One of the best-selling books of 1984 was Helen Hooven Santmyer's And Ladies of the Club. Part of the appeal of this novel was its detailed local history of the fictitious town of Waynesboro, Ohio from 1868 to 1932 against the backdrop of national history. I have long felt that the study of local history is an important adjunct to the study of U.S. history, as it personalizes the events of the times and gives a comprehensible perspective to national events. And the opportunity for the study of local history - including original research - is also part of the appeal of collecting U.S. tokens, especially trade tokens.
It is a curious fact that there is less known about many U.S. tokens of the 20th century than about most ancient and medieval coins. We are able to date coins minted 1,000, even 2,000 years ago more closely than a number of modern tokens, some users of which are still living. But it is this very opportunity for original research that attracts collectors of ancient, medieval, and Islamic coins to the study of modern tokens.
Token tracing is practically a hobby in itself, and more than one numismatist has commented that it is the greatest reward of token collecting. Usually old city directories are resorted to first, and reading them is an education in itself into how people lived at that time - what businesses they patronized, where they lived, what their occupations were, even what the rate of growth of the city was. But city directories are primarily useful for 19th century tokens; for more recent issues, Duns, Bradstreet's, and Dun & Bradstreet books are invaluable. Every business in the nation is contained in these books, and their frequent publication (though not survival) allows dates of issue to be readily determined, provided the locality of issue is known. Telephone directories are useful for even more recent tokens. Genealogical sources - census records, etc. - are helpful for tokens issued up to about 1880. Some researchers prefer contacting the descendants of issuers, which if it can be done yields the best information (a picture of the store, exact names and purpose of issue, etc.) and sometimes additional specimens of the token. And others visit the locality where the token was issued and make inquiries there. I have personally used all of the above methods, would rank visiting the place of issue the most fun and studying microfilm blowbacks of old telephone directories the least, but all have their place.
In this chapter I will discuss the primary reasons why tokens were issued, give the history of American tokens from Colonial times to the present, and - through a bibliography of catalogs of tokens by state and period - sketch the present state of the literature on U.S. tokens and the opportunities for further research.
Many attempts have been made to classify tokens and explain the reasons why they were issued. None of these seem completely satisfactory to me, so I provide my own. Tokens have been issued primarily for the following purposes:
In the 17th and 18th centuries the distinction between coins and tokens was not as definite as it is now, so the identity of the first American token will always remain somewhat controversial. Some numismatists consider the Sommer Islands (Bermuda) pieces of circa 1616 - the first issue struck for the English colonies in America - to be tokens. Certainly they look like tokens, as they were minted in copper instead of the silver of the corresponding English denominations. However, it appears that they were authorized by proclamation of the king, and so had legal tender status; consequently they should be regarded as coins.
Other 17th century pieces are the "American Plantations Token" of 1688, which is really a private coinage similar to Wood's coinage and the Rosa Americana pieces; the St. Patrick's halfpence, which are either Irish Loyalist issues of Charles I of circa 1645 or Dublin tokens of the 1670's, but which in either case were made a legal tender in New Jersey in 1682; the mysterious and unique "New England Stiver," now thought to be a 19th century fantasy; and the London, Carolina, and New England elephant tokens of circa 1664-1694. Nothing definite is known of the elephant tokens - whether they were ever brought to America, in fact - other than that they were struck at the Royal Mint in the Tower of London. (The "New Yorke in America" token, probably intended for use as a jeton, is of 18th century or even 19th century origin.)
My nomination for the first U.S. token, then, is the Gloucester token of Gloucester County, Virginia. This brass piece is 22mm in diameter (slightly larger than a nickel) and depicts on the obverse an 18th century, center-entrance Colonial building one story high with chimneys at each end. The inscription (reconstructed from the two known specimens) reads GLOVCESTER COVRT HOVSE VIRGINIA. with XII below the building. On the reverse is a large five-pointed star and RIGAVLT.DAWSON.ANNO.DOM.1714. The famed numismatist S. S. Crosby thought this piece was a pattern for a shilling, but the wretched condition of the known specimens coupled with the silver shortage of the time (Virginia was even then on a paper economy) makes it clear that this piece was a shilling token. The Gloucester Courthouse depicted on this token is still standing, and old land records show that one Christopher Rigault owned land adjacent to it in 1714. Probably he was in partnership with a Mr. Dawson, and they issued this token in connection with their business. For many years it was believed that two specimens were known of this token, one in the Garrett Collection at the Johns Hopkins University and the other in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. But when the Massachusetts Historical Society specimen was sold in 1976, it was discovered to be a cast of the Garrett specimen. This piece was also sold at auction, in 1980, and realized $36,000. Just a year later a second specimen turned up in an accumulation of coins owned by a local woman in Gloucester, Virginia. It was also sold at auction, on April 30, 1982, but realized only $3,250!
The next tokens are those of the Higley family of Granby, Connecticut, who owned copper mines there. Dr. Samuel Higley, a medical doctor with a degree from Yale, purchased the copper mine property in 1728. In 1737 he issued a copper token inscribed THE.VALVE.OF.THREE.PENCE. Legend has it that the local tavern charged threepence a drink and that the good doctor passed so many of his tokens there that very soon there came an outcry against accepting them at this value, as they were no larger than British halfpence though marked with a value six times as high. The resourceful Dr. Higley then cut new dies reading VALUE.ME.AS.YOU.PLEASE/I.AM.GOOD.COPPER, also dated 1737, but continued to suggest that they should pass as threepence by adding a Roman numeral III on the obverse. (A mule is known of the THE.VALVE.OF.THREE.PENCE and the I.AM.GOOD.COPPER dies.) Other fanciful designs, undated, were issued about this time. While on a voyage to England in May, 1737 with a shipment of his copper, Dr. Higley died. His oldest son John Higley, together with the Rev. Timothy Woodbridge and William Cradock, probably made the later types, including a final issue dated 1739. Higley tokens are very rare in any condition and always bring four- or five-figure prices. Forgeries were made of them many years ago.
A number of anonymous tokens were circulated between the end of the Revolutionary War and the achievement of high production by the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia in the mid-1790's, but the next private token to carry its issuer's name was the Mott token of New York, New York, issued by William and John Mott in 1789. (In 1783, goldsmith and silversmith John Chalmers of Annapolis, Maryland issued a series of silver pieces with values of threepence, sixpence, and one shilling; in 1787, goldsmith and silversmith Ephraim Brasher of New York issued several varieties of gold doubloons and a half doubloon; and in 1790, silversmith Standish Barry of Baltimore, Maryland issued a silver threepence. While these pieces could be regarded as tokens, since they contain their full weight of precious metal I think it better to consider them private coins.) The Mott token, of copper, was struck in England and circulated as a penny. This token was restruck several years later on thicker planchets; by then the dies were badly broken.
The First Presbyterian Church of Albany, New York issued 1,000 copper penny tokens in 1790 in order to deter contributions of worn and counterfeit coins. Two varieties are known, both very rare today. Both are anonymous except for the single word "CHURCH."
But the most widely circulated of the early coppers are the Talbot, Allum & Lee cent tokens of 1794 and 1795. This firm of India traders, located at 241 Pearl Street, New York, had a large quantity of tokens made in Birmingham, England. There are three major types: 1794 with NEW YORK, 1794 without NEW YORK (scarce), and 1795. Both lettered and plain edge specimens are known, as are a number of mules with other British tokens made for collectors. The U.S. Mint purchased quantities of Talbot, Allum & Lee cents in 1795 and 1797 for overstriking (cut down) into half cents.
Mention should be made of merchant counterstamps on silver and later copper coins, which begin to appear in the mid-1790's. The Spanish-American 2 reales was favored at first, but later the U.S. large cent surpassed it by far. These pieces are often included in collections of tokens. Research is continuing on them, as many are not yet attributed.
The earliest U.S. communion token, mentioned previously, was issued in 1799. A few game counters and anonymous Washington tokens (most dated 1783) were issued in the early part of the 19th century, but the next true trade tokens are probably the Park Theatre, New York, ADMIT and PAID admission tokens of 1817. In 1818 Jose Antonio de la Garza received permission from the military governor of San Antonio, Texas to coin 8,000 "jolas" - 1/2 real tokens - which he did, though very few are known today. Both varieties, large and small planchet, show the lone star of Texas (though it did not have that meaning then) on one side and de la Garza's initials, JAG, 1/2, and the date, 1818, on the other. In 1820 the North West Company, a British fur trading company, issued one beaver tokens for use primarily in the lower Columbia River valley of Oregon. They were minted by John Walker & Co. of Birmingham in copper and brass. All but two specimens are holed, and virtually every specimen is corroded to some degree. This is because nearly every specimen now known was taken from an Indian grave.
Tredwell, Kissam & Co. of New York, N.Y. issued a brass token in 1823 commemorating the opening of the New York Grand Canal, and this piece may be said to begin a series of trade tokens that has continued almost unbroken to the present day. From this point on there is such a flood of tokens that it is impossible to speak of them all; rather, the broad periods of their issue will be described, with a very few tokens selected as archtypes.
The period up until 1832 is known as the Early American period. During this period a number of cent-sized storecards appeared in brass and copper. The Tredwell, Kissam & Co. and the rare Wolfe, Spies & Clark pieces were struck by Kettle & Sons of England, but the majority of tokens of this period were manufactured by Richard Trested, Robert Lovett Sr., and Wright & Bale, all of New York. Most pieces have advertising inscriptions and types representative of the issuer's business such as hardware or chairs. It is thought that most of these pieces saw limited circulation as cents.
Tokens of the period 1833 - 1844 are known as Hard Times Tokens, a name given them by Lyman H. Low in 1886 in his book of that title. "Hard Times" certainly resulted from the Panic of 1837, when specie payments were suspended, and many of these tokens have reference - often satirical - to the events of this period. But the term has now grown to encompass any token minted during this period, even if it is merely a store card, and is now simply a convenience for collectors. The majority of these tokens actually circulated as cents (and, in one instance, as a half cent), including the store cards. The pieces attacking President Jackson (portrayed as a wild boar or a jackass) are quite common in worn condition. The tokens of this period have been the subject of several books (the current standard reference is Hard Times Tokens by Russell Rulau, Second Edition) and bring the highest prices of any American tokens after the Colonial period; $6,000 was paid for a single token at the March 26-27, 1980 Garrett Sale, and many other tokens brought four-figure prices.
From 1845 - 1860 the series of U.S. merchant tokens continued much as it had in the late "Hard Times" period. Commercial types prevailed; there was very little of the political satire of the 1830's. Counterstamped advertisements on cents and silver coins increased greatly during this period, one of the most common being the VOTE THE LAND FREE slogan of the Free Soil Party in 1848. Another innovation was the widespread introduction of spiel marke tokens, that is, pieces imitating the design of current gold coins ($10, $5, and $20 pieces being the most common, in that order), struck in brass, and intended for use as game counters or poker chips. These pieces, showing the eagle or Liberty head of the gold coins, or often both, are so numerous that one numismatist, Michael Pfefferkorn, has written of this era as the Spiel Marke Period.
In 1861 the outbreak of the Civil War led to the most extensive series of tokens in U.S. history. Gold and silver began to be hoarded almost immediately; by early 1862, the only currency in circulation - other than paper - was the copper-nickel small cent. Some merchants resorted to paper scrip, bearer checks, or cardboard tokens. Postage stamps were also used for small change, and many merchants in the East issued small envelopes, usually with an advertising message, to keep them in. In the fall of 1862 metal-encased postage stamps with an advertising message on the case and a piece of mica to protect the stamp were manufactured for a number of merchants by John Gault. But a few months later, late in 1862, copper tokens the same diameter as the small cent, but thinner, were issued in Cincinnati and quickly copied throughout the East and Middle West. (Our present small cent was changed in composition and thickness in 1864 to match these tokens.)
In 1863 and 1864 a veritable flood of these tokens poured out - far exceeding 25 million pieces, according to Civil War token experts George and Melvin Fuld. So many were issued, in fact, that Congress passed two acts to outlaw them: the Act of April 22, 1864 prohibited tokens of 1 cent and 2 cents value, and the act of June 8, 1864 prohibited all private coinage, whatever its denomination. These laws effectively suppressed the Civil War tokens, as no cent-sized or denominated tokens are known dated 1865. However, by then the crisis was passing; the collapse of the South and the end of the war was in sight, and the scarcity of currency had been largely made up by huge issues of cents, the introduction of the 2-cent piece in 1864 (to allow the Mint to coin twice the face value of the cent with the same effort), and the introduction of Postage Currency and Fractional Currency (paper notes with denominations as low as 3 cents). The only exceptions are an 1865 token of Idaho City, Idaho, on the frontier, and an 1865 token of Monmouth, Illinois, whose denomination is given as "BAR CHECK" - instead of its actual face value (5 cents?) - to evade the Act of June 8, 1864.
Civil War tokens are classified by collectors into two series, Patriotic Civil War Tokens and Civil War Store Cards. The "Patriotic" tokens are anonymous, struck from stock dies for general circulation. Most have patriotic themes - ARMY & NAVY, THE FLAG OF OUR UNION, LIBERTY AND NO SLAVERY, etc. - but some "Copperhead" tokens were issued with designs critical of the war, such as MILLIONS FOR CONTRACTORS/NOT ONE CENT FOR THE WIDOWS. Store cards are named with their issuers; they normally carry an advertisement for the business, such as a mortar and pestle, trunk, stove, stein of beer, etc., but many show simply a stock die such as an Indian head, eagle, or patriotic theme. Both series might have been redeemed by their issuers, but the store card series was, in the main, intended to be, while the stock-die "Patriotic" pieces (which cost the merchant less than their face value if enough were purchased) were not. Actually, cent-size copper tokens began to be issued before the Civil War, as early as 1858, and many tokens are known dated 1861, which may be their actual date of issue. These pre-Civil War tokens are usually collected together with the genuine article due to the difficulty of confidently separating them all out and long tradition otherwise, though the latest catalogs identify many of them as "non- contemporary" issues.
After the Civil War there is no generally agreed-on classification of token-issuing eras. Dr. Benjamin P. Wright's The American Store or Business Cards stops with the turn of the century in 1901, and many collectors since then have considered the end of the 19th century to be a dividing point. Russell Rulau's United States Trade Tokens 1866-1889 uses 1890 as a watershed because that is when aluminum tokens began to be produced in quantity. I prefer a functional classification, so from this point on the definition of eras is my own.
From 1866 to about 1900 is the Saloon Token Era. Now saloon tokens are known from the Civil War, and after 1900, but hundreds and hundreds of varieties were issued beginning about 1875, primarily in the Southwest. These tokens have denominations such as 1 drink, 12 1/2 cents, 6 1/4 cents, or "a smile" (a small whiskey). They are highly sought after and many command three-figure prices, especially those with pictorial designs, ghost town tokens, and territorial issues (from Arizona Territory, Montana Territory, etc.). Another innovation of this period was the pool token or "Brunswick" token, after the billiard company that issued the overwhelming majority of them. Many of these were "GOOD FOR 1 DRINK." A few counterstamps are known from this period - OIL OF ICE and PARISIAN VARIETIES, 16.ST. & B'WAY N.Y. - are typical, but it is the end of the era for them; advertising counterstamps are almost totally absent after 1900. Merchant store cards and trade tokens are common from this period also, but they are not characteristically different from those issued prior to the Civil War. An extensive series of these tokens have designs commemorating the Centennial of American Independence in 1876.
Circa 1900 to 1931 is the Agriculture and Transportation Token Era. Beginning in the 1890's many general stores, primarily in the Middle West, began issuing tokens to pay farmers for their produce in order to save bookkeeping and to provide change in remote rural areas far from banks. Farm workers tokens - pickers and peelers checks - blossomed during this period. In the cities, streetcar and bus tokens were issued by the millions. Transportation tokens have their origin at the beginning of the 19th century with the toll road tokens of Pennsylvania, and there are many omnibus and stage coach tokens from New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston from the 1830's on, but explosive growth in these issues took place all across the country in the first quarter of the 20th century. They are so common today that a collection of 100 different pieces can be purchased for less than $20. Saloon tokens continued until Prohibition in 1919, and two new forms of advertising token appeared: the GOOD LUCK token, often with a swastika, horseshoe, and other "lucky" symbols on it, and the encased cent, with an advertising message and KEEP ME AND NEVER GO BROKE or similar around the coin. These first appeared as souvenirs at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901.
From 1931 to 1945 is the era of Government-Issued Tokens. The first U.S. wooden money, released by the Chamber of Commerce of Tenino, Washington during the depths of the Depression, appeared in 1931, with further issues in 1932 and 1933, the beginning of a flood of "wooden nickels" that shows no signs of abating. The passage of the Illinois sales tax in March, 1933 resulted in a wave of so-called Provisional Sales Tax Tokens, of which the Kewanee Chamber of Commerce piece was the first. These were issued primarily by quasi-governmental bodies such as retail merchants' associations and chambers of commerce, though a few purely private issues also appeared. Creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 led to the issue of special tokens for many of the camps. Two years later the first state-issued sales tax tokens were issued, for the state of Washington. Other state-issued sales tax tokens appeared that year; by 1937, 12 states had issued them. The Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Commission, a bureau of the federal government, issued tokens for use at their settlement in Matanuska Valley in 1935. A federal government token issue of national distribution was the Office of Price Administration Red Points and Blue Points, used for rationing of meat and canned fruit and vegetables during the Second World War. Another federal issue was the Department of Justice Internment Camp canteen tokens for the camp in Crystal City, Texas in 1942, used primarily by Japanese aliens. (There were many prisoner of war camps in the United States at this time, but all issued tickets instead of tokens.) This era also witnessed the rebirth of the saloon token and the continuation of advertising, transportation, and souvenir tokens.
After World War II, government issues (except for some state sales tax tokens) disappeared. The period from 1946 to 1981 may be called the Souvenir Token Era. In this period the use of trade tokens declined; the last farm workers' tokens and the last coal mine tokens were used. Tavern tokens survived in a few places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where plastic tokens were introduced to hold down costs, and in special situations like Chicago and suburbs where they were used to play the "26 game," a dice game tolerated by the authorities until about 1960 so long as winners were ostensibly paid off in tokens good only for drinks. Gambling tokens of another kind came into being in 1965 following the disappearance of the silver dollar from circulation. All the casinos in Las Vegas and Reno (and elsewhere where gambling was legal) issued $1 "gaming tokens," primarily for use in slot machines. These tokens were tolerated by the government because the casinos pledged to use and redeem only their own issues. Other denominations, including special "free play" come-on tokens, were also struck. During this period, from 1961 to 1978, food stamp change tokens were issued by many groceries and supermarkets throughout America to make change for U.S. Department of Agriculture food stamps, in order to conform to a regulation - since changed - requiring that change for the lowest denomination of food stamps be applied only to the purchase of eligible foods. But these examples are mostly isolated and localized; the broadly-issued, most-commonly-seen tokens of this period are souvenirs - wooden nickels at first, then (starting in 1947) copper and goldene brass souvenir trade tokens to commemorate local anniversaries and celebrations. With inflation, denominations grew from 25 cents at the beginning of the period, to (most commonly) 50 cents, then $1, and finally $2. The Alaska statehood trade dollar of 1959 (gold-plated with Alaska gold) alone had a mintage of 100,000 pieces. By 1962 these pieces had become so widespread that an Act was passed prohibiting their issue, but they were not suppressed; a number of illegal pieces continued to be issued in ignorance of the law, and the token manufacturers who understood the rules simply modified the inscription on the tokens. The use of transportation and advertising tokens declined, as they were replaced by coins and pinback buttons respectively.
About 1982 we entered the Era of Video Game Tokens. Amusement tokens were introduced around the turn of the century to play early slot machines (and legalize them in some localities by avoiding payoff in currency) and became very common during the 1930's before virtually dying out in the 1950's. But the explosive growth of video games in the early 1980's - led by the popularity of such games as Space Invaders and Pac Man - gave rise to huge new token issues. Children who had never before seen a token suddenly became quite familiar with them. Most of these pieces use uninteresting stock dies, but some are named with their issuer and a few even give a location. Another innovation of this period is the ice machine token, introduced by motels to prevent non-guests from helping themselves to free ice. These are often from the same stock dies as video game tokens or even cruder, such as ordinary quarters painted with red nail polish. Already video games, and their tokens, are showing unmistakable signs of decline, but the utility and adaptability of tokens is certain to lead to their popping up in some other unexpected place.
Tokens have been issued in every state in the Union, Puerto Rico, and most territories before they achieved statehood. So wherever one lives, there is a specialty available in the tokens of one's own locality. Unfortunately, out of the vast sea of American tokens only a fraction have been catalogued, and for almost half the states nothing at all is available. For those states that have been catalogued, no catalog is quite complete; I estimate that coverage ranges from close to 100% for romantic, heavily-studied places like Alaska and Puerto Rico to about 50% for a large state like Illinois. But this opportunity for original contribution to the study of American tokens is part of the appeal of the hobby, and many catalogers are working busily to remedy this deficiency.
Following is the Roll Call of the States, with the catalogs available for each of them:
These catalogs generally cover trade tokens from the 1870's to the 1930's only, though other tokens may also be included. Early tokens, medals, Civil War tokens, transportation tokens, wooden nickels, encased postage stamps, etc. are often omitted as they are covered by the following specialized catalogs:
In addition to these major categories, catalogs have been issued for a wide variety of narrow specialties such as Ku Klux Klan tokens, car wash tokens, prison money, automatic musical instrument tokens, play money, soap tokens, etc., etc. Be it little or big, there are plenty of opportunities to add to the literature of American tokens. Happy collecting!