Civil War tokens are generally divided into two groups: tradesmen’s tokens (also called store cards), and anonymously issued pieces with political or patriotic themes. These were struck during the Civil War, mostly in 1863. In July of that year federal cents disappeared from circulation and were hoarded. Various substitutes appeared, including tokens. Most production ended after bronze federal cents again became plentiful in circulation in the summer of 1864.
The tradesmen’s tokens were purchased at a discount by various firms, who distributed them with advertising messages. Some of these were redeemable in goods. Political and patriotic tokens were produced at a profit by private maufacturers and put into circulation, with no identification as to the issuer. As there was no provision to redeem these, tokens of both types remained in circulation for many years, until they gradually disappeared.
These tokens are of great variety in composition and design. A number were more or less faithful imitations of the copper-nickel cent. A few of this type have the word NOT in very small letters above the words ONE CENT.
Many pieces, especially tradesmen’s tokens, were individual in device and size, representing any caprice of design or slogan that appealed to the maker. Some were political or patriotic in character, carrying the likeness of some military leader such as McClellan or bearing such inscriptions as “Millions for contractors, not one cent for the widows.” An estimated 50,000,000 or more of these pieces were issued. Approximately 10,000 different varieties have been recorded. Among these tokens are many issues made for numismatists of the era, including overstrikes on Indian Head and Flying Eagle cents and silver dimes, and strikings in white metal and silver. These are highly prized today.
The legal status of the Civil War tokens was uncertain. Mint Director James Pollock thought they were illegal; however, there was no law prohibiting the issue of tradesmen’s tokens or of private coins not in imitation of United States coins. A law was passed April 22, 1864, prohibiting the issue of any one- or two-cent coins, tokens, or devices for use as money, and on June 8 another law was passed that abolished private coinage of every kind.
Patriotic Civil War tokens feature leaders such as Abraham Lincoln; military images such as cannons or ships; and sociopolitical themes popular in the North, such as flags and slogans. Thousands of varieties are known.
Tradesmen’s tokens of the Civil War era are often called store cards. These are typically collected by geographical location or by topic. The Fuld text (see bibliography) catalogs store cards by state, city, merchant, die combination, and metal. Values shown below are for the most common tokens for each state.