Numo-Blog-A-Rootie #15

“Hah, I’d like to meet his tailor.” Werewolves of London, Warren Zevon, 1979

Harrison the Tailor, a Jack o’ Two Trades in 19th-century Minneapolis…

There’s a small flea market about 25 miles south of us in the town of Rochester, NH, one that we visit three or four times a year; we went there just this past Saturday as a matter of fact. We nearly always go home with something neat, someone else’s junk to add to our own junk, but you know how that goes. There’s an elderly guy there -- said the 68-year-old geezer writing this – with a prime location on the left as you walk in. He has an occasional coin to offer and sells 2X2s, a necessity for coin collectors around the globe; I buy mine there, stocking up on every visit.

While poring over items in his booth on a recent visit, I discovered a small white 5 1/2” X 2 1/2” X 1 3/4” box, faded with age and somewhat tatterdemalion -- I love that word -- in appearance with the gold-embossed message of Charles Clarke & Son, Lawrence, Mass. on its top. “If I were a cat, I’d be long dead,” I thought to myself as I opened the nearly weightless box. Its contents consisted at first glance of nothing but tiny little newspaper clippings and snippets, but I’d already gone that far – I was probably the first person to open the box in years – and so I reached in at random and grabbed one of the snippets: “What is a gold half-dollar of 1871 worth?” it read from a “subscriber.” The answer was “The gold half-dollar of 1871 is worth 75 cents up to $1.25 according to condition.” I dug deeper into the box and found hundreds of these little numismatic snippets, clipped long ago from a newspaper of some sort, snippets that will form the basis of a future blog!

Naturally, I bought the small box, for a dollar, and took it home where it proceeded to gather dust on my desk for a few weeks. I finally got around to pouring the contents out to begin a blog, when an intriguing 4” X 2.5” business card popped out of the bottom of the box. The card belonged, long ago, to Harrison the Tailor of Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, MN, and was no doubt given to customers and visitors to his shop. One great thing about the 21st Century is the amount of information that is readily available at, literally, the press of a few buttons. And so, I became casual friends with Harrison the Tailor through old Minneapolis business directories and other publications of the era, not so much for his creative business endeavors, but for reasons to be revealed shortly.

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James T. Harrison (?-1890) at one time of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was in business in that city at various addresses from circa 1882 through 1890. His business success evidently ebbed and flowed up and down the charts of business fortune, as indicated by his ever-diminishing advertising and numerous address changes during that time frame. My earliest encounter with Mr. Harrison is in the 1882 Minneapolis City Directory, which is also the source for nearly all of the annual listings of Harrison’s comings and goings that follow. In that year, he listed himself as: Harrison, J.T. Tailor, 42 South Washington Avenue, rear at 908 Hennepin.

Business was evidently looking up for Mr. James T. Harrison. Though the year 1883 failed to yield an ad from our intrepid tailor in the Minneapolis Directory, Harrison took out a half-page ad in a publication titled Ariel, the monthly magazine of the Junior and Senior classes at the University of Minnesota. The ad appeared in Volume 6, Number 6 of the magazine dated February 28, 1883, on page 94 and detailed his services in depth and at length. The 1884 City Directory saw the listing expand to: Harrison, James T., Clothing Merchant, Tailor, and Gentlemen’s Furnishing Goods, 42 and 44 South Washington Avenue, rear at 28 Royalston. It would seem things were looking up for our newly prosperous tailor, and the 1885 Directory lists our friend as: Harrison, James T., the Tailor, 42-44 South Washington Avenue, rear 28 Royalston Avenue, while the 1886 directory gives the same write-up less the Royalston information. In 1887 the address was given as: Harrison, J. T., the Tailor and Clothier, 45 Washington Avenue South, rear 68 Royalston. A year later and James Harrison is listed in the Directory as Harrison, J.T., Merchant Tailor, 35 Washington Avenue South, rear 68 Royalston. In the following year, 1888, Harrison’s modest listing of Harrison, J.T., Merchant Tailor continued with the same Washington Avenue address as the previous year, but also included a sign of times to come – a telephone number! Harrison’s telephone number was 251-2, and it must have been both a marvel of its time and a wonder to behold seeing and hearing those primitive telephones at work. 1889 witnessed the same information in the Directory as the previous year’s listing, but in 1890 the address changes yet again, this time to Harrison. J.T., Clothing, Rear 68 Royalston. The 1891 Directory gives the following information for James T. Harrison, the Tailor: Harrison, J.T. Died August 1, 1890.

That sums up my knowledge of Mr. James T. Harrison, the Tailor, and I know even less about his activities in his other vocation, one which I discovered on the flip-side of his merchant-tailor calling card. It seems Mr. Harrison was an early and perhaps formerly unknown or unrecognized coin dealer, and the back of the card features an offer to buy rare coins at set prices! Did Harrison the Tailor know first-hand of the rarity of the coins he listed, or did he merely parrot another listing of the era? Either of these scenarios could be possible, but judging by the list to follow, I’m inclined to say Harrison the Tailor knew plenty about U.S. coins, and was no doubt a collector as well. He even offered a fixed price offering, for which he required “ten cents in postage stamps for combined silver and copper price list.”

Harrison’s Price List

Harrison’s Price List

According to his carte de business, Harrison was offering the following prices for the listed coins without mention of grade or condition, which were not overly important considerations for most collectors in that era. He listed the coins in the following top-to-bottom order on the card: Silver Dollars: 1794…$15; 1804…$200; 1838…$15; 1839…$10; 1851…$12; 1852…$12; and 1858…$8. For Half Dollars our Mr. Harrison offered: 1796…$12; 1797…$12; and 1838 O under bust…$5. For quarters the following offers held: 1823…$10; 1827…$15; and 1853 without rays…$2.50. He offered $1.50 each for 1877 and 1878 twenty-cent pieces, and for dimes he suggested the following buy prices: 1796…50¢; 1798…$1; and $1 each for 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803, and 1804. His offers for half dimes included $1 each for 1796, 1797, 1801, 1803, and 1805, and he offered $15 for an 1802! His cents offering was limited to four dates: 1793…$2; 1799…$6; 1804…$2.50; and 1809…25¢. Harrison ends his list with the reminder to his readers “Old copper coins American or Foreign bought in any quantity.”

I tried my hand at nosing around the American Numismatic Society’s website but my woefully inadequate computer skills failed to turn up any membership in that august society for our Mr. Harrison, and it seems his date of departure from this world would almost certainly have been before he’d had an opportunity to join the fledgling American Numismatic Association; poking around at money.org seemingly confirmed my ANA theory, as I found no early membership for a James T. Harrison of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I can’t help but wonder about our Mr. Harrison and his numismatic inclinations. Would a visit to one of his various addresses in the 1880s have presented an opportunity to gather with others of a like inclination, namely numismatics? Was haberdashery the hottest topic of the day, or did Mr. Harrison’s various addresses afford a gathering place for numismatists of the city, perhaps even a local club of sorts? Those fortunate mid-19th century collectors who knew James T. Harrison no doubt enjoyed peering into fancy oak and glass cabinets, discussing and marveling at the gentleman-tailor’s numismatic curio cabinet. He probably advertised and highlighted his little side-line numismatic business-within-a-business and perhaps offered a corner of the shop that served as a gathering place for Minneapolis’s collectors of the era. I can imagine them standing in a cramped little tailor shop, surrounded by U.S. and World coins, and perhaps by sacks of the U.S. and world coppers of which James T. Harrison was particularly fond. Did he ever buy – or sell – any of the great rarities on his list? I will probably never know, but I’m sure if I had indulged in the camaraderie of the numismatic circle of friends at Harrison the Tailor’s place in the 1880s, the action in Minneapolis would have been as vibrant then as it would be today!

Thanks for reading this far. If any reader has more information about Mr. Harrison that I’ve overlooked, I’d love to hear it. Either way, my next blog is about all those tiny snippets of paper I found in a box that I mentioned in the first line of the second paragraph of this blog. See you soon!