Monday, January 31, 2011

Scripophily and History

Collectors of scripophily gathered in Northern Virginia this past weekend for what is the last remaining annual show in the country dedicated to collecting old financial securities.  These hobbyists buy and sell a wide range of cancelled and unissued stocks and bonds.  And in so doing, they enjoy a  portal into history, art and economics.

RailroadstockAlthough a near-extinct practice in today’s world of quick electronic transfers, there was a time when owners of financial securities were issued certificates.  Much like a college diploma, the pre-printed sheets would allow room for the owners’ name to be provided.  The number of shares of stocks or maturity date for bonds would be included.

These documents were issued by a spectrum of corporations, including car manufacturers and heavy industries, such as steel; telephone companies; mining concerns; banks; and retailers.  In fact, it covered the whole range of American commerce.

But the most prolific issuers were railroads, which were ubiquitous by the turn of the 20th century and continued to grow in importance for another fifty years.  These railroads ranged from the mighty Pennsylvania to long-forgotten short lines.  With this great variety, then, it is not surprising that  such securities represent the most popular specialty among hobbyists.

Also attracting collectors are certificates which reflect great artistic quality.  The first examples in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were relatively plain.  Their appearance improved after the Civil War and reached a zenith in the first half of the 20th century.  Much of this improvement was due to designs created by quality printing firms, most notably the American Bank Note Company.

The American Bank Note Company, founded in 1795, also has been involved in printing postage stamps and currency.  Now reconstituted as ABnote North America, it has expanded its scope into credit cards, passports and other areas.  For years, highly aesthetic stocks and bonds were virtually synonymous with this company.

Perhaps the most appealing certificate that I own is one of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway Company.  This green $1,000 bond has images of two 19th-century trains and a centerpiece featuring two Roman figures, perhaps one being the politico Cincinnatus.  Attached are 200 small coupons, to be redeemed biannually between 1918 and 1993!  Alas, the railroad ceased operations in 1922.

Another is a Pennsylvania Railroad stock certificate for 100 shares which highlights a nicely-engraved image of the famous Horseshoe Curve near Altoona,  Pennsylvania.  A purple-colored stock certificate of the Philadelphia Traction Company, issued in 1933, has a city scene  dominated by a 19th-century trolley.  A less elaborate stock from the New York Central Railroad features its mogul, Cornelius Vanderbilt. 

These four examples, all engraved by the American Bank Note Company, represent long defunct companies.

There also are many foreign stocks and bonds which entice collectors.  Among them are various ones from China, Russia, Belgium, France, Mexico and Cuba.  Some are quite beautiful and really beg for immediate framing. 

As with so many other historically-connected hobbies, scripophily provides not only enjoyment but also glimpses into another time and its characteristics.  My teenaged son left the weekend show with many questions and an enhanced interest in history.

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