Tokens of Hard Times

Feuchtwanger Cent
Bavarian-born chemist Lewis Feuchtwanger minted one-cent tokens as substitute for official U.S. coinage during the "hard times" shortage of 1837-44. He created the tokens using his own invention of "argentan," commonly known as German silver — an amalgam of copper, nickel, zinc, tin and other trace metals. He unsuccessfully tried to convince the government to use his alloy for official coinage.

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
The Signal
Saturday, May 14, 2005

had the honor of being a friend and colleague of noted New England numismatist Maurice M. Gould (1909-75). Soon after his untimely death in November 1975 I was recruited to appraise his holdings, which were housed in various bank vaults.
    Maury and his wife, Jean, moved to Southern California in the mid-1960s. He stored most of his vast holdings in bank vaults, since by that time, he was no longer active in the retail coin business.
    In his many years as co-owner of Copley Coin Co. with Frank Washburn in downtown Boston, Maury acquired exceptional holdings not only of coins, but also many related items generally called "exonumia" — tokens, medals, scrip and items made from coins, such as love tokens.
    While preparing a pair of mail-bid sales I conducted in 1976 and 1977, I had the opportunity to catalogue and research thousands of items, including one of the largest holdings of 19th-century trade tokens, also called store cards. Many of these pieces did not appear in any standard catalogue and were traded among a very small clientele, often state-by-state or by specific areas of topical interest.
    United States was very short on coinage, domestic or foreign, after the Jacksonian era and the Civil War. A wide range of exonumismatic items was issued during this period.
    Many shop owners, tradesmen and even dentists took the circulating coinage of the era (primarily 1840-60) and applied various counterstamps to promote their business. These impressions were made on coins of the era — U.S., usually, but in many cases Spanish-American (mostly Mexican) coins that circulated at the time. Most counterstamps bore merely the name of the entrepreneur.
    Since these pieces circulated locally, most people would know, for example, who "J. Crawford" was (he was a silversmith who worked in Philadelphia and New York in the 1830s). His imprint is found on several large cents.
    Some shop keepers who had appropriate resources made their own brass tokens with their store message on one side and their name and address on the other. These were the business cards of the era, known as "store cards." Some are quite valuable, such as those made by Dr. Lewis Feuchtwanger, who made a series of special store cards that were actually used as money, since they came in one-cent and three-cent denominations. Probably intended to be redeemed at his place of business, because of the coin shortage these pieces circulated well into the 1870s.
    Feuchtwanger's three-cent pieces are especially valuable, bringing thousands of dollars in high grades. The one-cent pieces range in value from under $100 for used specimens to several hundred dollars in mint condition. The Gould estate had hundreds of types that could not be found in references of the day, and were grabbed up by the few serious token collectors and dealers who recognized their significance.
    Because The Standard Catalogue of United States Tokens by Russell Rulau was first issued some years after Gould died, literally hundreds of his pieces are included among the thousands of types of tokens from this era. Several researchers, such as David Bowers and Gregory Brunk, seriously explored this little-known area many years earlier and helped Rulau compile a 1,000-plus page third edition — and growing.
    New pieces are discovered almost weekly as old buildings are demolished or old estates come on the market after several generations. Many previously unknown pieces reside in "junk boxes" at flea markets, garage sales and other containers in many homes — hand-me-downs from older generations. When the old Orange Hotel in Orange, Calif., was torn down some 30 years ago, amid the debris were found a number of previously unknown tokens that were eventually identified as coat checks dating back to the late 19th Century. Many such cases appear in the press, especially when the finds include a large number of pieces or known rarities.
    Several pieces in Rulau's latest edition are attributed to me — items found in junk boxes, flea markets or old estates. For items of which only one example is known, attribution sometimes remains open. These pieces are often referred to as "mavericks."

    Dr. Sol Taylor of Sherman Oaks is president of the Society of Lincoln Cent Collectors and author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Click here for ordering information.