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Family helps bring coin board titan to life

Last year I wrote an article for Numismatic News (Aug. 7, 2007) which told the story of Joseph Oberwise, a Los Angeles coin dealer and publisher of coin board premium cards during the 1930s and 1940s. Actually, it would be more correct to say that I described what little was known of him at the time. This wasn’t much, consisting mostly of what could be gleaned from federal census records, city directories, old newspapers and his advertisements in numismatic publications. This told me little about the man himself and his family, and it was likewise frustrating that the only photograph I had of him was a grainy image from the Los Angeles Times taken while he was serving as a juror in 1934.

Among those reading this article was Eric Head, an amateur genealogist from Tennessee. He wrote me shortly after its publication with additional information that not only revealed more about Mr. Oberwise but also provided me with a link to the Oberwise descendants. Having never had children or a male sibling, Joseph Oberwise left no heirs under his own name. It is through his sister, Barbara (alternately Barbra) O. Gavron, that the family now traces its lineage, and Mr. Head was able to make this connection I’d missed in my own research.

Armed with the current family name (originally Gawronski), as well Eric’s information that several Gavron descendants could be traced to northern California, I began writing to individuals of that name shown in public records to be still living.

I soon received an answer from Robert Gavron, and we arranged to meet at a coin show in Santa Clara, Calif. This proved to be a most fruitful exchange in which he provided me with an Oberwise/Gavron family tree and a photograph of several family members. He also gave me the address of his cousin by marriage, Josie, who is custodian of many family records and photographs. I sent her a copy of my book, Coin Collecting Boards of the 1930s & 1940s: A Complete History, Catalog and Value Guide, which details what I knew already about Joseph Oberwise. Her son Jay responded with the wonderful photographs that accompany this article, as well as a number of family letters that have helped to flesh out the story of Joseph Oberwise. What follows is the result of all this additional information from these several individuals who assisted me in my research.

In case you missed the previous article and are wondering who Joseph Oberwise was and how he is connected to numismatics, I’ll first recap what was already known of him and was published in my book. Joseph Oberwise was born in Chicago on Oct. 3, 1888, but moved to California sometime before 1910, ultimately settling in Los Angeles. He was a building contractor by trade, having worked both commercially and, for a time during the late 1930s, for the City of Los Angeles. He soon became intrigued with the coin board fad that was sweeping the country beginning in 1935. These inexpensive precursors to the now-familiar coin folders were sold at just 25 cents apiece and were what really turned coin collecting into a popular, family hobby from the rather stuffy and exclusive pursuit it had been prior to that time.

Purchasing a bundle of coin boards published by the Lincoln Printing Company of Los Angeles, in 1938 Oberwise pasted his own name and address over the Lincoln imprint and began marketing these through ads in The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine and coin dealer R.A. Wilson’s pulp coin guide, The American Catalog and Standard Premium List of All United States Coins. This book, like many of its kind, listed prices that Wilson would pay for old and scarce coins. Oberwise soon realized that the coin boards themselves could provide the same sort of offering, and he had a new run of boards printed under his own name that were labeled “Premium Card” following the coin series title. On the back of each board could be found the amounts he would pay for completed premium cards and instructions for returning the cards to him for a cash reward.

This formula quickly proved to be a winner, and Oberwise moved many thousands of these premium cards over the next 10 years. When his competitors devised collapsible coin folders in 1940, he added his own line of folders as well, marketing both simultaneously at least as late as 1948. Joe hired local boys to empty the returned cards, and they were armed with a list of “keepers,” while all the remaining pieces were simply rolled and deposited at the bank. He further extended his rare coin recovery process by operating several vending machines around Los Angeles.

So successful were these activities that Joseph Oberwise gave up both his city job and the building trade to open a coin and variety shop. He operated at two addresses in central Los Angeles between 1938 and 1961, when a violent robbery in his shop convinced him to retire at age 73. He died a few years later on May 21, 1967. A veteran of World War I, he was interred at the Los Angeles National Cemetery.

Oberwise was married twice, first to Linda and later to longtime shop assistant Ida, whom he married just weeks before his death. Oberwise had no children from either marriage, and that was why the trail went cold for me while researching my book.

One of the things that had confounded my previous research into Joseph Oberwise was that his family name was really spelled Oberweis. I had been looking solely under Oberwise, which spelling was evidently an affectation taken by Joe in an effort to Americanize. Joseph and Barbara’s father, Peter Oberweis, had arrived from Germany March 18, 1881, aboard the City of Brussels. He married Anna Wagner on May 14, 1882, and the couple had three children: John, (1883-1888), who died only days before Joseph was born; Barbara (1886-1950) and Joseph (1888-1967). Anna Wagner Oberweis died May 9, 1897, and widower Peter married Anna Wolfe (alternately Walt) on Dec. 23, 1909. They are shown in the 1900 census as residents of Portland, Ore. Peter was at that time listed as a brick mason. By 1910 Joseph’s older sister Barbara had married Benjamin Gavron and was no longer with the family. Peter and Joseph were both then identified as contractors and masons living in San Francisco. Similar entries are found in 1920, though by then they were residents of Chico in northern California.

Ten years later, Peter and Anna are shown as retirees in Chico, but Joseph is now living in Los Angeles and is still listed as a contractor. He is married to Lynda H. (alternately listed in city directories as Linda). She was five years older than Joe, and the 1930 census indicates that they married in 1920 or 1921. Joe and Linda later divorced, probably at sometime during the 1930s. What became of Linda/Lynda is unknown, as she disappeared from public records under the name Oberwise. Publication of the 1940 federal census, scheduled for 2011, will likely shed some light on the matter.

Joseph Oberwise was a veteran of World War I and served 1917-1919. His June 5, 1917, draft registration card shows him living in Live Oak, Calif., and his date of birth is given as Oct. 29, 1888. It indicates also that he had put in for an exemption from military service on the grounds that he was a farmer and the sole support of his wife. The registrar was evidently skeptical about both of these claims, writing in script on the form “There is a doubt about the truthfulness of answers 7-8-9” [the lines pertaining to employment and marital status]. While he had indeed married Linda in Chico, Calif., a few years earlier, the statement that he was a farmer does appear to have been a matter of convenience. His exemption was ultimately denied, and Oberwise saw service in France and Germany, rising to the rank of sergeant. This combat experience would have serious consequences, however, as Joseph Oberwise received an injury of unknown character that caused him to use leg braces in later life. He was also a member of the Disabled American Veterans of the World War.

Some years later Joe did become a farmer after all, albeit for a relatively short time. Taking advantage of depressed land values following the stock market crash of 1929, he purchased an orange orchard in La Habra Heights, Calif., that was called Rancho Reposado. Two consecutive seasons of drought, however, caused this venture to fail, and he lost that land to the bank.

Other investments were more successful, and late in life Joe Oberwise owned some 13 rental homes in various parts of Los Angeles. He was seemingly tireless in his various business ventures. Joe was also prominent in the area’s civic life, running twice unsuccessfully for the city council and being appointed an honorary chief of police in Los Angeles.
Oberwise was a popular figure in the community, known to many in both the sports and motion picture fields as “Uncle Joe.” During the 1930s he actually won a male “beauty” contest but declined the film contract that came with this victory! He had numerous friends in the movie colony, with whom he frequently attended boxing matches and other sporting events. His grandnephew John Joseph Gavron left a written account of his experiences in the company of his uncle during the 1940s, and this includes tales of seeing stars such as Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Mickey Rooney and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. John also got to meet former heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey, who came over to say “Hi” to Uncle Joe.

One incident from Joseph Oberwise’s years of producing and distributing coin boards was not so pleasant. John Gavron also recounts how Uncle Joe had a press in the garage back of his coin shop for punching out the holes in each board (always a clever businessman, Joe Oberwise gathered up all of the punched out disks and sold them to local bingo parlors). The machine was motorized, but the cardstock had to be fed and removed by hand. In a hasty moment, Oberwise did not time the operation just right, and the punch press came down on his right hand, costing him the loss of two-and-half fingers. Though he recovered from this grisly accident, he wrote to family members that he’d have to “give up playing baseball and bowling.” To emphasize his point, he enclosed a photograph of his mangled hand, all the while assuring his family that he was all right!

The incident described occurred right about the time his coin boards and folders went out of production around 1948, and the two events were probably related.

The coin shop business likewise had its darker moments. One burglary was achieved by poisoning Joe’s beloved watchdog King. Years later, an armed robbery during which both he and secretary Ida Young were assaulted finally caused him to call it quits.

As he approached the age of 80, Joseph Oberwise’s health began to decline, and he was admitted to a Veterans Administration hospital. When it was obvious that his days were numbered, he sought to spend his remaining time in a private nursing home, but the VA would not release him to anyone but an immediate family member. It was thus on April 15, 1967, that he married Ida Zenora Horner, his longtime secretary and shop assistant. Theirs was partly a marriage of expediency (as his wife, she could sign for his release), but they were also close friends of many years and shared a very warm bond.

Ida had long been considered a member of the Oberwise/Gavron Families and was known to them as Auntie Ida. But before any arrangements could be made to relocate him, Joe Oberwise died just a month later on May 21, 1967. He left the bulk of his estate to Ida, who followed him in death 16 years later.

The legacy of Joseph Oberwise is found in the many surviving coin boards, or premium cards as he labeled them, which today are popular collectibles. It was my pleasure to catalog these boards for my book on the subject, and it was a pleasure, too, to be able to tell the story of this remarkable entrepreneur. I would like to thank Eric Head and the various members of the Gavron Family who so generously provided me with additional information about Joseph Oberwise, as well as the wonderful family photographs which accompany this article.

David W. Lange is Director of Research for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation in Sarasota, Fla. His book “Coin Collecting Boards of the 1930s & 1940s: A Complete History, Catalog and Value Guide,” was published by Pennyboard Press in 2007. He may be contacted via his Web site: www.coincollectingboards.com.

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