Civil War Tokens
Stability During Unstable Times
By Todd R. Sciore
When it became clear after the Battle of Manassas that the Union would not win a quick and easy war, Federal currency was hoarded and virtually disappeared from commerce, states John Ostendorf, a numismatic author and Secretary of the Civil War Token Society, an educational, non-profit collector organization. “The Federal Government’s (mintage) output was insufficient and so quickly hoarded that most Americans probably did not see a federal coin between 1862 and 1864.” A shortlived attempt at using postage stamps as money was tried, but they were too delicate for the demands of every day commerce. As such, these simple tokens became our nation’s workhorse small change currency during the Civil War.
While various fields of study are dedicated to the research and preservation of Civil War artifacts such as battle used weapons or original documents, collecting Cvil War tokens offers one of the more readily accessible ways to build a personal connection to that period in American history. Civil War tokens are generally divided into three categories – Patriotics, Store Cards and Sutlers, with each serving a generally similar yet specifically different function.
Patriotic tokens were used as a replacement for the Federal one cent coin. The obverse on some carried a design similar to the Indian head pennies of the day, while others featured coronet or French liberty head devices. George Washington, Andrew Jackson and the USS Monitor were also popular obverse designs. The reverse often contained generic legends, such as “Good For One Cent,” the contradictory “Not One Cent,” or the indeterminate “Value Me As You Please,” among others. Many issues also contained patriotic slogans, such as “Union Forever” or “The Federal Union It Must And Shall Be Preserved.” There are numerous obverse/reverse combinations with rare examples commanding thousands of dollars, if and when they come to market.
Store cards had the same basic function as a patriotic token (replacing the one cent coin for making change in daily commerce) but were essentially advertising pieces issued by various merchants. The merchant name and line of business usually appeared on the obverse, while the reverse generally contained “a patriotic theme or design similar to an Indian cent.”
This type of token is highly collected by state, town, merchant, industry, theme, etc…, with rare pieces, even in lower states of preservation, easily selling for several thousand dollars. With that said, more prolific issues in high grades can be acquired for very reasonable prices. With a note on rarity, Ostendorf advises that “pricing is strong for rare pieces, yet extremely cheap compared to federal coinage, but a collector has to be patient as they aren’t for sale very often. A Civil War token with less than 20 known may sell for less than $200 in collectable grades. No way that happens for a federal coin.”
The rarity scale ranges from R-1 (very common with greater than 5,000 extant examples) to R-10 (unique with only one example known). In comparison to regular U.S. Mint issues, even a moderately priced, mid-range R-5 token has a paltry 76 to 200 known examples. Store Cards from rural areas, such as Tennessee or West Virginia, are tougher to find than those from a major metropolitan area, and female or African-American merchants are also small in number and highly sought after.
Sutler tokens are the rarest of the three types and as John notes, “were issued by sutlers who followed various military units in the field and provided goods to the soldiers, often at highly inflated prices.” These tokens are prized by collectors in that not only do they contain the name of the sutler, but often identify the military unit they were associated with. If you knew what battles a particular unit participated in, you would have an idea where the subject token may have been when it traded hands.
While Federal coins capture the headlines for record auction prices, Civil War tokens offer a snapshot into the past with the potential for historical research on a particular issuer and a rarity factor often exceeding that of their more popular cousins. This has made them a favorite of luminary numismatic collectors and scholars like Q. David Bowers.
Anyone who would like to learn more about this interesting branch of numismatics is encouraged to visit www.CWTSociety.com.