While the historic areas that I investigate (so far) have never been spots with actual Civil War fighting activity, I do stumble on war relics with some frequency. Uniform buttons are the most common, presumably lost by soldiers who returned home, but I've also found pieces of Civil War issue rifles and US cavalry horse tack. It's fascinating to unearth these military pieces especially so far North from the familiar historical names and battles, but Civil War tokens belong in the same category despite being a mostly civilian affair. Indeed, these are perhaps the most tangible link to how significantly the war effected people's day-to-day life even though they might have been far removed from the actual battle fields.
Before I began metal detecting I wasn't even aware that Civil War tokens existed. Which is partly why I had such a tough time identifying the first one I unearthed.
Only a few inches down mere steps from an old woodlands foundation, it was the same size as a penny and beautifully preserved. But it had no date and just the words "Our Country" on one side. When I finally discovered that it was a Civil War token, I was surprised to learn just how many are out there. By some counts, more than 8,000 varieties and 25 million or more tokens minted in total. Despite the high population, you'd be forgiven for never having heard of them. Even in most United States coin books they're given a cursory mention and maybe a handful of pictured examples. A fact I found most odd when I thumbed through my books.
To understand Civil War tokens requires a bit of context within the American monetary system. In the early 1860's US money consisted of silver 3-cent pieces, half-dimes, dimes, quarters, and half dollars. Pennies were copper-nickle alloy and coins of a dollar and above were gold. There was also paper money in circulation, but when the war broke out in 1861 the general public hoarded all the silver and gold coins they could find and started to reject paper bills. There was concern that depending on how the war turned out the paper bills could become worthless; however the coins were made from a quantity of precious metal that was equal to their face value and thus would hold their value regardless of what happened.
This hoarding initially left pennies in circulation, but by 1862 even the pennies were being hoarded and by 1863 had virtually disappeared from circulation. This created a serious problem for commerce because a lack of small change made simple transactions extremely difficult. One stopgap solution was the use of postage stamps in place of small change and some enterprising businesses even created convenient brass holders for protecting the stamps, while also displaying a small advertisement on the other side.
The US government wasn't blind to the plight of commerce and tried to fill the void by minting additional pennies. In 1863 they minted just shy of 50,000,000 Indian Head cents. This was five times the mintage in 1861, but is still wasn't enough. Through a combination of necessity and a convenient means of advertising, businesses started commissioning tokens to be used in place of small change. The first tokens came out in the Fall of 1862 and by 1863 they were being manufactured in earnest. One of the first produced in great quantity were the Lindenmueller tokens put out by a New York City barkeep.
Many more followed and, crucially, the public readily accepted and circulated the tokens in lieu of federal coinage. The vast majority were one cent pieces made of either brass or copper, but some were minted in copper-nickel or a white metal alloy. Even fewer were minted in rubber and a rare few higher denomination tokens were minted in silver. There are two general categories of Civil War tokens. The first, like the Lindenmueller tokens, are store cards. These were put out by merchants and contained some sort of advertisement for their business.
The first token that I dug falls into the second category: patriotic tokens. These do not mention a business and instead consists of patriotic slogans or imagery.
The above token features crossed cannons, one with the inscription "Union" as well as flags and other US iconography. It's believed that many patriotic tokens, including this particular one, were manufactured by Scovill Manufacturing Company in Waterbury Connecticut. Some tokens highlighted keeping the county united, while other patriotic tokens focused on supporting the US military.
Store card tokens would sometimes have one side with the business information, but the second side with a patriotic slogan. In some cases this may have been a cost saving measure as this only required paying for one die to be cut, but in others the company was clearly trying to highlight their support for the Union like the below example made for D. L Wing & Co. of Albany NY.
What's particularly incredible about these store card tokens is that they have allowed small companies to live on long past when they would otherwise have been forgotten. As I unearth each of these tokens, I'm driven to research the name and see what other information I can uncover. If the business was prominent in the community, there may be quite a bit of history attached to them. One particularly good example of this are the Oliver Boutwell tokens I find.
I have dug well over a dozen of these and at numerous sites, some well away from Troy. I've even seen Canadian detectorists turn these up from time to time. Oliver Boutwell started his business in 1837 and eventually it grew to quite some size. The name changed to O. Boutwell & Son sometime after the Civil War and the mill seems to have been located at the mouth of the Poestenkill in Troy NY although there are mentions of different addresses over the years.
I even found a woodcutting of the mill done sometime after the Civil War. Other times it can be more difficult to find mention of the company or the years it was active. But without the tokens as a guide, there would be little reason to even investigate in the first place and having a name, date, and address can uncover a surprising amount from contemporary business directories.
The two above tokens I recovered at the same site, a small cabin deep in the woods of Rensselaer County. It's interesting to think that the occupant may have picked them up on a trip into Albany. At the time that would have been an all-day affair and possibly stretching into two days. Although it's just as likely that they circulated locally having been moved along from transaction to transaction. If he did visit John Thomas Jr's store though, this is what it looked like in those days :
These coins circulated freely, and while you're more likely to uncover ones from local businesses in a given area, I've found tokens in New York from as far away as Ohio. Some tokens are quite common, and others are tremendously rare with only single known example. It all depended on how many the business was willing to pay to have made and if they were even dispensed. Based on some sites I've catalogued, it seems likely that for a time Civil War tokens were the only small change the average person could expect to put back in their pocket.
You may be wondering, if these were such a conspicuous part of commerce, did the federal government simply ignore them and why did they eventually disappear?
Unfortunately, as much as they helped with day to day transactions, there were some significant drawbacks to a free-for-all private token monetary system. Although in hindsight that probably seems obvious, this next incident seems to highlight the problems particularly well.
By some estimations Lindenmueller put nearly 1 million of his tokens into circulation. The tokens were particularly popular for use as streetcar fare and the Third Avenue Railroad Company amassed a large quantity of them. Supposedly they went to Lindenmueller to redeem them for actual currency and he outright refused. They attempted to take him to court, but because the tokens had nothing on them about redemption, and because the railroad company had willingly accepted them as a fare, the courts ruled that Lindenmueller was under no obligation to exchange them.
It's likely that this and similar incidents are what forced Congress to finally intervene. In 1864 Congress passed two acts: the first authorized the minting of bronze 1 and 2 cent pieces and the second officially criminalized the issuing of private tokens for use as coins. In addition, the US mint started making the new 1 and 2 cent coins in substantial numbers so that there would be plenty of small change in circulation. In 1864 alone they minted 52.9 million 1 cent coins and 19.8 million 2 cent coins. These measures were effective at stopping the minting of private tokens and the new federal coins were plentiful enough to satisfy the needs of commerce. So what happened to all of the tokens...
Neither act made owning Civil War tokens illegal and they were already considered collectable while they were still being minted. There were listings of the different tokens as early as 1863 and it's likely that many were kept as curiosities. Some were likely discarded, but others were repurposed in clever ways. A year or so back I found seven tokens nearly on top of each other in the same hole.
At first I thought it was a pocket spill, but what was odd was that each had two holes punched through them. Coins with single holes aren't uncommon, but two was strange and all but one token were Oliver Boutwell tokens. The other being D. L. Wing. Eventually I realized that they had been strung together to make a coin bracelet.
It's more common to see bracelets like this made from silver coins, where some of the coins are smoothed flat and engraved with messages or initials. The example I found was likely just a one-off piece of folk art with twine holding them together. Possibly made by a child since the tokens would have been an inexpensive material that wouldn't have been missed. Even if it is only made of brass tokens, it's the most unique piece of homemade jewelry that I've had the good fortune to come across.
These tokens come in more varieties that I could ever hope to catalogue here and the 40 or so that I've uncovered to date is just the tip of the iceberg. Each one is a little window into a tumultuous time in American history and I can honestly say I will never get tired of digging them out of the ground. Hopefully I will have many more to share on here as the digs continue!
Max Cane is an avid detectorist and historian specializing in 18th century sites, but exploring all sorts of historical structures. At both ruins and existing homesteads he recovers, preserves, and researches the artifacts that settlers lost long ago.
Lost homesteads and structures are all around us and virtually every section of woodland I investigate has at least one hidden amongst the trees. I'm continually amazed by just how many there are waiting to be found and the history that they represent.
If you would like to read more, I have many previous articles in my archive! Click the below link to browse through them: