For What It’s Worth – January/February/March 2021

By Gary Miller

        Civil war tokens are privately minted tokens, mostly the one cent denomination, produced between 1862 and 1864 in use mainly in the Northeast and the Midwest, due to a chronic shortage of government issued coinage. It is estimated that as many as 25 million, predominantly one cent issues, were produced and circulated during this period, with as many as 10,000 varieties.

        In his 2001 book “The Civil War Token Collectors Guide”, author Byron Kanzinger asks us to “Imagine you are at a local convenience store to purchase a quart of milk. It costs $1.79. You approach the cashier, reach into your pocket, and hand him two dollars. He hands you back 21 cents worth of postage stamps. You don’t want stamps and demand that he give you proper change in coins. Unfortunately, he has no coins and neither do you or anyone else you know. Asking you to wait for a moment, the cashier takes back the stamps, reaches into his register and counts out what at first appears to be 21 cents in small change. You take a closer look. They appear similar to regular US coinage. However, the reverse has an advertisement for the convenience store. You protest that this isn’t real money, but the cashier tells you that these “coins “are just as good and can be spent the next time you return to the store.”

        This was the birth of, what we now refer to as, Civil War tokens. It is a fascinating area of collecting with many examples available at very reasonable prices and many different ways to collect. They fall into three main categories. There are, what are known as, Patriotic or Political, Store cards and sutlers, which have to do with specific Civil War Armies or Regiments, these are the rarest but for our purposes we will deal with the first two. Patriotic are generally anonymous or non-specific types which manufacturers could mass produce and mass market to merchants at a rate of about $400 per 1000 pieces, given them an instant profit and incentive. They will often feature images of Liberty, Indian heads or Eagles, Presidents and Adversaries, Patriotic slogans and devises to attempt to unify.  Store cards represent tokens that were produced specially for specific merchants, often including the merchants name, type of business and address. These were more expensive to produce but proved to be an excellent method of advertising and promoting customer loyalty.

There are about 1500 merchants that produced store cards advertising everything from Dry goods, Milliners, Hardware stores, Brewers, Saloons, Photography, Coin dealers, Gunsmiths, Bakers and Doctors and Dentists.

        The first recorded token was produced by H. A Ratterman , August 1862, in Cincinnati, Ohio. It would have been a fascinating time for coin collectors! In addition to a small amount of regular US coinage floating around, there would have been Government issued fractional banknotes of lower denominations of 3, 5, 10, 25 and 50 cents, privately issued notes and even encased postage stamps (A subject for another time) circulating as money. While the war raged on, life in many cities, towns and rural areas went on almost as normal and found a way around such a shortage of small change.

        By 1864 it became illegal to produce or promote private tokens after Congress passed laws, first for the “one cent” coins and then a few months later on tokens of all values and only United States coins were legal tender.

        Civil War tokens can be purchased for a few dollars while rarer examples can bring thousands. Collectors will seek out tokens made in their cities, towns or states, some collect by type of business or theme and some collect as many as they can.       

Next time you are browsing coins, have a look for some Civil War Tokens. Happy hunting – stay safe and be well! 

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