Tokens are misunderstood even by many coin collectors. They are a non-permanent substitute for money. For a piece of metal (or plastic) to be impressed with a design and to be designated as a token rather than as a coin or a medal, the item at one time was exchanged for goods or services as a substitute for coins or currency.
The very unusual name for this type of token is taken from the name of author James Condor, who cataloged this type of token in his book An Arrangement of Provincial Coins, Tokens, and Medalets, Issued in Great Britain, Ireland, and the Colonies. More correctly these emergency issues should be called provincial or merchant tokens.
During the late eighteenth century, the Royal Mint in England chose to produce silver and gold coins, while generally ignoring production of base metal small change coins. These low denomination copper coins—including the farthing, halfpenny, and penny—were desperately needed to keep commerce going, but the mint appeared to be insensitive to the needs of the masses.
Exonumia is a more structured and sophisticated area of the hobby than might be expected by those who do not participate in it. There are catalogs listing many of the collectibles and their values, organizations for such specialized collectors, and shows at which exonumia has its own special area and shows catering exclusively to exonumia specialists.
Local merchants began issuing their own tokens in the proper weights, metal content, and diameter for these denominations, however the merchants needed to be careful to ensure the designs appearing on these issues were not similar to those appearing on the king's coinage or risk being accused of counterfeiting. Thousands of different merchant tokens were issued throughout the British Isles during this period.
Hard Times Tokens
Following the American Revolution, the economy of the fledgling United States had its good times and its hard times. During good times, citizens prospered, and coins flowed freely in circulation ranging from copper half cents to gold $10 eagles. During economic slumps, it was natural for the average citizen to hoard all the metal coins that could be acquired.
Private merchants, just as in England before them, occasionally issued merchant tokens during this period. Merchant tokens were of the same weight, diameter, and metal content as were the coins for which they were a substitute, but just as in England the merchants changed the designs to avoid being accused of counterfeiting. Merchant tokens were free advertising for the merchant who authorized them since information about that business appeared on them.
Politically motivated hard-times tokens were also issued, although they were meant to circulate as well as to spread propaganda. This is the time of the political intrigues pitting President Andrew Jackson against those in politics who opposed him regarding the Bank of the United States. The Bank of the United States was actually a privately owned bank in which the government deposited its money, under an arrangement through which the bank got to keep the interest earned on the deposits. Jackson opposed renewing the bank's charter. The political and economic intrigues that followed resulted in one of the more notorious stock market crashes and ensuing recessions in American history.
Civil War Tokens
During the American Civil War, once again there was fear of economic collapse. Citizens began to hoard all specie, grinding the economy to a halt. The government came up with several innovative substitutes for currency, including fractional denominated paper bank notes between the values of 10 and 50 cents, and encased postage stamps.
Merchants once more took matters into their own hands, producing thousands of varieties of Civil War tokens of the diameter, weight, and metal content of the recently introduced small cent. (In 1857, due to the increased cost of copper, the weight and diameter of the Large Cent was decreased from 10.89 grams and about 28 millimeters to 4.67 grams and 19 millimeters.)
Any token on which the issuing vendor is either identified merely by initials or not at all is called a maverick. Collectors find it challenging to identify maverick tokens.
You can collect two major categories of Civil War tokens. These are merchant tokens and patriotic Civil War tokens. The merchant tokens are simply those 1-cent size tokens on which advertising for the merchant issuing them appears. Patriotic tokens are those in which a patriotic theme such as “Army and Navy” or “Union Forever” appears instead of the person issuing the token.
It has been estimated that more than 10,000 different Civil War tokens were issued. On April 22, 1864, a law was passed prohibiting the private issuance of any 1- or 2-cent coins, tokens, or other devices to be used as money, followed by an additional law on June 8, 1864, prohibiting the use of any privately issued coinage of any form.
Transportation tokens are still in use today. Each token can be vended to receive a ride on a transportation service. Since the cost of a ride often changes, so do the tokens that can be accepted within a vending machine allowing entry to the transportation service.
Because each local transportation service typically issued its own tokens, thousands of different transportation tokens can be collected. Many of these tokens name the transportation company or the city in which the service is offered. Some of these tokens may even depict a trolley, bus, or other mode of transportation. All are collectible.
The easiest way to collect transportation tokens is by theme. Perhaps you will collect only transportation tokens from a specific city or state. Perhaps you will collect only transportation tokens depicting trolleys. The theme can be anything you want it to be, but it is much less frustrating to specialize than to attempt to collect virtually every transportation token available.
Shortages occur during wartime. During the Civil War, the shortages included copper coins due to the rise in the value of copper and the insecurities of the public. During World War II shortages included the metal for striking certain coins (copper 1-cent coins from 1943 to 1945 and nickels from 1941 to 1945), food, and other consumable commodities as well. People could only buy products such as gasoline and dairy products with cash and the appropriate ration stamps or ration tokens.
The most commonly encountered ration tokens are red or blue cardboard-like fabric disks that could be redeemed along with the appropriate amount of money for either meat or dairy products. Several varieties of these tokens exist.
Vending Machine Tokens
The most commonly encountered tokens are those that vend goods or entertainment services such as pinball games or amusement rides. Since these are a substitute for coins, they are considered tokens rather than medals.
The best way to collect tokens is once again by a theme. This theme could be tokens issued by a specific company, for use in a specific geographic place, or perhaps that depict some particular person, place, or thing. It can be frustrating to attempt to collect virtually every token since there are so many different tokens issued.
Even the gambling industry issues its own casino chips or tokens. Some of these tokens have a plug of silver in the center, while others are composed of base metal. Most name the casino at which they are to be used, and many of them are attractively designed in hopes people will take them home as souvenirs rather than redeem them. This benefits the casino because it costs the casino less than the token's face value to make each token.
You can purchase attractively packaged sets of casino tokens, however ensure that the individual tokens in each set can be vended or redeemed within the casino, otherwise you are simply purchasing a made-for-collectors set that likely is overpriced and perhaps nonredeemable.
Vending machine tokens also involve the darker side of the hobby since peep show tokens also fall into this category. Although some of these tokens simply name the establishment at which the tokens can be used, some of these tokens can be very graphic.
Military canteen tokens were issued throughout the later twentieth century. Most of them identify a military unit or a post exchange at which the tokens can be redeemed. These tokens are a substitute for coins, especially in areas where a threat is possible. At any give moment the local military authorities can withdraw these tokens, ensuring that if they fall into enemy or black market hands they cannot be used by someone other than the persons to whom they were issued.
Trade Tokens and the Company Store
Trade tokens were issued privately to be used in trade. Many of these carry a legend that begins “Good for__________” with a monetary value such as “five cents” following. Most trade tokens do not have dates on them. Some are simply good for one cigar, a beer, or some other commodity, rather than having a monetary redemption value at a store. Not all trade tokens are easy to identify. Some tokens only bear the initials of the issuing entity. Since these are not easily identified, they are known as mavericks until someone identifies what the initials stand for. Some collectors specialize in researching such tokens.
Trade tokens were issued to encourage people to do business with a particular business. Many of them identify the business and often the city in which the business existed. For this reason collectors often gravitate toward collecting trade tokens from a favorite city, such as where they were born or now live.
Trade tokens are sometimes referred to as store cards, since such tokens were issued to be used in a specific store rather than in a community at large. Company stores can be considered part of this, but company store issues are different. At one time it was legal to pay employees in scrip rather than in U.S. currency. This scrip, or company store money, was redeemable only at the company owned general store. The company dictated the price of goods at this store, often at inflated prices. Employees who changed employers would have no money until the new employer paid them, considering they were not paid in a universally accepted federal currency. For this reason today, employees must be paid in U.S. currency.
Company store tokens are particularly popular in the communities from which they originated. In general company store money has a “home base” where it is more avidly collected and for that reason has more value there. However, some scrip of better known companies is collected nationally
Love tokens are coins on which one side has been planed smooth, then engraved (typically by a professional jeweler) with a short message of love or the first name or initials of a loved one. Love tokens were initially popular in Great Britain, and they gained similar popularity in the United States from the 1880s through the early twentieth century.
The most commonly found love token will be on a U.S. dime, however love tokens are known using coins ranging from a cent to a gold coin as the host. Love tokens are typically valued by the quality and amount of the professionally engraved art work appearing on them. Each love token should be unique.