B. Max Mehl was a pioneer of modern coin collecting in the U.S. His magazine ads popularized coin collecting across the span of the 20th Century and prompted hundreds of thousands of Americans, kids and adults alike, to scour loose change and their local banks in search of valuable numismatic treasures.
Max began his business in 1895, in a corner of his bedroom, at the amazingly youthful age of eleven! Grover Cleveland was President of the United States; and the horse and buggy, trolley, stagecoach were still the primary modes of transportation; yet Max Mehl was to build a numismatic empire which would reach from coast to coast in just a few years.
In 1903, when he turned 19, he applied for and received membership in the American Numismatic Association; and he placed his first national advertisements in The Numismatist in December of that year.
In 1904, he published the first of a series of coin price booklets, which he distributed widely by mail order for 50 cents a copy through his magazine ads. The first series was known as “Catalogue of Fine Selections of Choice United States, Gold, Silver and Copper Coins”, the second series of his coin price booklets was called “Star Rare Coin Book”, and later shortened to the “Star Coin Book”.
It has been reported by several sources that in the early 1900’s more than half of the incoming mail to Fort Worth went to Mehl. His draw from his ads was exceptional, as no other dealer was so resourceful at the time.
By 1916 he had a new building erected in downtown Fort Worth and named it the “Max Mehl Building.” A drawing of it can be seen on the cover of the booklets. It still stands today.
By 1924, Mehl’s annual advertising budget grew to $50,000 — an unheard of amount even for major retailers of the time.
About 10 years later, during the Great Depression, Mehl ran thousands of nationwide ads — advertising $50 to anyone that could find and send to him a 1913 Liberty Head Nickel (even though they were never released into circulation and finding one was for all intents and purposes impossible). This sparked a national treasure hunt for the nickel that was worth $50, a huge sum of money during the Depression. Cable cars and tramways in big cities would often run behind schedule during this era because the conductor was too busy checking all the nickels they collected in fares. Mehl never got one from the ads, but many years later bought one for a bit over $10,000.
In 1941, Mehl sold the collection of fabled collector William Dunham for $83,000 — a staggering amount for the time. It included several rarities of U.S. coinage including the 1804 silver dollar, 1822 $5 gold piece, and the 1802 half dime. These three key coins alone would bring well over $3.5 million today.
In his later years, Mehl moved to Southern California and operated his business from Beverly Hills.
His fame in the field is largely due to his spreading the gospel of numismatics, especially to kids and the common man, as most of the dealers of his day were geared towards wealthy clients who were patrons of the arts. Mehl is considered by most to be the primary reason coin collecting became so popular in the U.S. from the 1930’s through the 1960’s and provided the fertile ground and wide base of collectors that has allowed this great hobby to flourish today.
I wanted to post this little bio of a great man in numismatics because I just bought a coin which was sold by B. Max Mehl sometime in the middle of the last century. I am guessing the 1940’s or 1950’s. The seller still had the original Mehl envelope. This coin came from an original group of Max Mehl owned Commemorative Half Dollars that was recently sold into the market place with their original envelopes. A very nice piece of history.