Wars often cause chaos for those unfortunate enough to live on the real estate where the conflict is taking place. Those of us living in the United States have been spoiled. There hasn't been a conflict on our soil since the end of the American Civil War in 1865.
Did the Civil War throw the country into turmoil? You bet! Not only were battles being fought, people dying and an incredible number of personal possessions being destroyed, but like in so many other countries the currency system of the nation also began to break down.
It is quite normal during a conflict (invasion or civil war) for people to want to hoard foodstuffs and goods. They also typically hoard all forms of what they perceive to be "hard money," that is, coins made of metal. You may think this is strictly precious metal-content coins, but even base metal coins such as those made of copper or bronze also typically disappear from circulation. Paper money is another story. Since people traditionally don't really put much faith in paper currency during times of trouble, this form of currency does not normally vanish. What can be worse, since paper money is seldom properly backed with precious metals, real estate or durable goods during such crisis situations the paper money often quickly becomes inflationary and begins to lose its purchasing power.
The United States went through this same dilemma during the American Civil War. Remember, at that time most paper money was issued by private banks rather than by a centralized federal government. People typically used gold, silver and copper coins in circulation. These ranged from the $20 double eagle in gold to the copper composition half cent, a coin recently pulled from circulation but undoubtedly still found on occasion.
As coins disappeared from circulation, commerce ground to a halt. Emergency money was necessary if the economy was to function. It soon became obvious the private sector rather than the government would have to take action. The first attempt at substitutes for the now vanished coins was U.S. postage stamps. These, as a paper item, did not last long in circulation. Merchants then began to encase the postage stamps either in clear envelopes or in small capsules made of mica through which the stamps could be seen. This worked to some moderate degree.
Fractional paper currency in odd cent denominations was the next emergency issue to appear. The federal government issued these between 1862 and 1863. The problem with all of these emergency issues was that they were made of paper. People still wanted the feel of metal in their hands. Metal, in the minds of the general population, was a commodity converted into money. In their minds metal money couldn't lose its value. The federal government was not prepared to offer this, but local merchants were.
Although the large cent was replaced with the small cent only a few years earlier in 1857, merchant tokens began to appear of the proper diameter, weight and metal composition to the new small cent beginning as early as 1861, perhaps even as early as 1860.
Some of these merchant tokens advertised the name of the merchant whom issued them. Others depicted patriotic subjects and used such slogans as "Army & Navy," "Win the War" or "Live and Let Live." The first group are today considered to be merchant tokens while the second group are called Patriotic Civil War tokens. The public liked and used both.
As the war wore on, so did the popularity of the merchant and patriotic tokens in commerce. The only potential problem was that some merchants drew very bad press by refusing to redeem them. No matter, since they were made of metal rather than paper the public still continued to use them where federal coins were not available.
The federal government finally stepped in during 1864, outlawed the private production of any form of substitute money and eventually got its act together enough to get real coins back into circulation in sufficient numbers.
Today many collectors delight in obtaining these merchant and patriotic tokens, many of which go for extremely modest prices. Some are typically found by accident, often puzzling the collector who encounters them since they are not listed in U.S. coin catalogs.
The only complexity of these two collecting fields is that since private individuals were making them there were no rules regarding what could or couldn't be made. Hundreds of obverse and reverse dies were made. Often different obverse and reverse dies would be matched to make some interesting mixes, known as muling. As a result the collector of today may find a token depicting Liberty (as an example) on the obverse, later to learn there are dozens of reverses that can be matched to this single obverse die. The tokens may also exist in odd metal compositions, although many of these were struck from the genuine dies at later dates strictly for collectors. Civil War merchant and patriotic tokens are an almost neverending field to collect, a field in which new mules are still being found even at this late date!
Want to try something new? Relieve the economic uncertainties of our Civil War period through these fascinating tokens.
Richard Giedroyc is a numismatic writer, researcher, auction cataloger and coin dealer. He has been in the hobby and business most of his life, now having more than three decades experience in this fascinating hobby field. During this time Giedroyc has been the owner of Paris Bergman Galleries, owner of Classical Coin Newsletter, international editor of Coin World and owner of Giedroyc-Anderson Interesting World Coins. He is currently a numismatic consultant. He has written more than 2,000 byline numismatic stories and contributed to several coin catalogs. Richard Giedroyc can be contacted at P.O. Box 4154, Sidney, OH 45365-4154.