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Great Finds

One Thin Dime

July 5, 2021

The rifle torch was a popular fixture in presidential campaign parades from 1860 to the 1890’s. Later examples were mass produced and had a cookie-cutter appearance, standard in form with flat surfaces, cut out by a jig saw. Earlier examples were less standardized, carved in the round with custom flourishes. We picture an example from 1860 that recently surfaced, acquired by a Lincoln specialist with a focus on parade items.  It actually incorporates some actual musket parts, such as the metal butt plate, wooden butt and trigger guard with loop. The lock plate and hammer are actually a single component of cast iron with no moving parts. The two-piece stock, barrel and ramrod are all wooden. The torch and wire-post attach to the rifle by insertion in the metal sleeve that surrounds the end of the barrel. By these attributes alone, it would be considered a highly unusual, early example. In addition, it is inscribed on one side “Honest Abe” and “Wide-Awake”.

The lettering is composed of small glass trade beads which have been inlaid into carved “craters” using adhesive of some sort, possibly mastic or varnish. The lettering is entirely white in color save for a red hyphen between “Wide” and “Awake”. In answering the question “When was the lettering applied?” we can only rely on the oral provenance which accompanied the piece as no written provenance exists. 

The torch was acquired by a Western New York antique dealer from a Buffalo estate. According to estate family members, the torch was once exhibited at Bunnell’s Museum in Buffalo. George Bunnell (d. 1911) was a showman who operated “dime museums” in Buffalo, New York City and New Haven. He was inspired by P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York and actually undercut his mentor by lowering the standard admission charge of 25-cents to 10-cents. In the process, he gained credit as the originator of the “Dime Museum”. One of Bunnell’s assistants was B. F. Keith who later made a name for himself as owner/operator of Keith’s Orpheum Circuit. Bunnell ran a museum in Buffalo from 1862 to 1867 when the first of three fires occurred. He reopened the museum in 1882 on the floor above the Buffalo Savings Bank. He retired from show business in 1887. His obituary appeared in the May 18, 1911 edition of the “New York Clipper”, precursor to “Variety”. 

The rifle torch appears to have some scorch marks at the extreme end, consistent with a fire. As stated, research indicates it was exhibited in Buffalo in the 1862-1887 period and may have been part of a section of the museum devoted to historical events. While it lacks some of the fantastic and sensational aspects of a Barnum creation, it seems “legit” and not a concoction devised to separate an unwary public from their “coin”.