Published 10/28/2023 - Written by Copper Mutant
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Today's blog post is about Hard Times Tokens, copper coins traded during a tumultuous point in American history when currency shortages were rampant but the human need to trade something of value for goods remained. Today we may not use these fascinating tokens with political messages I'll write about here for daily trade, but they remain highly collectible reminders of our past, when things can spiral out of control. After reading this article, you may decide that very similar copper rounds you can find here at Liberty Copper are at your fingertips to purchase for barter or trade - for the next time we as a nation come upon Hard Times ...
In the annals of American history, there are relics that tell tales of struggle, resilience, and innovation. Today, we delve into the world of Hard Times Tokens, copper coins that emerged during the turbulent years of the early to mid-1800s. These tokens held significance during an era marked by economic upheaval, and give us a glimpse into what may come in our own future, and a potential role for Copper Bullion Rounds, after the apocalypse ...
Hello Fellow Mutants. The early 19th century was a time of great change in the United States. The country was expanding westward, and economic instability was a constant threat. During that time a series of events led to a contraction of money supply and put simply, a shortage of currency and coins for trade. In some cases, banks and businesses issued their own money, leading to further financial chaos. It was a time when trust in the official currency was eroding.
Let me share a little bit of history, and I think you'll find the parallels to today and a potential future interesting. While there may not be an official government document or decree naming "Hard Times Tokens," numismatists, historians, and collectors have adopted this term to describe a specific category of unofficial coins, tokens, and scrip issued during this period.
So, what were some of the reasons they emerged?
During the late 1830s and early 1840s, the United States experienced a series of economic difficulties. These included the dissolution of the Second Bank of the United States, contraction of the money supply, a shortage of hard currency, and rampant speculation in land and commodities. These challenges resulted in a severe economic depression, which people of the time referred to as "hard times."
The "Second Bank of the United States" was the second federally chartered bank in the United States and played a significant role in the nation's early financial system. It was chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1816, following the expiration of the charter of the First Bank of the United States in 1811. The Second Bank was established to address various financial and economic challenges faced by a young nation. However, it faced controversy and opposition, leading to its eventual dissolution in 1832, when Andrew Jackson vetoed the recharter of the Second Bank.
This move of dissolving the bank, largely due to a perception of centralized power in the hands of elites, also had unintended consequences. The removal of federal funds from the bank resulted in a massive withdrawal of coins from circulation, leaving the country with a shortage of hard currency. It's not hard to see parallels today, if, for example, our governments in their benevolent wisdom decide to experiment on us all with a move to digital currency. In fact, here's a nice Hard Times Token, which expresses a similar sentiment, though I think Andrew Jackson likely had the right idea about the Second Bank being a corrupt institution that favored elites - the outcome of his approach of dissolving it could have been considered a botched experiment at the time. Especially if you were living through it in the bottom rungs of society.
Take a look at this "I Take the Responsibility" token. It is one of the many "Hard Times" tokens issued during this era, and it holds historical significance due to its political message and imagery. The token features a depiction of a figure which many believe represents President Andrew Jackson. He is shown holding a drawn sword in one hand and a coin bag emerging from a strongbox in the other.
The inscription, "I Take the Responsibility," conveys a clear message. It's a critique of Jackson's actions and the consequences of his fiscal policies, including the dissolution of the Second Bank. The sword symbolizes his assertive and uncompromising stance, while the coin bag emerging from a strongbox suggests that the responsibility for the economic hardships of the time rests squarely on his shoulders.
This of course was only one of many designs of Hard Times Tokens—usually coins of copper or alloys of copper, or perhaps more accurately by today's definition, rounds, issued by private merchants, companies, and individuals. These tokens bore unique designs and conveyed political, social, or advertising messages. But what made them truly remarkable was the role they played during a time of economic hardship. This hardship exacerbated and extended into Martin Van Buren's presidency as did the Panic of 1837, which is why you'll see his name and decisions criticized similarly on the tokens of this period.
To understand the significance of these tokens in daily trade, let's take a moment to consider what a single Hard Times Token or for that matter an official state Penny could purchase during the early to mid-1800s. For instance, a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk would typically cost you just one of these tokens. A token could also buy you a newspaper, a cup of coffee, or even a short carriage ride across town, while some were specifically for barter or like coupons for redemption only in a specific store, such as a hardware shop. In a world where trust in official currency waned, these tokens became a lifeline for ordinary citizens, offering a sense of stability and continuity amidst economic turmoil. Imagine, your daily bread hinging on the possession of one of these copper coins. Silver or gold would have been overkill for a small purchase, and more difficult to obtain, and people needed something that was similar to what they were used to for trade.
To be sure, not all Hard Times Tokens were made from pure copper. Most were likely an alloy of one type or another just like pre-1982 pennies and included tin, nickel, or other metals in their composition.
Whatever they were made from these tokens also became a medium through which Americans expressed their frustrations and concerns about the economic challenges they faced. Because of the sometimes biting and sarcastic commentary in their designs, they remain valuable and interesting artifacts that provide insight into the political and economic debates of the era.
Copper bullion rounds, often adorned with intricate designs and made from a timeless metal for trade, could potentially fill a similar role someday. While silver purists and enthusiasts will say that a dime from a particular period of US history decades ago could hold a similar role, these are no longer easy or cheap to obtain. Uncle Jack and his friends in the constitutional silver collecting community have much of that so-called fractional silver stashed away and the supply isn't growing. A 1964 Roosevelt silver dime came in my possession for 15 dollars. I don't want to trade a loaf of bread for that. Not unless I'm desperate.
Meanwhile fractional silver bullion rounds, a theoretical replacement for large copper coins, are typically too expensive for use as a low-priced barter token. Just as a copper 1 ounce round provides more bang for the buck than a half ounce copper round, the 1 ounce silver round is the more economical way to go than fractional (my guess on this is due to the volume they are produced at versus the smaller ones and the percentage of cost attributed to minting them), but again, who wants to trade a loaf of bread for $25 of bullion in today's currency?
As far as 1 ounce copper rounds go, while they're not legal tender, they hold intrinsic value, and much like the Hard Times Tokens of old, they often have familiar and official-looking designs that give the appearance of currency. And yes, you can pick them up relatively inexpensively - for no more than the cost of a silver round's premium. No, not as cheaply as a sack of oddly shaped copper scrap pipes slung over your shoulder with a green patina and welded joints, but cheaply for what they are - formed, brilliant, portable, and pure. In a time of economic uncertainty, such tangible assets could provide a sense of security once again.
A critic of course could make an argument against all of this theorizing. People today don't trade with coinage as much as they used to. One large cent in hand is not a modern means of purchasing low-cost items, mainly due to inflation and outdated currency. Many households only carry cash as a backup. A housewife might love using her credit card or smartphone app exclusively for those all-important "points". Would she willingly make the transition back to tangible money and carry a sack of copper and silver rounds for her shopping -- or desperately try to get her grid down smartphone to transact instead via something like Venmo or using some kind of local phone to phone communication or mesh network? Or perhaps she'd lug in a few cans of organic canned food to exchange for a few jugs of fresh water or some band aids - going the pure barter route?
Whatever happens, as I reflect on the history of Hard Times Tokens with you here, I'm reminded that economic challenges have been a recurring theme throughout American history. These tokens were not just pieces of copper; they were symbols of an ability to adapt in the face of economic instability. People back then had every opportunity to barter goods but chose an unofficial currency-like token for trade instead. As attractive as the idea of bartering chicken eggs for a bottle of anti-biotic liquid is, you won't always have the perfect item to trade for your barter partner, so currencies that represent value will always have a place.
As we head into what often seems a darker future, we should remember the lessons of the past, for there may come a time when the value of a simple copper bullion round might hold more significance than we can now imagine. When someone says, "no one will ever trade you something of value for an ounce of copper," remind them that in the past we have, and did. And in some corner of some future likely will again.
In a desperate future people will likely trade for anything, even impure copper currencies of yesteryear. So, keep those sacks of pennies. But I still like my copper as large 1-ounce rounds or bars of fine copper bullion, because it's easier to work with if needed, not being an alloy that requires higher temperatures or releases toxic gasses when melted, and it doesn't hold the stigma of being a penny, the least valued US currency. In the end the choice is yours to have a few of these or more on hand, or roll the dice with your smartphone and Venmo, a few old dimes from the 1960s, a couple of cans of Beenie Weenie, and a sack of Silver Eagles. I'd rather just keep it simple with some generic and affordable copper and silver rounds and keep my other less portable preps or collectible coins to myself.
What designs do you think would work best in a similar future? Which might most closely approximate the Hard Times Tokens of old, but with a modern twist?
Take a look at some HERE.
Well, that's all I have for today. Until next time, it's Copper Mutant, signing out.