John Adams Bolen was a die sinker, a jewelry repair man, a sewing machine salesman, a subscription book salesman an engraver and a shop owner, among other things. He is best known to modern numismatists, however, for his prolific, eighteenth century production of medals and store cards. Bolen began his career in the 1840s in the New York-New Jersey area making jewelry and cutting likenesses for James Rumrill of Peckham and Rumrill. He later followed Rumrill to Springfield, MA in the early 1850s and remained there for the rest of his life.
Sometime between late 1860 and early 1861, Bolen was approached about producing a medal for the Pioneer Baseball Club of Springfield, MA. This would be Bolen’s first medal and would later be known as JAB-1. Following the Civil War, Bolen returned to making medals as well as a small number of struck copies of rare US (colonial) issues. From late 1865 through 1869 he would cut 36-dies and issue 23-medals, which began to appear in auctions and were noticed throughout the numismatic community. Following 1869, the issuance of medals stopped until the Masonic Temple Dedication medal of 1874, with only sporadic medals produced thereafter and generally tied to the subject of local Masonic events.
Vexing to Bolen and later numismatists were his 1862-1869 production of struck copies for rare US-related issues including the Bar Cent and Higley Copper pieces, among others, at least some of which had small changes incorporated into the designs perhaps as a signature or copy mark. Bolen was well known in numismatic circles and was a member of numismatic societies and he offered his struck copies as copies instead of as legitimate historical issues. Both Lyman Low and Henry Chapman were outspoken critics of struck copies, electrotypes and other forms of duplication and they referred to Bolen’s work with struck copies as counterfeits. Historically, this label appears to have stuck with Bolen to a degree and it may be debated as to how accurate it truly is.
Collecting Bolen’s works has been an active niche in numismatics at least since the 1860s and at some point after the production of the first medals it was realized by both Bolen and others that a catalogue of issues could be quite useful to the industry. During his lifetime there were five different lists of medallic work produced with the first of these appearing in 1866 and the fourth in 1882. It would not be until 1905 that the fifth work, which is also the only work that was published under Bolen’s name, would be produced. Importantly, none of the five lists is complete or accurate. It appears that real-time records of medal production were not kept by Bolen and that subsequent issues of lists relied upon Bolen notes or his recollections. Bolen also kept his own reference collection, but again it appears as though this reference collection was started well after medal production was started as it was incomplete. The pieces in this reference collection had a small B struck on the side of the medal along with a notation of the metal and a mintage number, which may very well have been a best-guess number. This reference collection was sold to the ANS in 1948.
A frustrating aspect of Bolen regarding his work is that he sold many of the dies he prepared to strike his medals. A total of 34-dies were sold and many of these were later used by their new owners to strike mules. Not all these dies have been accounted for. To complicate matters further, Bolen himself produced 15-mules. This makes collecting and organizing Bolen’s medals a difficult task, but also allows terrific flexibility into what might or might not be included in any individual collection. The dies were sold in three groups to George B. Mason, John W. Kline and A. Ramsey McCoy. Mason later sold or traded his purchased dies to Dr. Frank Smith Edwards and both parties made various mule combinations and these are known as the Mason/Edwards (M/E) mules. The group of dies sold to Kline that were used to produce mules have been catalogued as the Kline mules (K). Those dies sold to McCoy had their mules marketed by W. Elliot Woodward and are the (W) mules.
The numbering system for Bolen’s medals and struck copies largely follows the listing of medals in Bolen’s 1905 work and lists as, for example, JAB-12. Mules produced by Bolen incorporate an M and would be listed as JAB-M-12. Those mules produced by other parties would contain their designation (M/E, K or W) as well. The definitive reference work on Bolen’s career is The Medallic Work of John Adams Bolen and was written by Neil E. Musante and published in 2002. It is from this definitive work that the great majority of the information in this article was extracted. TB