The “Hard Times”, strictly speaking, referred to the “recession” of 1837-1838, when 90% of the factories and the United States closed following a banking crisis which was credited to Andrew Jackson. At the heart of this period, these large cent sized tokens became necessary substitutes for the government issued coins, which were to a large extent hoarded. This rich and varied series has achieved a substantial following, with some pieces commanding thousands of dollars. The series includes  politically oriented tokens, commercial advertising tokens, and anonymous monetary tokens. Perhaps the most enduring result of this series is emergence  of the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party.”


“The event that defines this era was the veto of the renewal of the charter of the Bank of the United States by Andrew Jackson in 1832. The BUS was slated to close in 1836, but Jackson didn’t wait. He withdrew Treasury money from the BUS. (Interestingly, the Treasury had an embarrassment of riches. The US was without debt.) However, when the BUS closed, credit collapsed. “I take the responsibilty”, says Andrew Jackson, standing in an empty treasure chest. Martin Van Buren’s ship of state has tattered sails on the obverse of a coin; the reverse shows Henry Clay’s sails billowing. “I follow in the steps of my illustrious predecessor”, says the jackass on the obverse while the reverse shows a treasure chest being borne off by a turtle. “Good for shinplasters” refers to worthless paper money used as stuffing in boots. Some, to avoid charges of counterfeiting bear the slogan “Millions for defense NOT ONE CENT for tribute.”

These tokens were about the size of a US Large Cent, just under 3 cm across, hefting over 10 grams. They were an east coast phenomenon, since metals, dies, etc., were found near industry. (Twenty five years later, Civil War tokens were issued from Michigan, Indiana, etc.) The fact that they are found today in middle grades around Fine indicates that they actually circulated in trade. America eventually recovered from the Panic of 1837. The debt rose. Finances moved from Chestnut Street in Philadelphia to Wall Street in New York. Hard times tokens retired to dressers and chests as government cents (soon smaller) circulated again.”

Hard Times Token, 1834


“One of the more interesting aspects of American numismatics is the study of those tokens which served in place of coins. The best known of these were made in the late 1830s and today are called Hard Times Tokens because of the economic problems that affected the United States during that era. Prior to 1837 tokens were little used in the American marketplace but a series of events that began in 1834 was to change everything. In that year, after many years of debate, Congress finally reformed the gold coinage by lowering the weights. During the 1820s most coined gold had left the United States, leaving only silver and bank notes to conduct commercial affairs.

The act of June 1834 was meant to bring United States gold coins into line with the international ratio between gold and silver. The law of 1792 had set the ratio at 15 to 1 (i.e. one ounce of gold was worth 15 ounces of silver) but by the 1820s the world markets used ratios closer to 16 to 1. The result of the 1834 law was that gold flowed heavily into the United States because the ratio had been set a little too high, at 16 to 1. During 1835 and 1836 Mint and Treasury officials became concerned that the influx of gold was having the unwanted effect of driving out the silver coinage of the United States; foreign silver still arrived in considerable quantities, however. To solve this latest problem, Mint Director Robert M. Patterson prepared a comprehensive coinage bill that included a provision that slightly lowered the ratio, to about 15.9 to 1. The revised law was passed in January 1837 and proved beneficial. U.S. silver stopped leaving the country while gold continued to arrive.

During early 1837 the United States was perhaps the best supplied with gold and silver coins than had ever been the case in its history up to that time. But all of this would soon end, due to a series of blunders made by the states, as well as the federal government. The early 1830s witnessed a great expansion of business and with this came a call for roads and canals so that goods could be gotten to market and raw materials brought from the interior to the coastal manufacturing plants. All of this initiated massive borrowing by the states for these internal improvements. This spending created inflation and increased issues of paper money. The expansion of the roads and canals played out against another backdrop, the attack by President Andrew Jackson on the Bank of the United States. This bank, which had been chartered in 1816 for 20 years, served the nation well in forcing private banks to honor their paper currency with specie, usually silver but after 1834 in gold if desired.

The strong position of the Bank of the United States, however, inevitably led to political involvement and the bank leadership was openly against the Jackson Administration. This President felt the same about the bank and was determined to destroy it. The early 1830s saw a bitter struggle between the bank and Jackson. The bank lost. One of the strategies used by the President to undermine the bank was the removal of federal deposits (gold and silver coin). Such funds were placed in private banks friendly to the administration, called “pet banks” by Jackson’s enemies. These banks were sometimes poorly managed and the influx of hard money led them to issue loans to politically connected individuals without the proper collateral.

Hard Times Token, 1834

The federal government had also stepped in to make matters worse, much worse. Jackson had long felt that paper money, in particular that was issued by private banks, was holding back the economic expansion of the United States; the President believed that bank notes of less than $20 in value ought not to be issued. The problem with this was that was a large number of notes of less than $5 value in daily use, an unintended result of the monies going to pet banks. The disaster waiting to happen was politely termed the Specie Circular and had been issued by Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury on July 11, 1836. It required that land purchases on the frontier be made strictly in gold or silver coin. Some exceptions were made for the use of paper money on a temporary basis but the intent was clearly to force paper money out of daily use. At the same time, the massive influx of gold into the United States from 1834 through 1836 caused problems in Europe, especially England. The Bank of England responded to the loss of gold by raising the discount rate to 5 percent in September 1836. This caused a reverse flow of gold to Great Britain although on a limited basis at first. By the spring of 1837 gold was leaving for England at a growing rate. The cumulative effect of the Specie Circular, funds to pet banks, and the English discount rate came crashing down in May 1837. On May 10 the New York banks suspended specie payments for their notes, triggering a run on banks throughout the United States. The financial upheaval forced many businesses to fail and a large number of workmen were laid off. The Panic of 1837, as it came to be known, was a severe recession but not a depression. Gold and silver were now rarely used in commerce, their place being taken by bank notes as well as scrip for values as low as a few cents. The government had meant well but failed to foresee what would happen by acting too quickly.

As in all such situations a number of people saw the opportunity not only to make money, but score political points against their enemies at the same time. It is hard to say which aim was the most important. The token coinage which resulted succeeded very well in both aims, much to the irritation of the supporters of Andrew Jackson and his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren. Van Buren had taken the oath of office as President on March 4, 1837, just in time to reap the whirlwind caused by the earlier mistakes. On the eve of the token explosion in 1837 the United States Mint had no idea of what would happen. But it did have a vested interest in seeing to it that the tokens were neither issued nor used in the marketplace. The reason was purely economic in that the Mint derived a considerable profit from issuing copper coins to the public. There was, however, a difficult problem that the Mint had in dealing with the token outbreak. Copper coins were not legal tender and not convertible into gold or silver except at the so-called exchanges, where copper cents could be converted to silver for a fee of several percent. Merchants had to pay their bills in specie (until the banks suspended specie payments) so the accumulation of United States copper coins was not exactly a blessing. (Legal tender status was not given to minor coins until 1864.) Just when the first Hard Times Tokens began to be seen in the marketplace is uncertain, but distribution of these pieces was well under way by the summer of 1837, perhaps as early as mid July. They apparently first appeared in New York City but this is also not quite certain and is based on the fact that more varieties of tokens are known for this area.

Whatever the exact sequence of events, they were unknown to Mint Director Robert M. Patterson until the fall of 1837. He noticed, in a local newspaper, an advertisement offering tokens for sale at a price well under the official value of a cent. Considering that the Mint needed the profit on copper coinage to offset other expenses, he was less than pleased at what he saw. Dr. Patterson sent a Mint employee to purchase a few of the tokens that had been advertised and then visited the United States district attorney, whose name was Reed. Patterson told Mr. Reed that the tokens in question were “spurious” and that the 1825 anti-counterfeiting statute was applicable in this case. Patterson testified before a federal grand jury and that body agreed with him; federal officials now ordered the local merchant to stop selling tokens on pain of prosecution. At first the Mint director believed that the token episode was an isolated one. However, he soon learned that he had witnessed but a small part of the business and that it was widespread throughout New England and New York State. Patterson then began writing letters to friends asking them to investigate the matter and report back to him. By late November Patterson had learned how much of a nuisance the tokens had become, at least in his mind. On Dec. 2, 1837, he wrote Treasury Secretary Woodbury on what he viewed as a worsening situation as the Mint’s profits on copper coinage were being eroded. Patterson began his letter by recounting the incident with the Philadelphia merchant and the grand jury. Patterson noted that similar problems were encountered at Baltimore but that the major problem was in New York City where the tokens were not only manufactured but used widely in ordinary business transactions. One friend of the director’s in New York had picked up 10 different kinds of tokens and sent them to the Mint for examination. The Mint director found that at least three of the tokens had been made at the same private mint because the design was similar. In particular Patterson mentioned the following tokens (or “store cards” as we might term them now): New York Joint Stock Exchange Company, Robinson, Jones & Company, and Ezra Sweet. He went on to note that a newspaper, the New York Observer, was reporting numerous kinds of such pieces in daily use throughout the city. According to the newspaper account, the tokens were sold for about 62 cents per hundred pieces, a nice profit when passed on for a cent.

“In its issue of Nov. 23, 1837, the Emancipator ran an advertisement offering the Female Slave tokens at $1 per hundred. Made of good copper and with a device on reverse similar to legal U.S. cents, they sold well. The ad also said that it was proposed to issue Kneeling Male Slave tokens as well, and this accounts for the few pattern pieces of HT 82, which were never produced for circulation.”

According to Patterson, an anti-slavery newspaper, the Emancipator, reported that pieces similar to a cent of a “new emission” were being sold at the offices of the Anti-Slavery League on Nassau Street. The paper described the devices as being anti-slavery in nature. There is one anti-slavery token listed by Lyman Low (No. 54), in his study of Hard Times Tokens, which seems to fit the given conditions except that it is dated 1838. Perhaps the issuers felt that it would be coming out so late in 1837 that it ought to be given the next year’s date. The listing made by Dr. Patterson show another interesting aspect of the Hard Times Tokens in general. The date, if prior to 1837, may well mean nothing more than some important year connected with the business that issued them. The Robinson, Jones, & Company piece, for example, uses an 1833 date to show that it received a medal that year for a button display. Patterson also noted that tokens were well used in Boston though he did not give any names. The Boston tokens, as with most of the others, were lightweight compared to the genuine cent, averaging perhaps 70 percent of the weight. He thought that manufacturing costs were about 50 cents, or a bit more, for a hundred pieces which gave a decent profit when they were later sold at about 62 cents per hundred. The dies were crude and cheaply made, which helped hold costs down. Not only did the merchants get “cents” at a strong discount but most of these tokens had the added advantage of advertising their businesses. As far as they were concerned it was a win-win situation. Dr. Patterson, however, had a slightly different opinion.

In the meantime Treasury Secretary Woodbury had taken Patterson’s letter under consideration. On Dec. 4 he replied, noting that he had just written the federal attorneys at New York and Baltimore; he did not mention Boston but this was probably done as well. The attorneys were instructed to take such steps as to eradicate the problem. December 6 saw Patterson writing Woodbury again, this time to report that he had seen another 11 tokens, primarily from New York. His list included token issuers Henry Anderson, H. Crossman, Maycock & Company, Merchants Exchange, and Abraham Riker. These later tokens were somewhat heavier, though still light by as much as 32 grains below the legal standard of 168 grains. In an 1849 letter discussing these tokens Dr. Patterson mentioned that the legal attacks by federal attorneys had put a stop to the business. It is not clear from the letter, however, if the political tokens were interdicted by the same methods since no names appeared on these as issuers. It is believed that very few merchant tokens were struck after the spring of 1838. At the same time as the merchant pieces were issued, political opportunists saw the chance to not only attack Presidents Jackson and Van Buren but make a tidy profit in the process. Quite a few varieties of the political tokens were issued and are collected today by specialists.

It is of interest to note that the tokens of 1837-1838 are known as Hard Times Tokens, but this is a little less than accurate. The recession that started in May 1837 was essentially over within a year; New York banks resumed specie payments in May 1838. In June 1839, however, matters suddenly got worse and this time it was a full-blown depression with large numbers thrown out of work. The underlying cause of this second round of economic bad news was primarily the English discount rate, as too much gold had again left the island kingdom. This time the problem lasted until 1842, when important discoveries of gold in Russian Siberia provided massive quantities of the yellow metal for world markets. Hard Times Tokens are but a footnote in the numismatic history of the United States yet played a key role in the marketplace for a few months. They deserve to be better known.”


“Hard Times tokens represent an unusual period in the financial history of the United States. President Jackson, in his campaign of 1832, was vehemently opposed to the Second Bank of the United States. This central bank in Philadelphia was said by opponents to control the money supply in favor of the wealthy merchants. Populist Jackson vowed to abolish it. The bank issued its own currency, which quickly became the most stable paper money in the land. It exercised considerable control over credit and interest rates throughout the country. When Jackson was reelected, he tried to abolish the bank. Finally, in 1837 he succeeded in accomplishing his goal. In the meanwhile, the president of the bank, Nicholas Biddle, tightened the money supply, which then lead to a financial panic. Other banks issued paper money with little or no gold or silver backing and quickly folded. By 1837 over 100 banks had gone under. The small change necessary for commerce began to disappear. Tokens were issued to solve the needs of the public. They were frequently political or satirical in nature. The tokens of the period 1832-1844, when Van Buren became president, are classified as the Hard Time issues.”


Mint Drop Token, 1837

“”Bentonian Currency” was hard money as opposed to paper. The crash of 1837 and the Hard Times which followed were by no means solely due as the Wing leaders would have it believed–to the overthrow of their policy and the “mint drops” or hard money of Jackson and Van Buren: they were only the culmination of evils which had long been threatening disaster.  The Panic of 1837 resulted in hoarding of coins in circulation. The withdrawal of public funds from the banks led to a contraction of the currency and great changes in apparent values, which were the apparent causes of “Hard Times.” To fill the need for small change in circulation, a wide variety of copper tokens appeared in 1837.”

Illustrious Predecessor Token, 1837


“Because Van Buren was a supporter of Jackson — going so far as to state his intent to follow in Jackson’s footprints during his inaguration — Van Buren was a solid target for people’s resentment due to the failing economy.   The Hard Times tokens were minted in cheap copper and bronze blends by private businesses and infividuals, and enthusiastically decorated with political satire of all kinds.   Van Buren’s face didn’t adorn many (if any)  of these tokens, although caricatures of Jackson were quite common.   Mostly, Van Buren was mentioned as Bad Things To Come, represented by things such as the ship “Experiment” seen to the left, breaking up in stormy seas, representing the attempt to do without banks, despite the lack of previous evidence that it works.    Van Buren’s inauguration statement, “I follow in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessor” stuck with him — but were combined with a picture of a jackass to show just what his opponents thought of him.   That donkey, originally used as a visual ersatz Andrew Jackson, eventually became the way the public saw the Democrat party, and was revised to be a donkey for today’s Democrat logo.  These Hard Times Tokens were some of the first lasting representations of the Democrats as a donkey.

These tokens weren’t exactly currency, although some businesses accepted them in lieu of actual monies, seeing that due to the bank’s actions and Jackson’s opposition to federal currency these Hard Times tokens had just about as much monetary value as the so-called ‘real thing’.  Mostly, they were passed around like political buttons today, demonstrating political affiliation and making a statement against the government at the time.”

hard times

“I take the responsibility,” says Andrew Jackson, standing in an empty treasure chest. Martin Van Buren’s ship of state has tattered sails on the obverse of a coin; the reverse shows Henry Clay’s sails billowing. “I follow in the steps of my illustrious predecessor,” says the jackass on the obverse while the reverse shows a treasure chest being borne off by a turtle. “Good for shinplasters” refers to worthless paper money used as stuffing in boots. Many, to avoid charges of counterfeiting, bear the slogan “Millions for defense NOT ONE CENT for tribute.” In 1834, an economic downturn on the English stock market brought “hard times” to both Canada and the United States. However, the event that defines the start of this era in the USA was a clash between the Bank of the United States and President Andrew Jackson in 1832.

The BUS was a semi-private institution, the invention of Alexander Hamilton, and precursor to the Federal Reserve. It was slated for renewal in 1836, but Jackson didn’t wait. He withdrew US Treasury money from the BUS and deposited it in local banks. Interestingly, the Treasury had an embarrassment of riches, about $17 million in surplus gold and silver. Also, the US government was without debt. However, when the BUS closed, credit collapsed. Political activists and merchants created these 1-cent tokens to take up the slack. They were an East Coast phenomenon, since metals, dies, etc., required industry. (Twenty five years later, Civil War tokens were issued from Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin in the West.) The fact that most types of Hard Times Token can be found today in grades from Fine down to Good indicates that they actually circulated in trade.

The standard reference manual for this series is Hard Times Tokens 1832-1834 by Russell Rulau. His work is based on a book from the 1899 by Lyman H. Low. Rulau includes the Low numbers in his catalog. He estimates retail price. He has added many new items over the years with each new addition. The book also approximates the rarity, R1 (common) to R8 (perhaps unique). Some of these coins are objectively rare and highly valued outside the world of numismatics. “Am I not a Woman” is the motto on an Abolitionist token. “Am I not a Man” is its companion piece. Professional Afro-Americans and full- time liberals have bid these up to about $80 in better grade and perhaps over $10,000 in uncirculated. These two are difficult to find in low grade because they have been popular with collectors for over 150 years.

You can find common Hard Times Tokens in almost any dealer’s inventory. You will find them priced all over the range depending on the dealer’s willingness to own them. You will have to use basic numismatic principles to grade them. Although they rate a general entry in The Red Book, not all services will slab them. Commons in low grade are no more than a $5 item, or about $15 below uncirculated. America eventually recovered from the Panic of 1837. The Federal Debt rose. Finances moved from Chestnut Street in Philadelphia to Wall Street in New York. Hard Times Tokens retired to dressers and chests as government cents (soon smaller) circulated again. If you really love American History and really treasure the values that define our nation, you will find a wealth of pride in these artifacts.

Matthew Hincman coins.
“Pomme de Terre, Pomme en l’Air.” Coins by Matthew Hincman

Coins For Hard Times: Artist Makes His Own Money
by David Kestenbaum /  October 05, 2009

I ran into artist Matthew Hincman last week, who has decided that things have gotten bad enough that it’s time to create your own money. Hincman designed the coin above and had 1,200 minted in copper, which he plans to leave on the ground at random locations for people to pick up and puzzle over. He says he modeled the coins after the Hard Times Tokens that circulated in the 1800’s, many of them satirical. Hincman has no plans to control the money supply at large. In fact, he’s trying to stay out of trouble. For one recent project, he installed an unusual version of the standard park bench — it was impounded by the authorities, though they liked it so much, it’s now back in place. Hincman figures there’s no law against leaving coins around. He says sometimes drops to one knee and pretends to be tying his shoe, then casually deposits one on the sidewalk.


Glow-in-the-Dark to prevent ‘counterfeiting’

Open Call for Entries: “The ‘producers’ of the International Drink Ticket herein announce a design contest for proposals to replace the current ‘Spanglish’ face of the Ticket, not pictured. The winning designer will get a small share (percentage) of any future known-universe profit. The winning design will be used to create the mold that is used to emboss one side of the IDT (the ‘Chinglish’ side will remain the same). The ‘Spanglish’ side may include a picture, as on a coin, such as Obama or a bird etc, but at minimum must include (English or Spanish) impressions that read “Int’l Drink Ticket” + “Brooklyn Mint” + the current year: “2009″.”

“The International Drink Ticket, printed in editions, is a currency alternative sincerely offered to replace the collapsed dollar (should the US dollar irrevocably fail). All over the world, even if one abstains, everyone knows someone who drinks: one International Drink Ticket is worth one drink, that is to say, one 4-count pour (using a pour spigot) of bottom shelf liquor (non-well), or a bottled beer. Everything else is negotiable. The IDT also easily gets used as barter coin. Common bartender uses are 2 cans of beer for one IDT, or sometimes two 2-count shots. One IDT currently is worth around USD$5 in NYC but this value fluctuates regionally. Design entries should be big enough to 3-D print, and fully detailed.” [Please post proposal editions below as comments.]

BY Pamela G. Parker
design by Pamela G. Parker

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