Masonic Tokens

As a coin collector it is not uncommon to come across odd tokens, medals, and exonumia. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what you’ve got and there are hundreds of historical tokens made for various reasons. Beginning in the mid-19th century, fraternal orders such as the Masons, Odd Fellows, Eagles, and Elks issued tokens that could be presented as proof of membership in the order. Masonic pennies specifically, would often feature a chapter’s name on the token.

Because symbolism was so important to fraternal culture, these small coins often held a lot of meaning. The most common representation of the Masons was the letter “G” surrounded by a compass and square, representing the holy geometry of God. At times other masonry tools like keystones, mallets, and chisels were struck into Masonic tokens. Some tokens feature the letters “H.T.W.S.S.T.K.S.,” which means “Hiram the Widow’s Son Sent to King Solomon,” the biblical story that must be acted out to reach the third, or Master’s Degree, in Freemasonry.

Both the Masons and the Odd Fellows employ the “All-Seeing Eye” of God in their imagery, as well as grim skeletal “memento mori” symbols. But an Odd Fellows token might have three chain links (“friendship, love and trust”), a handshake (“friendship”), or a hand holding a heart (“sincere charity”). Bees, scales, and snakes are other esoteric symbols that are found on fraternal pennies.

Many Masonic tokens are scarce today because, “members of the fraternity cherish them highly, and do not ordinarily part with them in their lifetime.”

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Blacksmith Tokens

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.

Trade Tokens and Forgotten History




Have you ever looked at historical photos of your town and wondered what life was like back then? Photos are only part of the story of any town: trade tokens are an often overlooked part of local history in many places. Trade tokens from our town of Bellingham, Washington, also have a story to tell.



Tokens are technically exonumia: coin-like objects that are not truly coins. Tokens were usually locally produced, and intended for use in local businesses, which usually had their names stamped into the token itself.  (Until the federal government took over all bill printing, local banks also issued notes, as seen in this $20 note from the First National Bank of Bellingham.)



s-l1600 (2)Bellingham in the early 1900s was no different. Many downtown businesses had trade tokens, usually in the amount of 5 cents, produced and distributed to drive business. Local tobacconist J. M. Stinnett, described in a 1918 issue of the United States Tobacco Journal as a “live wire from that northern town,” was one of several tobacco and cigar store owners to issue such tokens. His store was at 114 West Holly St, where Opus Performing Arts is today.



In the latter half of the second decade of the 20th century, 5 cents had the equivalent worth of 87 cents today, though its buying power was higher. Many drugstores would sell ice cream cones or sodas for 5 cents, and it would make it worth a customer’s while to stop by a store she had a token for.



Though none of these old-time Bellingham businesses are still in operation, it’s easy to see how little the town has changed, in some ways. Many of the businesses listed were on Holly Street, still one of the main commercial parts of town. Bellingham still has a strong focus on local business as opposed to national chains, and tours of the historical downtown areas are a popular attraction.



s-l1600 (1)


Coins and tokens hold onto a specific kind of history that might otherwise be lost. The establishments may be long gone, but as long as the tokens survive, places like the Blue Moon, the Gold Nugget, and the Alaska Tavern will live on.



This set of Bellingham trade tokens is currently for sale in our Etsy store, as is the banknote.

Emergency! How Crises Resulted in Creative Porcelain Coins


Times of emergency such as war, recession, or other economic crises, often result in shortages of metal. Occasionally, this has led to the use of non-metal materials for coins and tokens, such as the wooden nickels of Depression-era Washington. One of the most interesting materials used in lieu of precious metal was porcelain. The two most famous instances of porcelain coins are the gambling tokens of 18th and 19th century Siam and the German notgeld of the early 1920’s.


Siamese Gambling Tokens


AN00031107_001_l.jpgSiamese gambling tokens were produced in the mid 18th century and in use until 1875. They were made in China (hence the use of Chinese characters on the coins) for use in private gambling establishments in Siam. However, the locals began to use the tokens as legal tender.


an1613091710_lAccording to a post on the Collectors Society website, “the gambling houses were ‘tax farms’ where every year, or some say every three years, the government accepted bids for the right to operate the gambling monopoly for the next period. There were between 500 and 1,000 different firms called ‘hongs’, that issued tokens. To reduce counterfeiting, issues were recalled frequently, and new pieces were issued to replace them. More than 10,000 different varieties are known. They were issued in denominations of from one Att to one Salung. It is believed that between 2,000 and 6,000 pieces of each design were minted.” The tokens were created in a stunning array of colors, shapes, and patterns.


an1613091590_lIn his monograph, Siamese Porcelain and Other Tokens (available in full online from the Cornell  library), H.A. Ramsden quotes Joseph Haas’ book Siamese Coinage: “These counters being issued under authority granted in the gambling licence or concession, they rapidly became a medium of exchange, and were found to fill a long felt want of small money so well, that the circulation went much beyond its legal sphere.”


an1613091955_lRamsden continues, “It is mentioned by Haas that the control of these tokens by the Siamese government became more and more difficult, and at last in 1871, it became necessary to prohibit and stop completely all circulation of these counters […] Schlegel is more explicit, giving August, 1876 as the date on which an order was issued by the government prohibiting the further issue of porcelain ‘coins’ (Porzellanmiinzen) after December of the same year. Weyl is not very clear on this matter, but mentions that coins made of porcelain were current until 1876 [… ]They are all agreed, however, that the circulation of these tokens continued long after their prohibition.” After the turn of the century, gambling was prohibited everywhere except in Bangkok, and after a decade, gambling was prohibited there as well, rendering the tokens useless.


(Note: all gambling token images are courtesy of the British Museum. Please check out their extensive photo gallery for more of these exquisite coins.



German Porcelain Notgeld
10_mark_rsNotgeld is a type of German emergency currency, issued when there was a problem using the standard currency. It took many forms, from base metal coins to colorful paper money, but one of the most unique is the porcelain notegeld. Porcelain notgeld was used between 1915 and 1923, during a coin shortage before the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic. Most of these coins were made from red Böttgerstoneware by Meissen, though some were made from white porcelain; a few even had gilt detailing. Primarily issued in Saxony, these notgeld coins were also used in Thuringia, Silesia, and other parts of Germany.


Hochbahn_hamburg_40.jpgThe porcelain notgeld met the need for small coinage, but proved impractical to use, due to the fragile nature of the coins. The red porcelain was the preferred material, since it showed dirt and grime less than the white china coins. The first porcelain notgeld are noted for having rougher surfaces and less sharp lines, due to being struck from plaster molds. Later coins, made with steel molds, have much sharper details.



The Meissen company continued to strike medals in stoneware and porcelain, even after the notgeld was no longer in use. Their mark, the cross-swards, can be seen on the notgeld and other items made by the company.

Sales Tax Tokens. What are they?

In today’s world, in most states, sales tax is common place.  We pay it, we accept it and we move on.  At the turn of the 20th century, this was not the case.  Although several countries around the world had a sales tax of some sort, the idea had not been brought to the United States yet.

In 1921, a national 1% sales tax was proposed in a national finance bill.  It was not passed, much to the delight of farmers and other labor interests.  The state of  West Virginia took it upon themselves to implement a state wide sales tax of 1%, which would serve as an example for the rest of country later on.

By 1929, the Great Depression had struck and state governments were trying desperately to make up for the great loss in income tax and out pouring of relief funding due to the overwhelming increase in unemployment.  Many states started to look at West Virginia’s sales tax as a viable option for making up some of the lost revenue.  In 1929, Georgia adopted a state sales tax and by 1933, 11 other states had followed suit.


The one main problem with sales tax was the odd sales totals that were created.  The basic idea is as follows: Retailers would pay a tax on everything they sold.  This added cost was passed on to the consumer.  If, for example, a person bought something for 10 cents (remember, this is the 1930’s) and there was a 3% sales tax, the total for the item would be 10 cents plus three tenths of a cents for the tax.  Being as there was no three-tenths of a cent coin, the retailer would either lose money by rounding down, or upset the customer and over collect by rounding up.

Enter the sales tax token.

$1LENCE D00600D at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

$1LENCE D00600D at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sales tax tokens allowed for merchants to round up to the nearest cent with out over collecting (making a 10 cent item 11 cents).  The customer would pay the additional tax, and in exchange would receive a tax token that could be used to pay the sales tax on their next 10 cent purchase since, technically, they already paid it.

Confused yet?

Not only did people have to remember to bring their tax tokens along with them, but with over 500 different types and denominations from 12 states, people quickly grew confused and didn’t know what to use when or where.

$1LENCE D00600D at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

$1LENCE D00600D at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By the time World War II rolled around, ration tickets and food stamps were handed out, adding to the confusion.  Most states began dropping tax tokens altogether.  Missouri was the only state to come out of WWII with tax tokens still on their books.  In 1961, they finally dropped them.

By 1969, all but 5 states had enacted some type of sales tax and today that number remains the same today.  Although we no longer use tokens to keep things even, they do still exist in the world of collectibles.  We just came across some in our shop a few weeks ago. and have them listed on Ebay.  Check them out and consider adding this neat piece of history to your collection today.

Hard Times Tokens

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!