Hard Times tokens are roughly the size of a contemporary large copper cent, baring various motifs depicting the hardships in America, as their name suggests. Often times, they display political campaign markings, advertisements of merchants and services or satirical references during a era of political and economic setback.
These tokens were initially ungoverned currency, serving a more satirical purpose than a practical one. Minted privately from 1832 to 1844, these early tokens usually featured commentaries on Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Seward or Daniel Webster. Others, featuring advertisements called merchant issues were produced primarily in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island and were often made from an alloy called German Silver, rather than copper. This particular subcategory of Hard Times Tokens are called Feuchtanger tokens.
At the time that these tokens were being minted, folks didn’t understand the half of hard times. Come May 10, 1837 these tokens gained new value when banks would no longer exchange paper currency for coins. This date is distinguished on some hard times tokens’ inscriptions until 1844, during the first year of recovery in a developing banking system. At the time of his inauguration, President Martin Van Buren vowed to “follow in the steps of [his] illustrious predecessor”, shifting deposits to favored institutions, sarcastically called “pet banks”.
During the Jackson presidency, as Native American land was being sold off like wildfire spreading through the West, America found itself in a position of unbridled economic prosperity. With a hearty economy and the expansion of the railway, the US Treasury distributed funds across the country in 1835. Necessitating an organizational system in fear of wild speculations, Jackson implemented the “Specie Circular”, on July 11th, 1836, mandating that all new land must be purchased with gold or silver. Specie Circular resulted in the immediate stabilization of prices and a settling of the economy. In 1837 banks began to run short of ready cash, which caused the specie suspension.
After May 10, 1837 gold and silver coins were no longer in circulation, and copper cents were in short supply. A large amount of copper tokens were then produced and sold at discounts to merchants and banks, typically at $6 per 1,000 tokens. Afterward, they were paid out in commerce and circulated at a one cent value.
There were several hundred varieties of Hard Times tokens produced with the advertisements of merchants, services and products that were known as “store cards” or “merchants tokens.” Other tokens known as “politicals” were inspired by the actions of Jackson, financial tribulations and the policies of Van Buren.
Hard Times tokens are intriguing to collectors because of their diversity and the way they reflect the economy and politics of their era. Some in the series are very rare, but most you will find to be quite affordable. If you are interested in learning more about Hard Times Tokens there are over 500 varieties to be found in Russell Rulau’s Standard Catalog of United States Tokens, 1700-1900 (fourth edition). Happy exploring!