Once Upon a Penny: The House That Pocket Change Built

Some of his fellow numismatists considered him to be the P. T. Barnum of coin collecting: a showman. But they also admitted that at a time when coin collecting was a hobby of the well-to-do, Max Mehl did more than anyone else to make coin collecting popular among average Americans.

And he left us a grand building at Magnolia Avenue and Henderson Street.

mehl 1900 censusmehl youngBenjamin Maximillian Mehl was born in Lithuania (Russia) in 1884 and came to Fort Worth with his family in 1893. While his father and brothers went into the clothing business here, Max began buying and selling coins, working out of the family home on East 2nd Street. In 1903 his first ad appeared in The Numismatist magazine. He was nineteen years old.

Mehl began placing small classified ads in the Fort Worth Telegram in 1904.

Also in 1904 Mehl began selling his Star Coin Book, which listed prices he paid for coins. (The book was published annually for sixty-one years. I found this 1930 edition on eBay.) In 1906 he gave up his day job—clerking in his family’s shoe store—and rented an office on South Main Street. Max Mehl the numismatist was on his way.

In 1907 he married Ethel Rosen, niece of North Side developer Sam Rosen.

Mehl built his business a nickel and a dime at a time. A lot of nickels and dimes: By 1916, when he was only thirty-two, he commissioned architect Wiley Clarkson (himself only thirty-one) to design an office building on Magnolia Avenue across from Magnolia Centre. “The largest and finest appointed exclusive numismatic offices in the world,” Mehl called it.

corner mehlwindow mehldoor mehllook up mehl 1look up mehl over window 2night mehlWhat fun architect Clarkson must have had with the design for the king of coinage. The cast stone of the south facade features coins above the windows and doors. An image of the building, with streetcar passing, appeared on the cover of every edition of Mehl’s Star Coin Book.

This coin, above the entrance to Mehl’s office, is a likeness of the fugio (“I fly”) sundial penny (bottom photo), the first coin authorized by the federal government in 1787.

Mehl was a marketing whiz. He advertised heavily in numismatist magazines.

But he also was the first numismatist to advertise in magazines and newspapers for a general readership, was an early user of radio commercials. These two large ads, one presented as a comic strip, appeared in the New York Daily News.

Sometimes Mehl’s big deals were reported in newspapers around the country.

His mail order business boomed. The Star-Telegram once reported that in 1910 mail addressed to Mehl accounted for more than half the traffic of the Fort Worth postal system. He once reportedly received seventy-two thousand pieces of mail in a single day. By 1924 his advertising budget was $50,000 a year—in 1924 dollars. In 1931 Mehl spent $18,500 for a single ad in American Weekly Sunday magazine. But as Mehl was bringing coin collecting to the masses, he was not ignoring the high-rollers. Among his customers were Amon Carter, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Egypt’s King Farouk.

During the Depression Mehl came up with his biggest promotion. In 1913, after the U.S. mint had discontinued the Liberty Head nickel, five unauthorized Liberty Head nickels had been struck (photo from Wikipedia). The rarest of rare coins, all five quickly disappeared into private collections. Dangling the (unfounded) possibility that a sixth Liberty Head nickel might be out there somewhere, Mehl launched a nationwide ad campaign. “Will pay $50 for nickel of 1913 with Liberty Head,” his ad read. “I pay cash premiums for all rare coins. May mean much profit to you. B. Max Mehl, 150 Mehl Bldg., Fort Worth, Texas.”

Some numismatists suspect that Mehl knew that (1) only five of the nickels existed and that (2) all five were in private collections. These numismatists suspected that Mehl used his $50 bounty as a come-on to receive and buy other coins and to sell his Star Coin Book. Regardless, his ad campaign increased interest in coin collecting nationwide as it sparked a treasure hunt for the nickel that was worth $50—about $1,000 in today’s dollars. Streetcars lagged behind schedule as conductors pawed through the change they collected as fares. Some people even tried to alter the date stamped on earlier Liberty Head nickels to pass them off as 1913 coins.

Mehl claimed that he spent $1 million trying to find a 1913 Liberty Head nickel. However, all five coins remained in private collections until after his death.

Max Mehl’s advertising acumen paid off. He prospered, as his house (1926) on South Adams Street in Ryan Place indicates.

mehl-1949-adThis full-page ad ran in the 1949 edition of the Star-Telegram celebrating Fort Worth’s centennial.

A half-century after his first ad appeared in The Numismatist magazine, Max Mehl was honored by his peers, as this 1953 Dallas Morning News clip shows.

mehl ANAPhoto from American Numismatic Association.

mehl-obit2Benjamin Maximillian Mehl died on September 27, 1957.

In recent years two of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels that he had made the object of a treasure hunt have sold—one for $3.1 million, the other for $4.5 million. Max Mehl, the king of coinage, was right on the money: Even a lowly nickel can be worth a pretty penny.

This entry was posted in Advertising, Architecture, Heads Above the Crowd, Life in the Past Lane, South Side. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Once Upon a Penny: The House That Pocket Change Built

  1. Dies (stampers) for 1913 Liberty Head nickels were prepared by the US Mint in November 1912 just in case there was a delay in the new 1913 Indian Head-Buffalo design. A few 1913 Liberty Head test coins were likely produced, but the claim “only 5 exist” comes from a former Mint employee who was peddling them at the 1920 national coin convention – after the 7 year statute of limitations expired. It can never be known if more than 5 exist or did at one time. So the claim that Mehl’s offer to buy one of these was in bad faith because he KNEW where all 5 of them were is really unfair. While it’s true Mehl never OWNED one, he did sell the same 1913 Liberty nickel THREE times in his auction sales in the 1940s. Once to Egypt’s King Farouk, and after he was overthrown in a coup, the Nasser government relied on Mehl to sell it again.
    When that buyer died, his estate consigned it to a Mehl auction again. So it resided in Mehl’s safe in that building three times. That same coin was borrowed for a 1973 Episode of Hawaii Five-O where a thief played by Victor Buono stole it and replaced it with a fake. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0598155/

  2. Most sources say that the home at 2512 South Adams that was built for Mr. Max Mehl was designed by Charles O. Chromaster. What they fail to recognize is that Chromaster was an employee of my grandfather during the 1920s up into the early 1940s. He was officially an architect/designer in an office of 6 other employees of my grandfather. I believe that my grandfather allowed Chromaster to put his name on the plans possibly to help him start building a reputation. My grandfather has the house listed in his architectural records. I don’t have any clear information on how long Chromaster worked for my grandfather but according to the “The Genealogy of Fort Worth Architecture: 1877-1946”, Chromaster did not start his on architectural firm until sometime in the early 1940’s. The house for Mehl is apparently one of the few houses that the name of the person who performed drafting design work in my grandfather’s firm is known. Mr. Chromaster went on to become well known in his own firm in later years as did other architects who were associated with my grandfather. Elmer G. Withers was an other architect who would start his career in Fort Worth in my grandfather’s firm.

  3. Gus says:

    Mehl was but a distant memory when I started collecting coins dealing with Bob Wallace located in the old Knights of Pythias bldg at 3rd & Main. This was the early 1960s. Bob would mention Mehl pretty frequently and to my mind was probably Mehl’s Ft. Worth successor as the city’s top coin dealer. Finding whatever connection between the two of them would be an interesting study. Wallace himself, was an interesting character. Although a fairly slight and somewhat crusty character, he was also a highly decorated WWII tank commander (I think) in North Africa. Like Mehl, Bob had a well-heeled clientele, but also dealt with a lot of others like me as a kid, who bought what they could with their .75/hr earnings. Carter 1 & 2 were substantial collectors who built world-class collections, as was Harry Bass, Jr. in Dallas…not sure of his connection to the Ft. Worth Bass family.

    • hometown says:

      In the late 1950s I, too, trafficked in coins and stamps at R. E. Wallace in the Pythias Building. Still have both collections, which, I am glad to say, with shrewd management after a half century have appreciated in value to upward of, oh, thirteen, maybe even fourteen dollars.

  4. Mellinda Timblin says:

    It seems to me that I remember the shoe store sign downtown. Any photos of it?

    • hometown says:

      Mellinda, the Mehl family stores—clothing and shoes—were in the 1200 block of Main, as was Max’s first coin shop. That puts them where Hell’s Half Acre was/the convention center is. The only downtown (former) shoe store I have photos of is Solomon’s, home of the iconic Red Goose sign.

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