Blacksmith tokens are a form of evasion currency that was in circulation primarily in Lower Canada and Upper Canada along with neighboring areas, such as the northern parts of New York and New England in the mid-1820 to 1830s. They were not, strictly speaking counterfeits, but instead skirted around the laws of the time by being similar to officially circulating coinage, but bearing different legends, or bearing no legends or dates at all, so it could be claimed that they were truly imitating circulating coinage fully. The tokens were designed to resemble worn examples of English or Irish copper coinage, most often with a crude profile of either George II or George III in profile on the obverse and an image of Britannia or an Irish harp on the reverse. They were typically underweight when compared to officially sanctioned halfpenny coinage, but were accepted along with many other unofficially issued tokens due to a lack of sufficient small denomination coinage in circulation at the time.
R.W. McLachlan in an 1885 article about Canadian Numismatics claims the origin of blacksmith tokens:
Previous to 1837, when the lack of specie caused copper change to be accepted in bulk, there lived in Montreal a blacksmith of dissipated habits. He prepared a die for himself, and when he wished to have a “good time” he struck two or three dollars in these coppers, and thereby supplied himself with sufficient change with which to gratify his wishes.
While this description was intended to describe only a specific coin in the series, “blacksmith token” or “blacksmith copper” was the name that stuck, and was soon applied to all of these types of coins. While the rarer blacksmith tokens may well have been struck by a single person by hand, the large numbers of some of the more common tokens in this series suggests that some of them came from more professional minting operations. McLachlan stated that the numerous types of blacksmith tokens available and their quantity meant that they were either struck at several different establishments in quantity, or a large number came from one establishment which operated for several years. More recent research points to the blacksmith tokens being created at various locations in Lower Canada, and possibly in Upper Canada and the United States.
Most examples were issued in copper, with a few examples struck in brass. Due to the deliberately poor nature of the images carved into the dies for these tokens, it is rare for a Blacksmith token to be graded higher than Very Fine, with most examples falling into a Good or Very Good grade. These coins, along with many other underweight copper tokens, were eventually driven out of circulation by the late 1830s as Canadian banks began to issue officially sanctioned copper tokens of the proper weight for their value.
A typical Blacksmith Token
It is not known how many of these coins were made, as the creators faced possible prosecution if they were discovered. Evidence from hoards suggest that some of the blacksmith tokens were relatively common, and examples of various Blacksmith coppers have been found during archaeological excavations along with other coinage contemporary to the 1830s in the Saint John River Valley in Nova Scotia, on the grounds of Fort York in Toronto, and Place Royale in Quebec City.
Howland Wood published the first comprehensive study of the Blacksmith Token series in an article published in The Numismatist in 1910, titled The Canadian Blacksmith Coppers (published later that same year as a pamphlet of the same name). He noted one characteristic that was common to the series, that they were created specifically to look like worn British half-pence coins. Another common feature to most of the Blacksmith coppers was that their designs were the opposite to that of the original coin being imitated. If the coin was imitating the bust of George III on its obverse, it would face left in the Blacksmith version whereas in the officially issued coinage it would face right. Wood believed that the reason for this was the inexperience of the die cutter, who created the die facing the same way as the original coin being imitated.
The reverse of many of these coins featured an image of Britannia who faced the opposite way from the original, though Wood notes that when the reverse featured a harp, it faced the same way as it did on the Irish regal coinage it was imitating. Most of these regal imitations were created using copper, though he notes a few that were done in brass. Though Wood had no conclusive proof, he thought the regal imitation Blacksmith tokens were created in the first quarter of the 19th century, noting a particular specimen that had been struck over a George IV half-penny of 1825, so clearly not struck before that date, and was likely struck sometime soon after that date. This has been further corroborated in more recent times with the discovery of a Blacksmith token that had been struck over an Upper Canadian token dating to 1820.
Research continues in this area, the most recent contribution being by John Lorenzo who has done extensive X-ray fluorescence studies of various Blacksmith tokens in order to determine their metal composition. Some of his discoveries including finding that the die axes described for some varieties in existing coin catalogs should be considered approximate and suggests that there are at least four major “families” of Blacksmiths whose production are linked based on the dies that were used.
The “BITIT” blacksmith tokens (Wood 33) is considered to be the most common of the Blacksmiths series, and one of the most controversial in numismatic literature. The obverse contains the profile of George III with what Wood described as a “large pug nose”, while the reverse has a seated Britannia holding a shamrock. Unlike most Blacksmith tokens, this coin features a legend on both sides, with the tops of the letters obscured by excessive die polishing, possibly done on purpose.
There has been considerable interpretation as to the reading of the legend of the token, as the missing top portion of its letters supports different readings. McLachlan interpreted the inscription on the obverse as saying “GLORIUVS III VIS”, though some numismatists contemporary to McLachlan suggested that the “VIS” should instead be read as “VTS”, which is claimed to be an abbreviated, Latin version for “Vermont”. McLachlan refuted this claim, saying that he had “little doubt that this piece was struck and issued in Canada as an imitation of a George III copper”. This argument has been picked up again in more recent numismatic studies, with one article affirming that an example graded as Fine reveals the “I” should be read as “T”, supporting the “VTS” reading. An off-center strike of this Blacksmith token in the collection of the Bank of Canada Museum where the top portion of the supposed “T” ought to be more visible, but is not, contradicts this reading.
Wood thought that the obverse legend read “GLORIOVS III VIS”. A more recent article claims that several high-grade examples of the coin reveal a weak serif and cross-bar on the “L”, and that the first “O” is thinner than the second, suggesting that the initial word of the legend should be read as “GEORIUVS” instead. The legend on the obverse has been interpreted as reading as the nonsensical “BITIT”, though one study claims that the “I” and “T” are instead an “R” and “I”, making the word read “BRITI” instead, a short form for “BRITISH”.
In his comprehensive listing of Blacksmith tokens, Wood included this in his “Miscellaneous and Doubtful” series, suggesting that it might be an imitation regal coin created in England, but sharing the common Blacksmith token characteristic of the regal bust facing the opposite way. While McLachlan clearly thought that this coin was issued in Canada and was relatively plentiful, it is notable that it was not included in Breton’s Illustrated History of Coins and Tokens Relating to Canada, possibly because he thought it was a British import. While American numismatist John H. Hickcox believed the coin to have come from Vermont, the majority consensus of other mid-19th century U.S. Colonial numismatists omit the coin in their listings. While the provenance of this coin is still debated, examples of this coin appearing in the hoard McLachlan described and archaeological finds in locations in Upper Canada, Lower Canada and New Brunswick establish that it circulated in Canada.