Hard Times tokens, as they are called, are mostly the size of a contemporary large copper cent. Privately minted from 1832 to 1844, they display diverse motifs reflecting political campaigns and satire of the era as well as carrying advertisements for merchants, products, and services. For many years these have been a popular specialty within numismatics, helped along with the publication of Hard Times Tokens by Lyman H. Low (1899; revised edition, 1906) and later works, continuing to the present day. In 1899 Low commented (adapted) that “the issues commonly called Hard Times tokens . . . had no semblance of authority behind them. They combine the character of political pieces with the catch-words of party cries; of satirical pieces with sarcastic allusions to the sentiments or speeches of the leaders of opposing parties; and in some degree also of necessity pieces, in a time when, to use one of the phrases of the day, ‘money was a cash article,’ hard to get for daily needs.”
Although these are designated as Hard Times tokens, the true Hard Times period began in a serious way on May 10, 1837, when banks began suspending specie payments and would no longer exchange paper currency for coins. This date is memorialized on some of the token inscriptions. Difficult economic conditions continued through 1843; the first full year of recovery was 1844. From March 1837 to March 1841, President Martin Van Buren vowed to “follow in the steps of my illustrious predecessor,” President Andrew Jackson, who had been in office from March 1829 until Van Buren’s inauguration. Jackson was perhaps the most controversial president up to that time. His veto in 1832 of the impending (1836) recharter of the Bank of the United States set off a political firestorm, made no calmer when his administration shifted deposits to favored institutions, derisively called “pet banks.”
The Jackson era was one of unbridled prosperity. Due to sales of land in the West, the expansion of railroads, and a robust economy, so much money piled up in the Treasury that distributions were made in 1835 to all of the states. Seeking to end wild speculation, Jackson issued the “Specie Circular” on July 11, 1836, mandating that purchases of Western land, often done on credit or by other non-cash means, had to be paid in silver or gold coins. Almost immediately, the land boom settled and prices stabilized. A chill began to spread across the economy, which finally warmed in early 1837. Finally, many banks ran short of ready cash, causing the specie suspension.
After May 10, 1837, silver and gold coins completely disappeared from circulation. Copper cents remained, but were in short supply. Various diesinkers and others produced a flood of copper tokens. These were sold at discounts to merchants and banks, with $6 for 1,000 tokens being typical. Afterward, they were paid out in commerce and circulated for the value of one cent.
The actions of Jackson, the financial tribulations that many thought he precipitated, and the policies of Van Buren inspired motifs for the Hard Times tokens known as “politicals.” Several hundred other varieties were made with the advertisements of merchants, services, and products and are known as “store cards” or “merchants’ tokens.” Many of these were illustrated with elements such as a shoe, umbrella, comb, coal stove, storefront, hotel, or carriage.
One of the more famous issues depicts a slave kneeling in chains, with the motto “Am I Not a Woman & a Sister?” This token was issued in 1838, when abolition was a major rallying point for many Americans in the North. The curious small-size Feuchtwanger cents of 1837, made in Feuchtwanger’s Composition (a type of German silver), were proposed to Congress as a cheap substitute for copper cents, but no action was taken. Lewis Feuchtwanger produced large quantities on his own account and circulated them extensively.
As the political and commercial motifs of Hard Times tokens are so diverse, and reflect the American economy and political scene of their era, numismatists have found them fascinating to collect and study. Although there are major rarities in the series, most of the issues are very affordable. Expanded information concerning more than 500 varieties of Hard Times tokens can be found in Russell Rulau’s Standard Catalog of United States Tokens, 1700–1900 (fourth edition). A representative selection is illustrated here.