US Tokens 1833-1900

Numismatic & Historic Information on Hard Times, Merchant, Patriotic Civil War, Trade, Gay Nineties Tokens


According to a general definition of a token, it is a metallic substitute for government coinage, or a form of coin-shaped advertising. But a token does not have to be made of metal to be described as a token. For example, some modern types of tokens are made of plastic. Also a token is not always subjected to the rule of being "worth" something to be truly a token - "good for" 5 cents, one ride, one drink, etc.

The diversity of tokens includes various types such as counterstamped coins, currency tokens, membership medals, advertising checks, political tokens, tokens for value, store cards, transportation tokens, tool checks, amusement tokens, indian and post trader tokens, shell and mirror cards, hard rubber cards, military tokens, telephone tokens, prison tokens, political campaign pieces, etc. That is why collecting tokens has become one of the most important cornerstones in numismatics.

US and Foreign Tokens


Hard Times Tokens (1833-1844)

The pieces, mostly made of copper and the size of the contemporary U.S. Large Cent, were privately issued in the US and can be divided into several categories: (1) Pieces referring to the Bank of the United States and the controversy surrounding it. (2) Those with inscriptions and designs closely resembling the regular cent coinage, but with some differences in order to evade the counterfeiting laws. (3) Tokens with inscriptions relating to political and satirical situations of the era. (4) Examples bearing the advertisements of private merchants -- "Store cards." (5) Die mulings: Combinations with the obverses or reverses of any of the preceding.

Hard Times tokens remained in circulation in the United States as long as the government's Large Cent did. The tokens found at least three other uses their creators never envisioned: (1) Circulation as halfpennies in Canada. (2) Host coins for the activities of counterstampers. (3) Blanks for making tokens of South America.


US Merchant Tokens (1845-1860)

This series of tokens represents the unofficial coinage of America from the end of Hard Times era to the beginning of the Civil War. The first few years of the Merchant token period (1845-1847) witnessed a continuation of the basic cent-imitation type of token.

Token motifs, sizes, and metallic content (brass replaced copper) started changing dramatically in the 1848-1851 period. Imitations of the U.S. gold coins began to appear causing some public distress as they could easily have passed visual inspection as $10 gold coins, though they were much lighter in weight.

The period 1852-1857 was considered the Golden Age of Tokens in America. Since the national coinage was starting to catch up with the nation's needs, the tokens were not so often used as true media of exchange, rather for the advertising, transport, admittance, identification, politics, and nostalgia.

In 1857, the United States banned the further use of foreign coins as legal tender in trade, eliminated the half cent, and reduced the diameter of the cent from 29 to 19 mm. Also the composition of the cent was changed from copper to a yellowish cupronickel alloy. The merchant tokens followed the legal cent and reduced-size tokens started appearing. Some even imitated the new Flying Eagle and Indian cents.

Patriotic Civil War Tokens (1861-1865)

Since the Colonial/Early Republican era, the Civil War was the second period in American history when the reigning authority was unable to provide a circulating metallic medium of exchange sufficient to the needs of commerce. Neither the Early American nor Hard Times periods witnessed the extreme hoarding of the hard currency by people during the earlier stages of the Civil War.

Tradesmen were forced to issue a medium that would supply the place of small coins. The tokens passed as currency and were of two basic types, the so-called "patriotic" tokens which contained no sponsor's name who would redeem them for cash, and the "store cards" which did name a redeemer. The widespread use of Civil War tokens, most of which were of pure copper and measured 19 to 20 mm in diameter, actually led the United States government to imitate certain features of the tokens in the legal tender coinage.


The great majority of Civil War tokens bear the date 1863, and a good number bear the 1862 and 1864 dates. Hardly any bear an 1865 date due to the passage of an act of Congress in 1864, forbidding private individuals to issue any form of money.


US Trade Tokens (1866-1889)

This series of tokens represents the private coinage and advertising tokens of an industrializing America. A special feature of the post-Civil War period is the Centennial of the United States celebrations that took place in Philadelphia in 1876. This series is dominated by such stock devices as the Liberty Bell, Libertas Americana medal, Continental Army soldier, Independence Hall, etc. At the same time, an ever-widening issuance of trade tokens, which were utilitarian in appearance and worth a fixed amount (25 cents, one drink, one admittance, one cigar, one tune), took place.


Tokens Of The Gay Nineties (1890-1900)

Trade tokens, store cards and medalets which record an Age of Carefree Innocence in a self-satisfied America. The tokens include mementoes for nickel beers, nickel cigars, band concerts in the park, reunions of the Grand Army of the Republic, bustles and bowler hats, and the dawn of American imperialism with quick victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The trade check, or "good for", started coming into its own in the 1866-1889 period, but the 1890-1900 period saw issues of trade checks increase dramatically. The commercial introduction of aluminum to token manufacture about 1891 accelerated an already swelling tide of trade checks. Now every general store, saloon, pool hall, milk deliverer, baker and amusement park had to have its own issue. Also a special class of tokens, those of the "Junior Republics" - schools and living sites for boys, began to be issued in the Nineties.


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