The Stamp and Coin Place Blog: connecting the past and present of stamp and coin collecting, and looking to the future.

How the Civil War Caused the Ban on Private Coins

“The Constitution Must and Shall Be Preserved”

Once upon a time, some US citizens renounced government-issued coins and decided to make their own.

Between 1861 and 1864, Civil War tokens were privately minted and distributed in the United States, before the government set stricter standards on coins as currency.

If privately-made coins seem odd from the modern perspective, it is even more strange to consider that in 1862, Americans hoarded coins with gold and silver, as well as copper-nickel pennies. As a result, millions of government-issued coins began to vanish from circulation. The craftiest private businesses decided to capitalize on this and started making private tokens.

Those that imitated the cent sometimes had the very small word NOT over ONE CENT. How’s that for the ultimate fine print?

These tokens were made and used mostly in the Northeast and Midwest. They had huge variety in design, though many faithfully imitated the copper-nickel cent.

A Civil War store card

A Civil War store card

Three main types of Civil War tokens were created:

  • Patriotic: These displayed a patriotic symbol or slogan, most of which were pro-Union.
  • Store cards: Merchants made store cards to promote their business, with one side spelling out the name and location of the private business.
  • Sutler tokens: Similar to store cards but instead displaying the name of an army unit. A sutler was a merchant who ran a kind of general store for the military. Most sold their items from transportable tents or the backs of wagons, which allowed them to travel where the army was. These are the rarest of the civil war tokens.

The Mint Director at the time, James Pollock, thought these privately-made coins were illegal, but at the time no law prohibited private coins not in imitation of US coins.

But eventually, the US government had had enough of this private coinage. On April 22, 1864 the United States determined a specific composition and weight for cents and two-cent pieces and declared only those approved by the government to be legal, two years after the Civil War tokens’ beginning. On June 8 of the same year, another law forbade the private minting of gold coins.

At the time of the ban there were roughly 25 million private Civil War tokens in circulation. After they stopped being useful, they became a coin collector’s dream.

What do you think of these privately-made tokens? If you made your own tokens, what would you put on them?

Sources:

Silver & Gold Hoarding

Civil War Tokens

A Century of Lawmaking

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