Gold and Mark Twain

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Did you know that today is the birth anniversary of Samuel Langhorne Clemens otherwise known as Mark Twain? On November 30, 1835, Samuel Clemens arrived in the world in the small town of Florida, Missouri.

And, did you see how Google celebrated his birthday on their main page?

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and the Whitewashed Fence

Back in the day, Samuel Clemens started as a young man helping his brother, Orion, with typesetting his newspaper.  This is an interesting parallel to Benjamin Franklin who also started by helping his brother with his printing business. Of course, their paths diverge into different directions.

In the early 1870s, he penned the well-loved book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, honored today by Google. The scene, of course, is where Tom devises the ingenious plan to get the boys of his town to do the hated job of whitewashing the fence. His Aunt Polly had given Tom the chore as punishment after she found him sneaking back into the house much later than he was supposedly in bed. Tom’s ingenuity had the boys not only whitewashing the fence, but they also paid Tom for the privilege. 

Samuel Clemens first wrote under the pseudonym, Mark Twain, in the Territorial Enterprise, a Virginia City, Nevada newspaper, in 1862. He also wrote for other newspapers in San Francisco and Sacramento.

His writing style, acerbic at best, was popular then and has stood the test of time. In addition to his books and articles, he also wrote letters and made speeches. Many witticisms from his wealth of material still hold true today as well.

It’s fitting that the US Mint honored him with an American Arts Gold Medallion in 1981. The Mark Twain Commemorative Medallion was not legal tender, but it was made of gold.

On November 10, 1978, the Congressional legislation termed the American Arts Gold Medallion Act became Public Law 95-630. This act approved the production and distribution of the first US Mint gold pieces since President Roosevelt stopped all gold coinage and confiscated privately held gold coins in the early 1930s.

These gold pieces would not be legal tender, but they were made of the yellow precious metal. (The first gold legal tender coin produced by the US Mint after the Roosevelt decree became the 1984 Olympic Commemorative Gold $10 coin.)

Perhaps born from good intentions, the American Arts Gold Medallion series, planned for five years and issued from 1980 through 1984, was not widely accepted by the general public.

The series included:
1980 – Artist: Grant Wood one-ounce gold medallion, population:  312,709
1980 – Singer: Marian Anderson one-half-ounce gold medallion, population: 281,624
1981 – Author: Mark Twain one-ounce gold medallion, population: 116,371
1981 – Author: Willa Cather one-half-ounce gold medallion, population: 97,331
1982 – Musician: Louis Armstrong one-ounce gold medallion, population: 409,098
1982 – Artist: Frank Lloyd Wright one-half-ounce gold medallion, population: 348,305
1983 – Poet: Robert Frost one-ounce gold medallion, population: 390,669
1983 – Artist: Alexander Calder one-half-ounce gold medallion, population: 74,571
1984 – Actress: Helen Hayes one-ounce gold medallion, population: 33,546
1984 – Author: John Steinbeck one-half-ounce gold medallion, population: 32,572

Though the time was roughly 50 years after the Roosevelt gold confiscation in the 1930s, people were leery of collecting gold, especially gold medallions, which were not legal tender.

As for the gold coins which started the last year of the gold medallions, the 1984 Olympic Gold $10 coin saw a population over 500,000 – not a spectacular number but much more than the 1984 gold medallions. (The most populous of the legal tender commemorative gold coins was the 1987 US Constitution Bicentennial Gold $5 at just under 900,000. Modern gold bullion is a different story.)

When the American Arts Gold Medallions began in 1980, the US Mint sold the one-ounce medallion for $642 ($630 plus a $12 fee) and the half-ounce for $321 ($315 plus a $6 fee). As per the rules of the Congressional legislation, the medallions sold for gold market price of the content plus a fee to cover production costs.

In 1981 during the time of the Mark Twain medallion, gold prices ranged from a low of $390 to a high of almost $600. The cumulative average for the year was $460.

Using averages from 1981, a Mark Twain gold medallion sold for $472 ($460 plus the $12 fee). With today’s price of gold, the bullion in the medallion surpasses the collectability of the iconic Mark Twain – unless you are an overly avid Mark Twain fan. 

He’s been gone for over 100 years, but Mark Twain’s wit and witticisms live on to prod and to entertain people today.

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Kitco’s Historical Gold Values
US Getting the Gold Ready for Coining

US Mint Offers Buyers Golden Coin Opportunity
The US Mint’s Historians Corner for the 1900s  (see 1978 and 1980)
Free access to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (see Chapter II for the whitewashing incident)
Arts Gold Medallions Lay an Egg