Can you imagine running a business or managing your personal purchases without coins? As we move into the digital age that might be our future. But back in the day when cash was king, it was almost impossible.
The difficulties of that situation were felt intensely over 16 decades ago during the American Civil War. Scarcity and hoarding led to severe coin shortages during that long and difficult conflict.
Civil War Currency Challenges
Early in the 1860s, with coins in such short supply commerce was becoming difficult and merchants began to make change with credit slips or even postage stamps. In 1862 the U.S. government did provide small paper notes in denominations of 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents and 50 cents. But few trusted paper money at that time; “fractional currency” did not solve the crisis.
Another solution was the private minting of tokens. Produced mostly from 1861 to 1864 these issues, now called “Civil War tokens” were generally copper pieces the size and shape of the standard cent. These tokens can be divided into tradesmen’s tokens or store cards and pieces with political or patriotic themes.
The tradesmen’s tokens were purchased by merchants and included advertising messages, presumably to be redeemable for goods in the store. Tokens with political or patriotic themes were produced anonymously and put into circulation unconnected to specific consigners.
Being privately issued, these tokens carry a multitude of messages and designs. Creators had to be careful not to mimic actual coinage too closely, but otherwise were free to express themselves ad libitum.
Were these “fake” coins legal? At the time, Mint Director James Pollock thought not, but there was no counterfeiting law prohibiting the issue of tradesmen’s tokens or private coins that did not imitate United States coinage. Civil War tokens did become illegal after April 22, 1864 when Congress passed a law prohibiting the private issue of any one or two-cent coins, tokens or devices for use as currency. On June 8, 1864 an additional law was passed that forbade all private coinage.
Where to Go From Here
Luckly for today’s collectors, many of these interesting and historic treasures were saved. Although not U.S. issued coinage, these pieces are often found with other numismatic items. Approximately 10,000 different varieties of Civil War tokens have been identified. The huge assortment of types and designs make the category a wonderful area for focus. It’s an almost never-ending treasure hunt for the next find to add to your stash.