The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Roberts, George Evan
(August 19, 1857–June 6, 1948)

–journalist, economist, banker, and director of the U.S. Mint—was born to David and Mary (Harvey) Roberts in Colesville, Iowa. He grew up in Dubuque County, Manchester, and Fort Dodge.

    Roberts's early introduction to the newspaper business set him on a course that would shape the rest of his life. At the age of 16, Roberts began working as a printer's apprentice at the Fort Dodge Times; later he worked at the Fort Dodge Messenger as well. He briefly served as the city editor of the Sioux City Journal. In 1878 he purchased the Messenger and became the paper's editor. In 1902 he and a partner purchased two Des Moines-based papers, the Iowa State Register and the Des Moines Leader, which they merged into the large and influential Des Moines Register and Leader. Because of his prominence in the state as an editor and within the state Republican Party, in 1883 he was elected State Printer of Iowa, a position he held until 1889. In 1902 he drafted the Iowa Republican Party's position on tariffs, which criticized protectionism and instead advocated a "policy of reciprocity" among nations.

    As a newspaper editor, Roberts developed an interest and expertise in economic and monetary policy, which he addressed in numerous editorials published in the Messenger. Those newspaper columns were the beginning of what would be a lifetime of writing and lecturing on economic matters of national and international importance. In 1894 he published Coin at School in Finance, a rebuttal to Coin's Financial School, in which its author, William H. Harvey, advocated a free silver position. Roberts's nationally distributed publication was an important and timely contribution to the debate about free silver, which was central to the presidential campaign of 1896 and the defeat of William Jennings Bryan. Roberts's other publications, including Money, Wages and Prices (1895) and Iowa and the Silver Question (1896), also brought him national attention.

    In 1898 Secretary of the Treasury Lyman J. Gage recommended to President McKinley that he name Roberts director of the U.S. Mint. President Theodore Roosevelt reappointed Roberts to the Mint in 1903, and he served in that capacity until July 1907. Roberts served a third term as director of the Mint when he was appointed by President William Howard Taft in 1910. During Roberts's tenure, the Denver Mint was established, numerous technical innovations were introduced to enhance the efficiency of the manufacturing process, and the U.S. Mint issued the famous Buffalo nickel, designed by sculptor James Earle Fraser.

    Roberts also had a long and distinguished banking career. From 1907 to 1910 (between his second and third terms as director of the Mint), he was president of the Commercial National Bank in Chicago. Following his third term at the Mint, Roberts became assistant to the president of the National City Bank of New York. In 1919 he became the bank's vice president, and from 1931 to the time of his death he was the institution's economic adviser. One of his most important contributions at the National City Bank was transforming the company's small investment market circular into a widely read and influential investment bulletin, the Monthly Economic Letter. Serving as its editor from 1914 to 1940, Roberts wrote about world events, economic affairs, and national and international finances. The Monthly Economic Letter had a circulation of 150,000 at the time of his death, and, according to the New York Times 's financial editor, was second only to the Economist as an authority on financial matters. Roberts lectured widely on topics such as price controls, labor relations, agricultural policy, and the national debt. He also played a role in international monetary matters. In 1929 he headed a delegation of financers who traveled to Panama to investigate that country's financial situation. From 1930 to 1932 he was a member of the Gold Delegation of the Financial Committee of the League of Nations.

    Roberts married Georgena Kirkup on November 10, 1885, and they had two sons and a daughter. He died at his home in Larchmont, New York, at age 90.
Sources Roberts's papers are at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. Following his death, excerpts of his writings from the Monthly Economic Letter were published by the National City Bank of New York in a pamphlet titled "In Memory of George E. Roberts, 1857–1948." The New York Times published an obituary, 6/8/1948, and a two-part tribute summarizing his legacy and contributions titled "Apostle of Common Sense," 6/14/1948 and 6/21/1948.
Contributor: Paula A. Mohr