Abe Lincoln, Pop Culture, Presidents

Did you forget Lincoln’s Birthday? PART I.

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Original publish date:  March 7, 2019

So, what did you do for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday? Go out to dinner? Go to church? Get together with friends and family? Wait, you knew February 12th was Honest Abe’s birthday didn’t you? Well, don’t feel bad, nobody else did either. But once upon a time, everyone celebrated Lincoln’s birthday.
The move to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday began after his 1865 assassination. In December, the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee agreed that Feb. 12, 1866 should be set aside for ceremonies in the House of Representatives. Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, was asked to give a eulogy for Lincoln at the event. When the day arrived, the Capitol was closed to the public and guests filed into the House chamber for the commemoration, which began at noon. The president’s birthday was commemorated by both houses of Congress, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, officers of the army and navy, and many foreign representatives.
z Lincoln-PostcardInside the House chamber guests listened to historian George Bancroft (former Secretary of the Navy and the man who established the Naval Academy at Annapolis) talk about “the life, character, and services of Lincoln…forming one of the most imposing scenes ever witnessed in the land.” The address took nearly two hours. The push for a formal celebration quickly spread to state capitals, legislatures and city councils. Most northern states quickly warmed to the idea but bitterness over Reconstruction and the cult of the “Lost Cause” among southerners scuttled attempts to make Lincoln’s birthday a Federal holiday.
Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky, and to the first few generations after his assassination, that date on the calendar had meaning. Of the 48 states that made up the United States in 1940, exactly half celebrated Lincoln’s Birthday as a holiday. Most celebrations took place in schools, churches, veteran’s halls and political functions. Unlike other traditional American celebrations, Lincoln was not honored with parades but rather with ceremonial dinners and speeches. The states continued to recognize the holiday, which was in close proximity of Washington’s Birthday holiday less than two weeks later, for another 30 years until Congress stepped in and changed all that.
z 51rOas9eAmLIn 1971 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The law shifted several holidays (Veteran’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Lincoln’s Birthday and Columbus Day to name a few) from specific days to a Monday. The reason behind the change was seen as a way to create more three-day weekends and reduce employee absenteeism. The birthdays of George Washington and Lincoln were only 10 days apart, so they were blended into Presidents’ Day.
z pc 1Eventually, individual states created their own Presidents’ Day holidays to be observed on the third Monday in February. This celebration has been enacted in some fashion by 38 states, though never federally, and each varies by state. Some mark the day as a specific remembrance of Washington and Lincoln while others view it as a day to recognize all U.S. presidents. Alabama celebrates Washington and Jefferson. A few states still recognize Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 as its own official holiday. Most notably, Kentucky, his birth state and Illinois,his adopted home state, both celebrate Lincoln’s birthday as an official state holiday, along with a few other states including New York, Connecticut, and Missouri. However, this number has declined in recent years, when California, Ohio and New Jersey ended the celebration of Lincoln’s birthday as paid holidays to cut budgetary costs. Unfortunately, more states now celebrate Black Friday as a holiday than celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. Indiana and Georgia are a couple states that recognize Lincoln’s Birthday on the day after Thanksgiving aka Black Friday.
z pc 2In most states, Lincoln’s birthday is not celebrated separately, as a stand-alone holiday. Instead Lincoln’s Birthday is combined with a celebration of President George Washington’s birthday (also in February) and celebrated either as Washington’s Birthday or as Presidents’ Day on the third Monday in February, concurrent with the federal holiday. Good for George Washington. Sad for Abraham Lincoln. Once upon a time, Lincoln’s birthday was a milestone for Americans to pause and honor greatness.
The centennial of Lincoln’s birth was the largest commemoration of any one person in American history. On the morning of February 12, 1909, the forts around New York Harbor, the National Guard field batteries, and the battleships in port all fired at once to honor Abraham Lincoln. At noon the Gettysburg Address was read in the public schools across America. The culmination of the 100th anniversary was the minting of the first coin bearing the image of an American president, the Lincoln penny. Lately, it seems like the only talk we hear about the penny come from those who want to abolish it. But there may be more to that little copper coin than meets the eye. Well, copper depending on what year you’re talking about. If your Lincoln penny has a date before 1982, it is made of 95% copper. If it is dated 1983 or later, it is made of 97.5% zinc and plated with a thin copper coating.
Since that auspicious debut in 1909, probably no other object in human history has been reproduced more often: to date 1.65 trillion times and counting my friends. That is 1,650,000,000,000 in case you wonder what it looks like. The US Mint estimates 200,035,318,672 are currently in circulation. So what happened to the other 1.4 trillion pennies? Lost in couches? Under car seats? Buried in back yards? My father-in-law Keith Hudson once told me that if you have a stubborn tree stump in the backyard that you want gone just stick a copper penny in it. Well, I don’t know about that but it sure does get you thinking. Maybe that explains where all those pennies went.
z256154_1Regardless, the U.S. Mint still produces more than 13 billion pennies annually. That’s approximately 30 million pennies per day; 1,040 pennies every second. More than two-thirds of all coins produced by the U.S. Mint are pennies and the U.S. Government estimates that $62 million in circulated pennies are lost every year (according to Bloomberg). In fact, the penny is the most widely used denomination in circulation and it remains profitable to make. Each penny costs .93 of a cent to make, but the Mint collects one cent for it. The profit goes to help fund the operation of the Mint and to help pay the public debt. The average penny lasts 25 years.
The penny was the very first coin minted in the United States. In March 1793, the mint distributed 11,178 copper cents. During its early penny-making years, the U.S. Mint was so short on copper that it accepted copper utensils, nails and scrap from the public to melt down for the coins. That 1909 Lincoln centennial penny was the first U.S. coin to feature a historic figure and the first to have the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST”. Lincoln faces to the right, while all other portraits on coins face to the left. To date, there have been 11 different designs featured on the penny.
Legend claims that we owe that Lincoln penny to Teddy Roosevelt. Privately, President Theodore Roosevelt told intimates that American coins were “pedestrian and uninspiring”. In July 1908, he sat several times for Victor David Brenner, a Lithuanian-born Jew who, since coming to the United States 19 years earlier, had become one of the nation’s premier medalists. Lincoln, like most immigrants, was Brenner’s personal hero. He was the first American he learned about from his tenement house on New York’s Lower East Side. During those White House sittings, Brenner showed Roosevelt a bas-relief sculpture of Lincoln based on a Mathew Brady photograph. Roosevelt, a great admirer of Lincoln himself, allegedly decreed that Brenner’s Lincoln must go on a new penny to commemorate Lincoln’s 100th birthday in 1909.
Putting Lincoln on the most widely circulated coin made perfect sense, after all, it was Lincoln who’d said “Common-looking people are the best in the world; that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.” Brenner received $1,000 for the commission. Production of the Lincoln penny began at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia on July 10, 1909. The sculptor asked that he receive the first 100 of the new Lincoln pennies, but his request was deinied, so great was the anticipation. Fearing regional jealousies, the Mint ordered the coin be released across the country simultaneously. That May, the Boston Globe reported, “The new Lincoln cents, it seems, will be distributed the first week in August…It is so hard to wait!”

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The public lines up to buy Lincoln cents outside the sub Treasury Building, New York City, August 2, 1909.

On Monday, Aug. 2, 1909 the New York Sun reported on the first of the new Lincoln pennies issued by the Federal Sub-treasury (today’s Federal Reserve Bank) to long lines of budding numismatists waiting anxiously in the financial district. “The big man down in Wall Street yesterday was the man who had a few of the new Lincoln cents. He could have had a fairly good time on 10 of them; he could start a celebration on a quarter’s worth, and for 50 of them there was no reason why he couldn’t purchase a regular jubilee.” The lines continued all week long and by Friday, even the rain couldn’t dampen the money rush in Lower Manhattan.
Some people near the front of the lines sold their spots for a dollar. Other more ambitious entrepreneurs hired women, who in a still chivalrous era, were ushered to the head of the line. “Within 15 minutes there were enough girls at the door to make it look like a bargain counter sale on a busy Monday,” The Sun reported. Many in what The Tribune called “the penny-mad crowd” were poor raged looking little children, some carrying a single battered Indian Head penny to trade in. The resale rate hovered around three new pennies for a nickel, but shot up slightly when supplies ran low. It was pretty much the same all around the country.
The Washington Star compared the “penny-chasers” to the crowds watching the Wright brothers test their new “aeroplanes.” The Boston Globe said, “you could get the new Lincoln coins for a cent apiece by spending, say, a dollar’s worth of time.” The Illinois State Register in Lincoln’s Springfield hometown reported that the Lincoln Bank ordered 5,000, but received only 50. Even in the old Confederacy, The Constitution newspaper reported that “demand was so high outside one Atlanta bank the crowd would have made a Chicago bread line look small.”

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Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg wrote, “If it were possible to talk with that great, good man, he would probably say that he is perfectly willing that his face is to be placed on the cheapest and most common coin in the country. Follow the travels of the penny and you find it stops at many cottages and few mansions. … The common, homely face of ‘Honest Abe’ will look good on the penny, the coin of the common folk from whom he came and to whom he belongs.”

 

Abe Lincoln, Assassinations, Auctions, Museums, Politics

Abraham Lincoln’s Hat Needs You!

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Original publish date:  September 3, 2018

Attention Hoosiers, Abraham Lincoln needs your help. More specifically the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation in Springfield, Illinois is appealing to all friends of Mr. Lincoln to lend a hand in their hour of need. Last week I traveled to the ALPLM to speak with the State Historian of Illinois and Director of Research and Collections, Dr. Samuel Wheeler. Although his title and resume may sound imposing, “Sam” is a breath of fresh air for the Lincoln historical community. Dr. Wheeler’s appearance is immediately disarming, his countenance inviting and friendly. Sam breaks the long-established mold of the elderly historian whose gray hair, Meerschaum pipe and leather-elbowed corduroy jacket are calculatedly designed to intimidate. Sam’s youthful appearance and ready smile invite everyone to come, sit and talk history for awhile.

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Dr. Sam Wheeler

Dr. Samuel Wheeler is the tenth State Historian in Illinois history and when you consider that 2018 is the state’s Bicentennial year, you may deduce that they choose their historians carefully. Sam’s specialty is the cool stuff: the history of Illinois, the Civil War Era, and the Life and Legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Wheeler’s life mission is to protect, preserve, and promote history through education. During his three years at the helm, he has devoted much of his time to assisting other museums, libraries, historic sites, documentary projects, and historical societies. He regularly speaks to diverse audiences across the country, writes for scholarly journals and popular magazines, and offers commentary to newspaper, radio, and television outlets. In short, Dr. Wheeler is a busy man.
The subject of my visit is a topic that has occupied social media, blog spots and chat rooms for the past few weeks. The ALPLM is in danger of losing some of its most precious Abraham Lincoln relics and associative memorabilia. If the ALPLM cannot satisfy a substantial financial liability by October 2019, priceless Lincoln relics will have to be sacrificed to meet their obligation. Meaning that these items will likely end up in the private collections of millionaires never to be displayed publicly again. While the amount of the liability, $9.7 million is staggering, Dr. Wheeler points out that “if we could just get every citizen of Illinois to donate one dollar each, we would wipe out that debt in no time.” Sam continues, “and if you could get Indiana to pitch in the same, we can keep the collection open for generations to come.”
LogoThe ALPLM’s “problems” began back in 2007 when it purchased the famous Taper collection for $23 million. “The collection is amazing,” says Sam, “the Lincoln top hat and bloodied gloves seem to be the items that resonate most with people, but the collection is much more than that.” Dr. Wheeler says that the uniqueness of the Taper collection centers around its emphasis on assassination related items, a field that had been largely ignored by Lincoln collectors at that time of its assemblage. The collection was created by Louise Taper, daughter-in-law of Southern California real estate magnate S. Mark Taper. She created the exhibition The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America which was at the Huntington Library from 1993–1994 and at the Chicago Historical Society from 1996-1997.
According to the ALPLM’s website, “Louise Taper amassed the largest private collection of Lincolniana in more than a half-century, highlighted by 1 of 3 stovepipe hats known to have belonged to Lincoln; the earliest of his boyhood sumbook pages, ca. 1824-1826; and more than 100 letters or notes in the hands of Abraham or Mary Lincoln. Also among the 1,500 items in the collection are manuscripts by friends and contemporaries, personally owned books and clothing or other accouterments, prints, broadsides, newspapers, artworks, period photographs, and assassination-related materials.”
The ALPLM acquired the Taper Collection two years after they opened the $150 million facility on April 19, 2005. To blunt public charges that the ALPLM had bit off more than it could chew, Dr, Wheeler compares the museum to a 13-year-old child. He states, “Not too many 13-year-olds have got it all together. We’ve matured a lot in the last two years.” Sam notes that in those two years, the ALPLM has streamlined much of their operation citing as examples that more of the collection has been digitized for research and the museum’s six research rooms have been pared down to one.
Presidential-Museum-CreditALPLM3“Bottom line,” Sam says, “we need to keep the collection here. That is our first priority.” It is easy to see how important this collection is to Dr. Wheeler by simply watching his eyes as he speaks. To Wheeler, the collection is not just a part of the museum, it is a part of the state of Illinois. Sam relates how when he speaks to groups, which he does quite regularly on behalf of the ALPLM, he often reaches into the vault to bring along pieces from the Taper collection to fit the topic. “People love seeing these items. It gives them a direct connection to Lincoln.” states Wheeler.
When asked if he has a particular favorite from the Taper collection, Dr. Wheeler smiles and says, “I’m particularly drawn to the gold cufflink that Lincoln was wearing at Ford’s Theater that night.” However, Sam is quick to point out that what makes the Taper collection so special is the depth of quality it represents. The collection contains Mary Lincoln’s hand fan carried to the theater that night, locks of hair from members of the Lincoln family, and the oldest piece of writing by Abraham Lincoln known. It is a page from 15-year-old Abraham Lincoln’s 1824 schoolbook whose content Dr. Wheeler can recite by hear. “Abraham Lincoln is my name/ and with my pen I wrote the same/ I wrote in both haste and speed/ and left it here for fools to read.”
Dr. Wheeler also informs that the Taper collection contains a treasure trove of letters written by John Wilkes Booth and his entire family as well as the ring J.W. Booth presented to his fiancée Elizabeth Sumner. “We also have stage costumes and the handwritten character sketch for John Wilkes Booth’s role in Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” says Wheeler. “Our main objection for the collection, is that we keep it in the public realm. That is imperative.”
The Lincoln Library foundation recently said, “If the foundation is not able to secure commitments in the very near future to retire most-if not all-of the remaining $9.7 million debt, it will have no choice but to accelerate the possibility of selling these unique artifacts on the private market-which would likely remove them from public view forever.”
gettyimages-468377946Hoosiers may ask, why doesn’t the ALPLM just ask the state of Illinois for the money? After all, with 300,000 visitors annually, the Lincoln Library Museum is one of the most popular tourist sites in the state of Illinois and is prominently featured in all of their state tourism ads. Well, the state is billions of dollars in debt despite approving a major income-tax increase last summer and as of the time of this writing, has yet to put together a budget. To the casual observer, one would think that financial stalemate between the state and the museum would be a no-brainer when you consider that the ALPLM has drawn more than 4 million visitors since opening in 2005. The truth is a little more complicated than that. Illinois State government runs and funds the Lincoln library and museum. The separately run foundation raises private funds to support the presidential complex. The foundation, which is not funded by the state, operates a gift store and restaurant but has little role in the complex’s operations, programs and oversight.
Aside from the items previously mentioned, the Taper collection, which numbers over 1500 pieces, also includes a pair of Lincoln’s eyeglasses and his billfold. The Taper collection includes about 100 Mary Todd Lincoln letters, giving the Lincoln presidential library a total of 500-out of only 600 in the world.
Museum officials are sorting out which Taper collection items were donated and transferred to the state, and what might end up for sale-if it should come to that. One item that won’t be on the auction block is the state’s rare copy of the Gettysburg Address, written in Lincoln’s own hand. Luckily, the document wasn’t part of the Taper purchase. The state’s collection of Lincoln artifacts, tens of thousands strong, draws researchers from across the globe and gives the public a chance to see up close the man many Americans feel was the greatest President in U.S. history.

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Carl Sandburg and Marilyn Monroe

The Taper collection also included a dress worn by 1950s movie star Marilyn Monroe, an admitted “fan girl” of the 16th President. The blonde bombshell’s dress was considered a non-Lincoln item that potentially would fetch big bucks to help pay off the loan. Perhaps to show that they were serious, in late July the ALPLM sent Monroe’s slinky black dress off to a Las Vegas auctionhouse, where it fetched $50,000 from the lucky bidder. Also sold were seven original photographs of Monroe, which sold for $3000 each. However, an original bust of Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg failed to sell. All proceeds from the Julien’s sale went towards the outstanding debt. Hopefully Lincoln relics will not be next up on the auction block.

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Author Doris Kearns Goodwin

Dr. Wheeler is doing his best to get the message out. Aside from his normal 60 hour work week he spends nights and weekends all over the state and country talking about Lincoln, the museum and sounding the alarm to save the collection. The museum is getting help from cherished friends like Doris Kearns Goodwin who will be speaking at the ALPLM on October 29 with “proceeds from this event to benefit the campaign to secure a permanent home for Lincoln’s most personal effects comprising the Taper collection.” Interested and concerned Hoosiers can help by visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library website at http://www.alplm,org and there is a “Save the Lincoln Artifacts” go find me page on the web.
If every Hoosier would chip in a few bucks we could honor our state’s favorite son and help our neighbors in Illinois at the same time. Skip that latte for Lincoln. Snap off that sawbuck for the rail splitter. Honest Abe is depending on you.