon which the entire tale revolves. Hawthorne writes: “His daughter—whose name I do not know, but we will call her Betsey—was a fine, hearty damsel, by no means so slender as some young ladies of our own days. On the contrary, having always fed heartily on pumpkin-pies, doughnuts, Indian puddings, and other Puritan dainties, she was as round and plump as a pudding herself.”

Blushing with all her might on her wedding day, she “looked like a full-blown peony, or a great red apple.”?Samuel Sewall “courted Miss Betsey out of pure love, and had said nothing at all about her portion,” Hawthorne writes. And this pleased Mintmaster Hull no end.

Sewall, a 17th-century Massachusetts official, is well known to Colonial collectors. His name turns up frequently on financial documents quoted by Crosby, although Crosby does not mention Sewall’s wife or her weight.

On the day of Betsey’s nuptials, Mintmaster Hull wore a fine silver-accented suit that every collector alive today would be proud to possess.

This reverse of the 1652 Pine Tree shilling. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

“On the wedding day, we may suppose that honest John Hull dressed himself in a plum-colored coat, all the buttons of which were made of pine-tree shillings. The buttons of his waistcoat were sixpences; and the knees of his small-clothes were buttoned with silver threepences,” Hawthorne wrote.

He recounts, “When the marriage ceremony was over, Captain Hull whispered a word to two of his men-servants, who immediately went out, and soon returned, lugging in a large pair of scales. They were such a pair as wholesale merchants use for weighing bulky commodities; and quite a bulky commodity was now to be weighed in them. ‘Daughter Betsey,’ said the Mint master, ‘get into one side of these scales’ . . .

“‘And now,’ said honest John Hull to the servants ‘bring that box hither.’

“The box to which the mint-master pointed was a huge, square, iron-bound, oaken chest; it was big enough, my children, for all four of you to play at hide-and-seek in. (The narrator of Hawthorne’s tales addresses them to his four grandchildren.)

“Captain Hull then took a key from his girdle, unlocked the chest, and lifted its ponderous lid. Behold! It was full to the brim of bright pine-tree shillings, fresh from the mint.

“Then the servants, at Captain Hull’s command, heaped double handfuls of shillings into one side of the scales, while Betsey remained in the other. Jingle, jingle, went the shillings, as handful after handful was thrown in, till, plump and ponderous as she was, they fairly weighed the young lady from the floor.

“‘There, son Sewall!’ cried the honest mint-master, resuming his seat in Grandfather’s chair, ‘take these shillings for my daughter’s portion. Use her kindly, and thank Heaven for her. It is not every wife that’s worth her weight in silver!’”

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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