Fort Worth immigrant made coin collecting a mainstream hobby

The Mehl brothers depicted in the mid-1890s are Meyer, B. Max, Abe and Israel N. from left. The family emigrated from Lithuania to the USA in 1892.

The Mehl brothers depicted in the mid-1890s are Meyer, B. Max, Abe and Israel N. from left. The family emigrated from Lithuania to the USA in 1892.

Fort Worth Jewish Archives

B. Max Mehl, an immigrant who worked 25 cents a week in a shoe store, made a fortune on loose change. When customers paid, he checked their money for rare pennies, nickels, dimes and half dollars.

In 1903 he placed an ad in The Numismatist, a coin collecting magazine, and sold his vintage coins to the highest bidder. A year later he ran classifieds on the Fort Worth Telegram. In 1906 he conducted a coin auction by mail and advertised his business with five lines in Colliers magazine. This made him the first coin dealer to advertise in the popular press. Within a decade, flour had made coin collecting a hobby for the masses.

Before Mehl popularized numismatics, it was a pastime for the rich, an obscure subject for archaeologists and art scholars. Mehl wasn’t a scholar – he dropped out of Central High at the age of 16. But he was a keen observer, a promoter on par with PT Barnum. He took the opportunity that people had treasure in their pockets and offered $ 50 for a 1913 Liberty Head Nickel, even though he knew none was in circulation.

The advertisement prompted trolley conductors and salespeople to check coins before adding them to the cash register. In a brochure titled “The Romance of Money,” Mehl said his search for a rare copper penny had turned into a $ 200 bonus for a college student who needed the money to cover tuition fees. A gold dollar coin he was looking for eventually turned up in Australia. By 1912 Mehl had 10 employees who handled correspondence from all over the world.

In 1916, Mehl hired local architect Wiley G. Clarkson to design a three-story, 16,000-square-foot office building at 1200 W. Magnolia Ave. and on South Henderson Street. The facade of the Max Mehl building is made of red Acme brick and is accented with cast stone. It has bay windows as well as doors and windows topped with reliefs of ancient coins. Within the beautiful landmark, 40 employees answered letters and sent Mehl’s annual catalog, the Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia, to a subscription list that had grown to 70,000.

Flour Building, 1204 W. Magnolia St, caz.  1920 (2) .jpg A 1916 architect’s sketch of the Flour Building on the corner of Magnolia Avenue and South Henderson. The landmark is part of the Fairmount-Southside Historic District. courtesy Fort Worth Jewish Archives

During the economic crisis, when Mehl advertised on 50 radio stations, his inbox peaked in 1935 with 1.25 million inquiries. The Fort Worth Post Office added trucks to the Magnolia Avenue route because Mehl’s “advertising campaigns made up more than half of the mail” to the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Numismatic Biography.

Mehl’s famous customers included Amon Carter Sr., Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and King Farouk of Egypt.

The teenage shoe salesman, whose first job paid 25 cents a week, was a long way from Panevezys in Lithuania, where he was born in 1884. His full name was Benjamin Maximillian Mehl. He had emigrated with his parents, three older brothers and sisters, in 1892, first to New York, then to Fort Worth, where his mother, Ruchel Goldstick Mehl, probably had relatives.

In 1907 he married Ethel Rosen, the niece of Northside developer Sam Rosen, who was also rooted in Lithuania. The wedding took place in the drawing room of Sam Rosen’s house, where a Dallas rabbi, S. Margolis of the Shearith Israel Congregation, was officiating.

Max and Ethel Mehl had two daughters, Lorraine (Rosenberg) and Danna (Levy), who became family archivists.

Mehl, B. Max Letterhead, 1929 001 (2) .jpg Stationery from B. Max Mehl, the advertising man who made coin collecting a mainstream hobby. courtesy Fort Worth Jewish Archives

Mehl’s granddaughter Roslyn Levy Rubin still lives in Fort Worth and remembers her grandfather’s generosity. “He was my ‘daddy’,” she said on a recent phone call. “He always gave me coins.” Whenever the family gathered for dinner at the Colonial Country Club, where Mehl was a founding member, “he gave me a nickel to play the slot machines” – a popular private club convenience in the 1940s. The glittering and ringing of the coins continued to fascinate her “Pappa”.

As Mehl’s fame and fortune grew, so did his civic engagement. He was president of the Rotary and Exchange clubs, which hold an annual roast to encourage the richest men in town to donate to Star Telegram’s Goodfellow Fund for Christmas. During World War II, he headed a local Selective Service Board. The Fort Worth Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews honored him with a humanitarian award in 1956.

After Mehl’s death in 1957, the coin dealer remained in operation until 1961. The Max Mehl building gradually turned into a flea house with low rent apartments. Renovated in 2007, the building is part of Fort Worth’s Fairmount-Southside Historic District, a neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1990. The suites in the building rents for $ 20 to $ 22 per square foot. Tenants include lawyers, doctors, surveyors, research companies, real estate agents and a photo studio. Although it is no longer a coin clearing house, the landmark remains a footnote to numismatic history.

Hollace Ava Weiner, a former Star Telegram reporter, is a writer, archivist, and director of the Fort Worth Jewish Archives.

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