Dr. Sol Taylor

Hard Times 1832-1844 And Today

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, December 6, 2008

he period of Andrew Jackson's administration, followed by Martin Van Butren's term in office, has been called "Hard Times." If any of it sounds familiar, it is because some of the underlying economic factors played similar roles then and now.
    In the Hard Times era, Jackson opposed the use of the Second United States Bank as a source of easy credit for investors, speculators and land brokers to create a serious economic crisis.
    Although it has some similarities to today, that era was run by the supply of gold and silver coinage — domestic and foreign — to conduct business. The federally chartered Second United States Bank was granting liberal loans for the expansion and development of the newer territories at a rate far faster than the supply of money could support.
    Jackson issued the Specie Circular coinage act, which required that government lands be bought with gold or silver coins. As a result, the lending practices of the Second United States Bank trickled to near zero and the bank closed in 1841.
    In this turmoil, the hoarding of coins — especially United States-minted coinage — was rampant, with hardly a genuine U.S.-minted cent or half cent showing up in circulation for many years. Merchants and die sinkers created several dozen varieties of what we now call "Hard Times Tokens" of that era.
    These 28mm copper tokens were the same size as U.S. copper cents and were readily accepted in general commerce. Foreign silver coins pretty much made up the bulk of daily commerce in that period, with gold coins a distant second.
    Many of these tokens bore pro-Jackson messages, while some were satirical showing Jackson as an emperor, a military tyrant with raised sword, or a jackass (donkey). "Jack-ass" was derived from Jackson's name.
    Several fantasy bank notes were issued at this time, showing the maker's views of the Hard Times, portraying Jackson as a tyrant or as a donkey. Some tokens were also used by shop owners as advertising pieces with their business on one side and a political motif on the other.
    Some tokens displayed the Phoenix as a symbol rising from the embers of the worthless "shinplasters" — wildcat banks' paper currency which sprouted during the Hard Times era.
    A modern day equivalent might be the paper securities of the likes of Enron and WorldCom, which had value at one time and none now.
    In the era well before national bank notes (which began in 1861) and bank credit cards (after World War II), credit was issued on the basis of bank notes issued by either state chartered banks or private banks which often were assay offices issuing receipts for gold and silver bullion. These receipts frequently circulated, and thus were actually used as currency (the definition of money). This resulted in double-digit inflation, increased national debt (since taxes could only be paid in gold or silver), and a lingering economic recession lasting well into the next two decades.
    The numismatic legacy of the era is a catalog of dozens of such tokens and their messages. Cartoonist Thomas Nast used the "jackass" in newspaper cartoons and it became the symbol of Jackson's Democratic Party.
    In 1837, a New York medallist created a smaller version of the one-cent token from of copper-nickel alloy known as "Feuchtwanger's Composition." Feuchtwanger minted hundreds (maybe thousands) of these tokens with the date 1837 and an eagle on the obverse and the words "ONE CENT" on the reverse with "Feuchtwanger's Composition" around the rim. It was readily accepted in commerce as one cent but was not accepted by the U.S. Mint as a possible alternative to the then-current large cent of copper. However, in 1856, a similar U.S. Mint design, made of a copper-nickel composition similar to Feuchtwanger's, was accepted to replace the larger copper cent.
    To avoid possible legal issues, some of the Hard Times tokens included the word "NOT" above the words "One Cent" so as not to appear to be counterfeits — although the designs often looked much like the U.S.-made coins.
    An unknown minter created an 1837-dated half cent with an eagle on the obverse and the inscription, "Half Cent Worth of Pure Copper," on the reverse. Like the larger one-cent tokens, this piece often is found in used condition, indicating that it did see use in general commerce.
    Since very few foreign copper coins were used in the United States at the time, this small change problem was addressed by various enterprising individuals who not only met commercial needs but also were able to express their political views.
    Today's economic crisis is not dealt with political tokens or store cards (merchant tokens) but with congressional action to prop up mortgages that might be defaulting, infuse cash into banks where credit lending is lacking, and other fiscal Band Aids.
    The essential elements of overextended credit and defaulting loans are not that different, and will be dealt with in time — in the present-day case by a new administration come 2009.
    Several cataloguers identified and listed all (or at least all known) Hard Times tokens and as early as 1899. The reference by Lyman Low was the first general guide to these pieces. Today, a comprehensive look at these pieces and their market value is found in Russell Rulau's "Hard Times Tokens" reference guide. A detailed article of this Hard Times period by Jim Wells appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of "The California Numismatist."