A Pocketful of History is a collection of essays about the state quarters put out during the fifty state quarter program. Some are straight history, some are about a particular coin design’s travel from idea to eventual winner, and some … some kind-of go off on tangents. When the coins give Noles something of historical importance, he does a good job of telling us the story. Unfortunately, not all do, and Noles has to scramble to deliver on his promise.
A lot of the time, Noles is lucky. A state chose something of historical interest to base the design of their coin on, and he has a good topic to write about. This happens most frequently in the beginning of the book, which is organized by order in which the states joined the union, and thus has the oldest states closest to the start.
One of the best examples of this is the very first chapter, which tells the story of Delaware’s coin design. It features Caesar Rodney in his gallop from Delaware to provide a critical vote for independence in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. It’s a story I didn’t know, and Noles tells it well. I enjoyed learning that little bit of Delaware history that turned out to contribute to a fairly large part of American history.
Another type of story Noles tells is the trip the winning design took to become the design a state chose for their coin. California’s chapter is a good example. Noles spends a lot of time on Schwarzenegger’s decision-making process before getting to the story of John Muir, who is featured on the coin. These chapters I found much less interesting than the ones that focus most of their attention on the story of the coin. I found myself bored when he discussed the process of design, the way the decision was made, the people who made the decision, the number of the coins, and whatever controversy there was about the design that was chosen. I didn’t expect to get that type of story. I’m interested in the story the coin is intended to tell, not that of the politics that brought them into being.
The worst of the chapters go off on paths that are tenuously connected to the design of the coin. Perhaps the most egregious example of this type of chapter is that of my home state, Michigan. Noles starts off the chapter by titling it, rather insultingly, “Great Lakes, Great Drama … and a So-So Quarter”.
I’ll admit that the design of the quarter is more simple — it’s the shape of our state (not the borders, since those extend out into the Great Lakes) as well as those of the Great Lakes. Instead of telling the story, then, of the formation of the lakes, or the history of the shipping industry, Noles chooses to tell us of the great storm of 1913 and the devastation wreaked on the ships sailing at the time.
How, exactly, is this related to the image depicted on the coin? It doesn’t show a boat in distress. It doesn’t even show waves, and has little to do with Michigan itself. I was extremely disappointed in Noles’ treatment of my state.
Fortunately, the good chapters outnumber the bad ones, which made A Pocketful of History much easier to get through. Noles would have done better to keep out of the politics, and find the more honest stories for the coins that didn’t readily provide a historical image for him to write about.