I’ve enjoyed collecting Hard Times Tokens for many years now. There’s something about the combination of politics, history and numismatics that really appeals to me. Between the ongoing slavery debate, rising sectional tensions, fiscal and economics questions relating to the Bank of the United States, and some truly fascinating personalities, these tokens provide an glimpse into an interesting and difficult time in American history.
Like the Daniel Webster tokens. The only Whig politician who could call Henry Clay a peer or rival, Webster was similarly unsuccessful in his quest to be President. While he was a towering figure in American politics, he never managed to win the nomination on his own.
Instead, he was part of an ill-fated strategy to run multiple candidates against Democrat Martin Van Buren in 1836 in a bid to force a contingent election in the House of Representatives (one of the candidates was William Henry Harrison, who beat Van Buren on his own four years later). Webster made other attempts, but he always seemed to be in Clay’s shadow — that or Webster was reluctant to challenge him and touch off a divisive conflict within the party. Webster made one last attempt at the Presidency in 1852, after Clay was no longer in the picture, but again came up short.
Considering his stature and influence (to say nothing of his striking looks) it’s surprising that there aren’t more tokens of Black Dan from that era. It’s especially shocking that, of the ones that are readily available, there are almost none that feature a bust of his face.
Instead, the most well-known ones are the above “boat” tokens, in which his views are represented by a sea-worthy ship while those of Van Buren are symbolized by a wrecked one. There are some variations, including a rarer one that features lightning bolts. Otherwise, these tokens are fairly common and affordable and are a great way to start collecting Hard Times Token.
Unlike Webster, Andrew Jackson’s face adorns plenty of tokens from this era — usually as a source of criticism or parody (Blanchard Gold calls these tokens “the original meme”), although there are some that praise him. The ones I have are pretty common and part of my starter set when it came to Hard Times Tokens. There are some rare ones that can cost quite a bit, including this one depicting Jackson as a Caesar-like character that has long been on my wishlist.
Another notable token in my collection is the Locofoco/Benton Mint Drop coin. When I first got this coin, I figured it was a merchant token from a store that sold mint-flavored gum drops or some other sort of confection.
In this case, according to numismatic historian Q. David Bowers, the “mint drop” refers to lighter-weight gold coins issued by the U.S. Mint pursuant to the Coinage Act of 1834 — an act sponsored by Jackson’s close ally in the Senate, Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO).
Meanwhile, the Locofocos image on the obverse refers to a faction of radical Jacksonian Democrats who were very much against government involvement in banking and hoped to do to state banks what Jackson had done to the national bank. They supported the efforts of Benton, whose nickname was “Old Bullion,” to promote hard currency like gold and silver coins over paper money and banknotes. They even went so far as to refer to the paper notes as “shinplasters,” which explains why one of the tokens in the above slideshow refers to itself as a “substitute for shinplasters.”
Another token that was meant as a substitute for an existing form of currency was the Feuchtwanger Cent. Proposed by metallurgist and chemist Lewis Feuchtwanger, the coins were made of “German silver,” an alloy that actually consisted of copper, nickel, zinc, tin, and other trace metals. The proposed coins were meant to be a more cost-effective way to mint pennies (an age-old dilemma that hasn’t gone away).
Feuchtwanger struck several proposed one-cent and three-cent coins but was turned down by Congress (he did have some supporters, like Benton). According to Bowers, while the price of copper was rising, the Mint still made a profit on each coin at that time and removing that source of income was a nonstarter.
In any event, Feuchtwanger minted thousands of these cents, although the three-cent ones are quite rare and fetch a premium on today’s market. Indeed, all Feuchtwanger coins are highly collectible and are almost always in demand, which means one-cent coins aren’t exactly cheap.
Unfortunately, you can’t pay with other hard times tokens. Being a cash substitute only goes so far…