From the Coin Commentary Archive

April 26, 2012: The Salmon Classification System for Massachusetts Silver Coins

We are pleased to present this discussion and explanation of the new Salmon classification system for Massachusetts Silver Coins written by Dr. Christopher J. Salmon, author of the superb book "The Silver Coins of Massachusetts".

Massachusetts silver coins were the first native issues of the British colonies in North America and, as such, command a priority of place among collectors and numismatic historians. They are prized and desired for their beauty and charm and as tangible links to the material culture of Puritan New England.

For context, it’s helpful to recount the history and design of the various classification methods for the coins, with reference to their virtues and limitations alike.

Sylvester S. Crosby wrote the first comprehensive study of the Massachusetts Silver Coins in his 1875 landmark work The Early Coins of America and the Laws Governing Their Issue. He classified the coins logically (and ingeniously) by naming their respective obverse and reverse dies, with the ordering of the varieties reflecting chronology and the individual die designations reflecting in due degree evolutionary changes as engravers modified and recut deteriorating dies to yield new ones.

Crosby’s system was widely accepted as the standard until the superb American Numismatic Society Monographs on the Massachusetts Silver Coinage by Sydney P. Noe appeared in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Noe revised the Massachusetts silver coinage classification to include new discoveries and reflect improved chronology and ordering, but departed from Crosby’s approach of naming an individual variety by its obverse and reverse dies.

Instead, each variety - each pairing of dies - was given a single number. Each series was given a single list without regard to denomination. Crosby’s already simple and elegant system was further simplified, and this led to problems.

Einstein is often quoted as saying “make things as simple as possible . . . but not simpler” because if you devise a theory that is too simple it no longer accounts for all of the data. You lose information and the theory cannot be applied in all cases.

So it was, too, for the Noe Classification: Noe aimed to list the coins as simply as possible, but he went too far and oversimplified the already optimally reduced Crosby system. Information was lost and the system could not be applied properly in all cases. And there were other problems as well.

In abandoning Crosby’s practice of naming a variety by its obverse and reverse dies Noe’s system is silent regarding the existence and degree of relationships among varieties.

Simplifying each series (e.g., the Pine Tree coinage) to a single listing results in loss of chronological perspective in comparing coins of different denominations - different subseries - to one another.

Noe’s system is far less adaptable than Crosby’s. New varieties usually cannot be incorporated easily.

In Noe’s system simple differences in die state are often elevated inappropriately to the status of variety. Numismatic scholar and cataloguer Michael Hodder saw that there was often confusion in discerning die states, creating “chaos” for collectors, and he believed that Noe classification numbers given to intermediate varieties were often “absurd.” He is certainly correct. Imprecision and complexity arose in the Noe classification and got worse over time. Noe’s original list was expanded with the addition of intermediate varieties with “Noe numbers” that are confusing and complicated.

For example, in 1968, Walter Breen reported an Oak Tree threepence with a Noe 27 obverse and a reverse closer to the Noe 26, and he named it “Noe 26.8.” Richard Picker later subdivided Breen’s discovery into two separate varieties (differing in reverse die state). Picker also changed the name of the new variety. He didn’t like Breen’s “26.8,” because, after all, the coin had a “27” obverse - and why name a coin with a “Noe 27” obverse Noe 26.8?

This appears to make sense at first, except for the fact that Noe’s classification was not intended to name a coin based on which dies were used to strike it. Nonetheless, Picker named his two varieties “Noe 27.1.1” and “Noe 27.1.” The multiple decimal points are confusing enough, but it’s actually worse than that.

In Picker’s “27.1” and “27.1.1” each “.1” is like to a negative number. Each “.1” is a step backward in variety and a step backward in time. The Noe 27.1 comes before the Noe 27, and the Noe 27.1.1 comes before the Noe 27.1! More than simply inelegant, this is confusing (nonlinear . . . achronological), counterintuitive, and a recipe for classification disaster. As we’ve already seen, and as pointed out correctly by Picker, Breen’s classification of Noe 26.8 was also unsatisfactory in seeming to name a variety as a subtype of a coin it did not resemble.

None of these results are the fault of Breen or Picker: they’re due to the rigidity of the Noe system that does not show relationships among varieties and does not allow easy inclusion of new varieties.

The Noe 27.1.1 and Noe 27.1 coins also expose another flaw in the Noe taxonomy: the classification of die states as separate varieties. Hodder observed that in separately designating die states one might just as well identify “,, and so on.” In any case, it’s often difficult or impossible to identify exact die state for a 1g silver piece in F or VF, or one that’s flattened or damaged as these coins often are.

There are many other examples of die states being given unique Noe numbers. For example, there are two general groups of 7-E large planchet Pine Tree shillings, those with early reverse die states (Noe 8) and the much more common specimens with late reverse die states (Noe 8.2). They are not different varieties, but are rather two different die states of the same variety. There has been no re-engraving of the dies.

This is entirely analogous to the early and the (again, much more common) late reverse die states of the Georgivs Triumpho token from the late Federal Period. These coppers are not catalogued separately from one another, except to mention that they differ in die state, and there is no confusion among collectors. This is not to say that die states are not desirable or collectable as such! Specialists are well aware of the eary and late die states. Choice examples of the scarcer early die state Georgivs Triumpho command a substantial premium in the marketplace. In a similar way, most Massachusetts Silver specialists will wish to acquire both early and late die states of the 7-E large planchet Pine Tree shillings.

Because of the unwarranted designation of die states as varieties and the strict rigidity of the terse Noe classification the new classification returns to a traditional Crosby model. This solves the problems of confusing, disordered, and inappropriate taxonomy.

Obverse dies are denoted by a number, with minor changes by a lower case letter.

Reverse dies are designated by a capital letter, with minor changes by a lower case number (a lower case Roman numeral).

The minor changes are not differences in die state. They are changes produced by minor but noticeable re-engraving of dies.

Let’s look at a few examples of how the new classification system is applied.

The 2-C and 3-C are consecutive varieties in the large planchet Pine Tree shilling subseries. The tree of the 2-C obverse was completely replaced to yield the new tree of the 3-C variety (note that the lettering is completely unchanged!). The significant alteration of the obverse die is indicated in the change in number from “2” to “3.” The reverse dies of these two varieties are the same, without any intentional change by the coiners, and both have the “C” reverse designation.

If changes in dies are minor, the primary die designations are simply modified. Minor changes in obverse dies are indicated by lower case letters. This is shown nicely by three consecutive varieties of Oak Tree sixpence: 2-B, 2a-B, and 2b-B. Each has the same reverse die (designated with a capital B), but differs slightly - though clearly - in their obverse dies. The 2-B has a defective and quite weak first S in MASATHVSETS. This flawed letter was re-engraved to give a blundered, backward first S of the 2a-B variety. This errant character, in turn, was recut to yield the forward-tilting first S of the 2b-B variety (the adjacent “A”s were also a bit modified in the process). These three varieties differ in the appearance of their respective first Ss, representing minor differences, yet quite distinctive changes of discrete varieties. The minor change at each step is indicated by the lower case letter of the obverse die designation. The classification captures the chronological progression in a very logical manner.

The Oak Tree twopence varieties are helpful in illustrating how subtle reverse die changes are accounted for and in showing the intrinsic flexibility of the Crosby model used in the new system. All Oak Tree twopence varieties derive from an original single pair of dies, with the reverse die being recut over time and the obverse die remaining stable. Two basic varieties are recognized in the new classification: 1-A (“small date” of “small 2” variety) and 1-B (“large date” or “large 2” variety). Some observers have recognized up to 13 varieties of Oak Tree twopence, but almost all are only variations in die states. Otherwise, reverse die cutting is seen, especially for the characters of the date (but not limited to this).

The simple listing of two varieties is consistent with the opinions of Hodder, Norman Stack, and others. If one wishes to designate subtle reverse die varieties - or if this is the consensus desire among specialists - then this can be easily accomplished within the new system: either by attaching a lower case Roman numeral or by mentioning die state . . . or some combination! All variants can thus be accounted for without difficulty. The system is flexible and accommodating.

The different denominations are listed and numbered separately and independently in the new system. This is a complete departure from previous classification systems and is critically important. It avoids the chronological inconsistencies seen in the Noe classifcation.

In both the Oak Tree and Pine Tree series, Noe lists the fractional subseries along with the shillings in a single sequence. The result: a single listing for all denominations, with order and numbering that do not reflect overall chronology.

For example, the earliest Pine Tree threepence was most likely produced around the same time as the earliest large planchet Pine Tree shilling, based on style and the beads adjacent to the tree trunk . . . but the shilling is called “Noe 1” and the threepence “Noe 34”!

In the new system the threepence is classified as the 1-A Pine Tree threepence, appropriately reflecting its chronological/stylistic relationships to the 1-A large planchet Pine Tree shilling and emphasizing its priority as the first of the Pine Tree threepence subseries.

Classifying all denominations of a series in a single list also makes the Noe classification extremely rigid and prevents proper inclusion of new varieties. This is exemplified by the “Noe 38” Pine Tree shilling. It was discovered by Vlack in 1967. He was unable to attribute it, but Picker recognized that it was a previously unknown marriage of two known dies, namely Crosby obverse die 22 (of the Noe 17 variety) and Crosby reverse die M (of the Noe 23 and 24 varieties).

Because of the rigid constraints of the Noe system, there was no way to list the new variety with the other small planchet Pine Tree shillings. It was therefore added all the way at the end of the Pine Tree listing . . . after all of the shillings, all of the sixpence, and all of the threepence. This was a striking, but unavoidable discontinuity in classification.

In the new system it is listed logically and properly with the other small planchet Pine Tree shillings - and in the same manner that it would be if it were discovered in 2013 . . . or if it had been known since Crosby’s time!

The new system, by its design, can easily accommodate new die combinations in a predictable manner, and in ways that the Noe system can’t. No special name to invent. No exceptions to the rules. No problem in placing similar coins together.

No discussion of separate listings for different subseries would be complete without addressing the two completely different types of Pine Tree shillings: the large planchet Pine Tree shillings and the small planchet Pine Tree shillings.  They differ quite significantly from one another and are listed separately in the new classifcation.

The small planchet Pine Tree pieces, struck on a screw press, differ markedly in appearance and mode of manufacture from the earlier large planchet Pine Tree coins, which arguably have far closer affinity to the Oak Tree coins, struck on larger and thinner flans with a rocker press. The small planchet Pine Tree shillings are the last subseries of Massachusetts silver coinage to be struck, and were produced uniquely with an advanced coining press. The screw press was state of the art coining technology for the late 17th century. They are clearly smaller in diameter than any of the earlier shillings, including those of the NE, Willow Tree, and Oak Tree series - as well as the large planchet Pine Tree shillings. They show no evidence of striking with the rocker press used to produce the earlier large planchet Pine Tree shillings and Oak Tree shillings.

Of incidental note: there are no minor die varieties in the small planchet Pine Tree shilling subseries. Also, it is the opinion of most researchers that the small planchet Pine Tree shillings were struck over a relatively short period, with many dies in use at a given time. As a result, it’s difficult to place the individual small planchet Pine Tree shilling varieties in strict chronological order, unlike the earlier subseries where this was achieved convincingly by previous workers.

We have included here Noe-Salmon concordance tables so that one can see the translation of familiar Noe die varieties to the new Salmon varieties.  Note CRO will be using both systems on all Massachusetts Silver coins in our inventory on this site going forward:

New England Shilling

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
1-A 1-B
1-D 1-A
2-A 2-B
3-A 3-B
3-B 3-C


New England Sixpence

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
1-A 1-A
1-B 2-X


New England Threepence

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
1 1-A

Willow Tree Shilling

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
1-A 1-A
2-A 2-A
2-B 2-B
3-C 3-C
3-D 3-D


Willow Tree Sixpence

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
1-A 1-A

Willow Tree Threepence

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
1-A 1-A

Oak Tree Shilling

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
1.1  1-A
1  1-A
1.5  1-A
2  1-B
3  1-C
4  2-D
5  3-D
5.1  12-X
5.8  12-X
6.1.1  4-D
6.1  4-D
6  4-D
7  5-D
8  6-E
8.5  7-Ei
9  7-Ei
10  8-F
11  9-Fi
11.5  9-Fi
12  9a-Fii
12.5  9a-Fii
13 10-G
13.3  11-G
13.6  11-G
13.9  11-G
14  11a-Gi

Oak Tree Sixpence

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
15  3-X
16  1-A
17.1  4-X
17  4-X
17.5  4-X
18  5-X
19  6-X
20  2-B
21  2a-B
21.5  2a-B
22.1  2b-B
22  2b-B

Oak Tree Threepence

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
23  1-A
24  2-A
24.5  2-A
25  3-Ai
26  4-Ai
26.8  5-Ai
27.1.1  5-Ai
27.1  5-Ai
27  5-Aii
28  6-B
28.5  6-B
28.5.5  6-B
35  7-B

Oak Tree Twopence

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
29 1-A
30 1-A
31 1-A
32 1-B
33 1-B
34 1-B

Pine Tree Shilling, Large Planchet

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
1 1-A
1.5 1a-B
2 2-C
3 3-C
4 4-D
4.2 4-D
4.5 4-D
5 4-Di
6.1  5-Di
6  5-Di
7  6-Dii
8  7-E
8.2  7-E
9 7a-Diii
10  8-Diii
11  9-F
11.5  9a-Fi
12  10-X

Pine Tree Sixpence

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
32 1-A (Oak B)
33 2-B
33a 2*-B

Pine Tree Threepence

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
34 1-A
35 1-Ai
36 2-B
37 2a-B

Pine Tree Shilling, Small Planchet

Noe Variety      Salmon Variety
13  13-X
14  14-X
15  1-A
16  2-B
17  3-B
18  4-B
19  5-B
20  6-B
21  7-B
22  8-B
23  8-C
24  4-C
25  8-E
26  9-E
26.2  9-E
26.4  9-E
27  6-D
28  10-D
29  11-F
30  12-G
31  15-X
38  3-C
---  9-D

Chris' book, The Silver Coins of Massachusetts, is available through the American Numismatic Society website, and ANS members will receive a 30% discount on their order. 

Note also Chris and CRO are always interested to talk about Massachusetts Silver Coinage - you can reach Chris at, and you know where to find us!

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Some time ago a client of ours recommended that we write a Coin Commentary for collectors attending a first show...

February 18, 2009: Notable Numismatic Quotables, Part I

Over the years we've heard and read a number of interesting and thought provoking numismatic quotes from a variety of sources (actually, we've come up with a few on our own, too)...

December 27, 2008: The Year in Review

It's time once again for Dave and me to reflect back on another year of traveling to coin shows and auctions, meeting a lot of nice people, buying and selling cool coins, visiting new cities, using just under 2 miles of packing tape, waiting for hours at various airport baggage carousels, filling out grading forms, etc...

Thanksgiving, 2008: Thank you

Thank you. Thank you to our loyal customers who make it possible for Dave and me to travel around the country going to coin shows and auctions instead of commuting to work at some company that makes widgets and serves as the inspiration for the comic strip 'Dilbert'...

October 1, 2008: Coin Collecting in an Uncertain World

As usual, we're going to tell it like it is in our Coin Commentary. You see, we actually have a number of incredibly clever new topics lined up and ready to go for this section of the site (based on lots of good suggestions by many of our regular visitors), but frankly it seemed odd to post some of them at this point...

July 23, 2008: On CAC

As some of you have already noticed, a number of coins in our current inventory are now identified as having CAC stickers...

July 14, 2008: What are Your Choices for the 100 Greatest US Coins?

That was the question posed to me recently by the good folks at Whitman Publishing. It seems they are hard at work on the shiny new 3rd Edition of their extremely popular coffee table book, The 100 Greatest US Coins, and so they have asked me and a group of other (and I quote) "dealers, collectors, researchers, historians and others connected to the field" to vote on the list...

May 19, 2008: My Love Affair with a Fat, Old Woman

An Original Work of Numismatic Non-Fiction by Dave Wnuck. Shhhhh. Don't tell my wife, but I'm in love with another woman...

March 31, 2008: An Ode to . . . John Agre(?) by Dave Wnuck

This Coin Commentary may sound nakedly self-promotional, but I'd like to tell the folks out there a little about my business partner and the half owner of Coin Rarities Online, John Agre...

February 9, 2008: Colonial Coin Collecting Q & A, Part 2

Waaaaaay back in August of 2006 we wrote part 1 of this Q & A with every intention of adding Part 2 eventually...

December 26, 2007: The Year in Review

As another exciting numismatic year winds to a close, it is appropriate that we look back and reflect on the new friends we made, the coins we bought and sold, the fun we had, the memorable meals we enjoyed, the wonderful grades we received, the bad bus rides we took and the myriad other events which, in total, conspired to make this the finest and most enjoyable year ever in the history of CRO, ever...

November 15, 2007: How Come the Coins Went so Cheap?

I got an email from a customer the other day who had been watching the Stack's 'Amherst & Waccubuc' catalog colonial session online and seeing (with a handful of notable exceptions) very low prices or coins not meeting reserve...

November 2, 2007: Ten Coins we Could Buy and Sell Ten Times

This idea for a Coin Commentary was submitted by one of our customers, and I liked the idea so much that I just started flailing away on the keyboard immediately...

September 10, 2007: So How's the Coin Market? (Parts 1 & 2)

That's a question dealers (including us) hear all of the time from customers. And while responses to this question may vary wildly depending on who you ask, this is our Coin Commentary and here you will get the 'CRO View' (which happens to be pretty well researched)...

July 31, 2007: How Can You Avoid Buying Doctored Coins?

We recently received an email from a collector who was dismayed by the number of doctored, conserved and enhanced coins in TPG holders in the marketplace...

July 4, 2007: Life is Too Short to Buy Ugly Coins

At the recent Baltimore show, I spent a fair amount of time walking the floor perusing the gazillion dealer tables looking for nice coins to buy...

May 27, 2007: The Right Stuff

Is what I saw during a recent visit to view a customer's collection. He graciously invited me to travel to meet him and view his coins, and, of course, I enthusiastically accepted...

April 14, 2007: What should you do with a sub-par coin?

Let's say you have a coin in your collection that really isn't up to snuff. And I don't mean one that is too low grade, or not expensive enough...

March 16, 2007: Why are we talking about trains?

That's an excellent question - thank you for asking. Actually, the answer is quite simple. One of the most informative and important articles I've ever read about coin collecting actually wasn't about coins at all...

Michael Kent Ringo: 05/28/54 - 01/28/07

We lost a good friend and numismatic colleague this week with the passing of Mike Ringo. Most coin collectors and dealers may have never heard of Mike...

January 18, 2007: Should Coins be Purchased as an Investment?

You're in for a treat today, especially since Dave and I totally disagree on this topic. Which means this will be our first Point-Counterpoint Coin Commentary, almost certain to be filled with polite disagreement possibly culminating in pure, unbridled acrimony with computer YELLING in all caps...

December 1, 2006: How NOT to Buy Coins at Auction

We felt compelled to write this week’s Coin Commentary as a sort of numismatic public service announcement after watching all kinds of people buy all kinds of coins at auction over the last couple of decades...

October 10, 2006: Dave Speaks About the Market

Interesting times in the coin market. After an almost unprecedented multi-year run-up in demand, prices and euphoria, we are seeing some changes...

August 30, 2006: Colonial Coin Collecting Q & A, Part 1

An increasing portion of our business is in colonial coins, and so we thought it was about time for us to speak up...

July 18, 2006: One Vote for the 'Box-of-20' Concept

We have been around coins for a long, long time, and we've seen people collect coins of all different kinds in all different ways, from type sets to die varieties to date and mint runs in all series to the odd...

June 9, 2006: Once sold, what item(s) in your inventory will be hardest to replace?

Someone asked us this on the phone today and we thought it was an interesting, thought provoking question...

May 26, 2006: So how much of a premium above sheet levels would you pay for a choice original coin?

Lots of people say they want them. That they value originality. That they hate to see original coins stripped and dipped and ruined...

May 6, 2006: What makes a good client?

Someone asked us this at a recent show and, as is our want, we like to answer particularly interesting or provacative questions right here on the ol' website...

April 16, 2006: Top 10 things we would change about coin slabbing

In no particular order: All slabbed coins would be photographed by the services and would thus be traceable, and it would therefore be impossible to crack out and resubmit a coin and receive a higher grade than the one originally conferred...

April 4, 2006: Do you guys BUY coins for these prices?????

A gentleman came to our table at the Baltimore show a couple of weeks ago, looked in the case for a while, admired a couple of coins, asked a few prices and then with a slightly pained and sarcastic scowl asked me what was apparently intended to be a stinging question: Do you guys buy coins for these prices? The implication of this question was, of course, that our prices are high...

March 19, 2006: Will the last original coin to leave please turn out the lights?

Heres an experiment for you: Go to view lots at a typical major auction. Look through every box of every series and jot down how many original, uncorrupted coins you find...

March 5, 2006: Thoughts on Coin Grading, Part 1

We thought we'd tackle a not-controversial, simple and easy topic like 'coin grading' this week. We’ll start with how we, as dealers, grade and assess a coin: Whether it is in an auction, in another dealer’s case, raw or slabbed, we evaluate a coin by studying it carefully and determining, regardless of the level of wear in evidence, whether we like it or not...

January 15, 2006: Why should I buy from a dealer?

In our experience, this question is typically followed by a statement that goes something like this: "I can just buy from auctions myself, so I really don't need to pay a dealer...

December 26, 2005: The Big Picture

As we’ve had a few days to relax, enjoy the holidays and spend some time with our families, we’ve had a little time to step back and reflect on the year...


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